Crunch Time for Air Mobility

Dec. 1, 2007
In weeks just ahead, the Air Force will come face to face with the need to map a new course in air mobility, from strategic airlifters all the way down to individual para-dropped pallets. It must settle debates that have raged for years. Many of the decisions will bring pain and will please no one.

The result will show up in the new service budget, set for unveiling next month, and it could be dramatic.

Air Force leaders may well close production of the C-17 transport, with no successor on the boards. They could abandon an important plan for upgrading the C-5 fleet. They are certain to fund a new aerial tanker, but they may reshape it under threat of litigation. They likely will have to truncate their plans to modernize the C-130 tactical airlifter.

Meanwhile, officials may have decided what, if anything, they can do about old aircraft that consume more and more maintenance dollars but return less and less capability.

Airlift programs will clearly be a dominant fact in development of the 2009 Air Force budget, if only because of the sheer number of programs that are involved. Assuming that all air mobility projects now under way come to fruition, within three years, the Air Force will have seven main types of airlifters in service—two types of strategic transports, two types of tactical transports, and three types of aerial tankers—plus a half-dozen other specialty aircraft types ranging from C-21 Learjets to Air Force One.

By comparison, in three years USAF may have just four operational types of fighters and three models of bombers of varying vintage.

Unlike fighters and bombers, though, mobility aircraft have a round-the-clock mission in war or peace. In peacetime, air mobility forces represent the most frequently employed “nonlethal” asset, as they respond to humanitarian crises and natural disasters worldwide.

Burning Up the Airlift Fleet

The wartime demand for airlift has been huge, however. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, head of US Transportation Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last spring that in 2006 alone, Air Mobility Command moved nearly 1.4 million passengers and more than a half-million short tons of cargo to, from, and within the combat theaters of Southwest Asia. The C-17 alone air-dropped 360 short tons of cargo to coalition forces in Afghanistan, Schwartz reported. In the same year, AMC tankers offloaded more than 128 million gallons of fuel to coalition aircraft in the two war zones. Meanwhile, at home, the tankers passed nearly three million gallons of fuel to fighters on patrol over the US in Operation Noble Eagle.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, reported in June that since September 2006, Air Force C-130s and C-17s had flown “100 percent of everything” the Marine Corps and Army could fit inside the aircraft in an effort to keep people and materiel off the roads and out of the reach of ambushes and roadside bombs.

He called it a “specific, visible application of airpower” to get cargo and people “off the surface and … out of harm’s way.”

The heavy operational pace has prompted Moseley to warn Congress that the Air Force is burning up its airlift fleet, at usage rates up to three times those expected. The service has sought to replace some of these prematurely consumed years of service life with additional C-17s requested in supplemental war budgets.

However, figuring a way forward in airlift has never been easy, because any one program decision or development affects all the others, and it has been nearly impossible to evaluate options on an “apples to apples” basis.

The 2006 Mobility Capability Study, undertaken as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review, assessed only capabilities, not future requirements. The last full Mobility Requirements Study—dating back to pre-Sept. 11, 2001—didn’t assess intratheater lift or special operations needs—two mission areas that have assumed a pre-eminent role in the Iraqi and Afghan counterinsurgencies.

Consequently, for the past few years, the Air Force has put off many major mobility decisions, deferring choices about which aircraft to buy or fix up until the picture clears. Part of the stalling tactic was to see if the hectic pace of operations in Southwest Asia would wind down, freeing up cash and reducing requirements enough to build a coherent plan.

Schwartz himself, in a December 2005 meeting with reporters, said the “surge level” of activity associated with Iraq and Afghanistan “is likely to subside over time,” and that the Air Force need not equip for sustained airlift operations based on this aberrant episode. Schwartz added that it was unlikely the US would “have 20 brigades in the [theater] indefinitely.” Although there was a reduction in 2006, the number has climbed again with the new surge of 2007.

At the time, Schwartz said he was unwilling to buy more C-17s if the money would be siphoned away from replacing AMC’s Eisenhower-era tankers. He also said that the capability resident in a larger C-17 force would reduce the amount of business he could offer to Civil Reserve Air Fleet participants, and that he couldn’t bear to lose any of that reserve passenger and cargo capacity. CRAF participants agree to allow their commercial aircraft to be drafted during national crises, in exchange for receiving preferential contracts to carry US military passengers and cargo at other times.

Myriad Issues

Another reason for the Air Force to stall on airlift decisions: There’s always another mobility study down the road, and the service can honestly claim it doesn’t want to prejudge the conclusions. However, the next Pentagon mobility study doesn’t even start until February 2008.

The myriad, interleaved mobility issues confronting the Air Force include:

How many C-17s the Air Force needs, and whether it should keep the production line going after existing orders are delivered. This choice depends on how many C-5s the service will keep, and how much of the C-130’s intratheater airlift role the C-17 has acquired in practice. It will also be affected by the need to make work available to CRAF, so that participants stick with the program.

Whether the C-5 Galaxy upgrade and re-engining should go ahead depends on testing of the initial examples, which is not yet complete, and the cost of the program, which is rising.

The planned increase in US Army and Marine Corps troops could require as many as 35 more strategic airlifters than USAF now plans to field.

How many C-130s the Air Force should either replace or upgrade depends on how many new small Joint Cargo Aircraft it will buy, and the true condition of the oldest Hercules. Moreover, the cost to upgrade the C-130 has increased.

The Air Force has had success with the Joint Precision Air-Drop System, a kit that allows 5,000- to10,000-pound pallets to be dropped from high altitude to within only a few feet of a target area by use of steerable parachutes and GPS satellite navigation. According to Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, vice chief of staff and former head of AMC, the effectiveness of the system may allow the Air Force to dispense with some tactical airlifters, which won’t have to touch down on an airstrip to ensure that a pallet gets to troops in the field. The same number of airplanes could fly more missions.

All of the above will be affected to some degree by how much cargo the new tanker will be able to carry—which won’t be known until one is chosen—and how fast it can be brought into service.

The Air Force’s servicewide top procurement priority is the replacement of its oldest KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft, the average age of which is 46 years, and which have seen diminished utility and skyrocketing maintenance costs in recent years. Top USAF leaders warn that not replacing the bulk of the tanker fleet as fast as possible could create a “single point failure” capable of crippling the mobility-dependent US military.

The two main competitors in the KC-X competition are Boeing—with the KC-767 tanker derivative of the 767 airliner—and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., offering the KC-30, a tanker derived from the Airbus A330 airliner.

Of the two, Boeing’s airplane is the smaller, although company officials say it is no larger than the Air Force’s requirements dictate. Had the Air Force needed a larger airplane, company officials said, they would have offered a tanker variant of the larger 777.

Boeing claims the 767 will allow the Air Force to put more tankers on cramped forward-area ramps and airfields, while EADS says its larger KC-30 can stay on station longer and offload fuel faster. Both companies have other customers for their tankers.

The Air Force wants its new tanker to be able to perform multipoint refueling—a main boom complemented by wingtip drogues—have self-protection systems against both infrared and radar missiles, be “network ready,” and be able to carry cargo.

“A tailored cargo and passenger carrying capability” on the KC-X, Schwartz told the HASC, “will revolutionize our transportation options and mitigate wear on the C-17, C-5, and C-130s by decreasing force closure times and lessening the burden on our strategic lift fleet.”

The Air Force’s plan is to award a winner-take-all contract to one company, which will build 179 KC-X aircraft. The Air Force considered but rejected the notion of splitting the buy between competitors, arguing that the additional support, training and logistics costs of the second airframe would range between $2 billion and $4 billion. Service officials also said that AMC already has too many types of aircraft, and needs to “neck down” to save money on logistics costs.

A Complex Equation

The new airplane is to be delivered at a rate of between 12 and 18 aircraft a year, depending on how many USAF can afford. The service will replace the oldest KC-135E tankers first, then begin to replace the KC-135R tankers, which were upgraded in the 1990s.

Around 2020, the Air Force plans to award a second tanker contract, dubbed KC-Y, which will replace yet another 200 tankers, and in 2033, it expects to award a third and final order for a batch of 200 under the KC-Z rubric.

USAF has not said that it expects the Y and Z aircraft to be the same as that chosen in the X competition, and officials said they will likely consider all-new aircraft in both of those contests.

According to USAF plans, the last KC-135E will retire in about 2018 and the last KC-135R in 2043, when the aircraft will be 86 years old. To endure that long, the R models will need three capability upgrades before 2015 and a major service life extension program, or SLEP, in 2025.

Schwartz told the HASC that the KC-10—of which the Air Force has 59—will last until the 2040s, but needs near-term modifications to comply with modern international airspace rules. Air Force documents show the KC-10 getting a SLEP in 2031.

The Air Force expects to cap its tanker replacement program at about $3 billion per year in constant dollars, for literally decades to come.

In strategic lift, the equation is complex and increasingly political. The Air Force has determined that it requires about 300 strategic airlifters to carry out its day-to-day missions.

However, that figure was determined based on troop levels of two years ago. Moseley asked McNabb to perform a “quick look” analysis earlier this year to determine what USAF will need as the Army and Marine Corps increase their ranks by 92,000 troops, as ordered by President Bush.

McNabb’s answer was that the requirement will either stay the same or increase up to 335 strategic airlifters, determined ultimately by whether the new ground troops fulfill only support roles—which would require almost no new mobility aircraft—or whether they would all be combat troops equipped for heavy fighting. The Army’s requirement relative to rapidly deploying its new Future Combat Systems vehicles is another unknown.

The Army and Marine Corps, Moseley said in June, had not made final decisions about how they will apportion their new troops, so the Air Force is not yet able to provide a definitive answer on its supporting their specific mobility needs.

The C-5 Galaxy, USAF’s flying behemoth, has long suffered from reliability problems that have pushed its on-time departure rates to around 50 percent. Much of the problem stems from its engines and avionics.

The Air Force is embarked on two major upgrades for the C-5: the Avionics Modernization Program, or AMP, and the Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program, or RERP. Two aircraft have received the modifications and are in flight test. If the RERP can raise the C-5’s reliability rate to 75 percent, service leaders say they will pursue the program as a relatively inexpensive way to extend the C-5’s life for 30 more years and avoid having to buy many more C-17s.

However, Moseley reported earlier this year that the RERP was not meeting expectations in performance. Moreover, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne notified Congress in the fall that the C-5 RERP had gone into a “Nunn-McCurdy breach,” referring to a law requiring the service to notify Congress if a program’s cost goes up more than 25 percent. Under the law, the Air Force will have to certify whether the program is critical, and if there are other alternatives.

In March, Wynne said, “What I believe in my heart is that we’re probably going to re-engine a significant percentage of the C-5 fleet,” but not all of them. He expected that between 15 and 30 of the 111 Galaxys will be retired, and that the older A models that stay in service would be used on noncritical domestic missions. The A fleet lacks the self-protection gear the Air Force deems essential to operating in war zones.

If the Air Force decides not to RERP those C-5s, however, it would need to replace the capability, and the C-17 is the only strategic airlifter in production.

Not indefinitely, however. Last year, Boeing began to shut down long-lead production of parts for the C-17, in the absence of any more firm orders either from USAF or overseas. The line resumed when Congress added 10 C-17s to the Air Force budget and several other countries, plus the NATO alliance, either placed orders or expressed strong interest.

Boeing shut down long-lead production again this year, but later reversed position, saying it saw strong interest both from USAF and Congress in keeping the line going.

USAF’s Working Plan

That, in turn, rattled three Senators, who wrote a heated letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in July demanding to know why Boeing was taking this action in the absence of a stated USAF requirement for more C-17s.

The lawmakers—Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.)—wondered if there had been some back-door deal between the Air Force and Boeing that would obligate the service to buy aircraft in the future. They insisted that Gates state for the record whether the Pentagon plans to buy more C-17s or not.

Responding on Gates’ behalf in August, Wynne wrote back that the Air Force’s working plan is to stick with 190 C-17s and 111 C-5s.

However, “Air Mobility Command has been reviewing the practicality of replacing a portion of the C-5 fleet with C-17s. This review is preliminary only,” Wynne said, and no decisions had yet been made.

He also said he was aware of “no commitments” by the Air Force or Pentagon promising more C-17 work to Boeing. “In fact, the contractor has publicly stated that the decision to extend certain long-lead suppliers was entirely their own.”

However, in mid-November, Schwartz told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that he couldn’t recommend terminating the C-17 program until there’s resolution of many other airlift issues, particularly the status of a C-5 upgrade. Schwartz obliged Levin’s request for a “personal and professional opinion” about the proper size of the airlift fleet, saying he believes the “sweet spot” would be a force of 205 C-17s and an upgrade of all 111 C-5s.

Replacing the C-130 has long been a vexing proposition for the Air Force, which has crafted and discarded at least three fleetwide modernization plans in the last decade. They have been done in by technology, aged hardware, or, mostly, money problems.

To replace its tactical airlift fleet, USAF has settled on a three-track plan. It will buy some number of brand-new C-130Js, update a portion of its existing C-130H fleet with new avionics and structural repairs, and buy a new, small airlifter in concert with the Army, called the Joint Cargo Aircraft.

The Air Force had also planned to modify its oldest C-130Es, but an alarming number of them developed fatal cracks in their center wing boxes. They could not be economically repaired. At one time, as many as 115 of these aircraft languished in the inventory, too dangerous to fly, but Congress insisted they be retained. The Air Force repaired 17 of them.

Congress has begun to allow USAF to retire the oldest C-130Es, and in early September, only six with cracked center wing boxes remained in inventory. However, Air Mobility Command said in response to a query that “we anticipate more aircraft will be grounded” for the problem. Of the six grounded in September with the cracks, “it’s not cost effective to repair three of them,” AMC said. Two were to be fixed, and one was awaiting further evaluation.

“Starting in FY09, and once center wing boxes become available, AMC will begin replacing [the structure] … on the C-130H model fleet,” the command reported.

The other big modernization plan for the Hercules fleet is the Avionics Modernization Program, or AMP, which was to outfit the 1960s- and later-vintage aircraft with modern glass cockpits and digital avionics. With the upgrades, they could continue to serve in airspace where they are increasingly restricted by global air traffic management rules.

However, in April, the Pentagon announced a huge increase in the cost of the C-130 AMP. The price of the program vaulted more than a billion dollars, or more than 21 percent, due to unexpectedly high install rates and labor costs.

An official said that Boeing, the contractor for the C-130 AMP, expected there would be six “baseline” configurations of the fleet, but in practice found that practically each aircraft was unique. Holes were in different places, ad hoc modifications had been done over the decades, and planned avionics changes that were supposed to have been done in depot had been skipped to save money. The AMP could not proceed without them.

To get the cost of the AMP under control, USAF has decided to cut more than a third of the C-130s from the list of those planned to get the upgrade, reducing it to 268 aircraft.

Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Arthur J. Lichte told reporters in September that the AMP, “when it first started, looked like a smart idea … like it was a reasonable amount of dollars.” However, Lichte said that the Air Force must scrutinize programs from time to time and drop them if “it doesn’t make sense anymore.”

The AMP does not affect new-built C-130Js, which have been bought in small handfuls of fewer than a dozen a year—for both the Air Force and Marine Corps.

In June, the Air Force and Army jointly announced they would buy the C-27J, a design of the Alenia company of Italy being offered through L-3 Communications, for the Joint Cargo Aircraft program. The initial requirement for the Air Force is 24 aircraft, and an initial batch of 54 is headed for the Army.

Congress has weighed in on the program, suggesting that the Air Force be the sole provider of fixed-wing transport among the military services, but for now, the program will proceed as a joint effort. The C-27J is viewed in USAF as a modern-day successor to the C-7 Caribou used in Vietnam, able to fly in and out of tiny, austere runways and support special operations ground forces widely dispersed in a combat theater. It is also seen as an ideal platform for Air National Guard units providing relief and humanitarian assistance in natural disasters where large runways may not be available, or in cargo missions where the C-130 has been flown half-empty.

Moseley has also touted the JCA as being the ideal aircraft with which to build coalitions and partnerships with small countries that lack the means to field C-130s or modern fighters.

Moseley said last summer that the Air Force will, before the 2009 budget is released, explain the Air Force’s new, grand airlift plan in a mobility roadmap.