Airlift Upsurge

Dec. 1, 2009

During the past summer and fall, USAF’s air mobility forces turned in record-setting performances in Southwest Asia. The aircrews, month after month, air-dropped ever larger amounts of supplies and cargo to US forces operating in isolated parts of Afghanistan.

Undoubtedly, USAF airlift plays a vital role in helping land forces survive in a dangerous and alien environment. Numerous US troops are scattered among remote firebases in the landlocked country, fighting an increasingly deadly enemy. This fact has led to a sharp upsurge in airdrops from C-130s and C-17s, operations that bring in food, water, ammunition, and other essentials.

In June, mobility aircraft dropped what was then a record 3.2 million pounds of cargo into Afghanistan. A month later, the Air Force dropped 3.3 million pounds of cargo, and followed this up with 3.8 million pounds of supplies in August. In September, said Air Forces Central, the trend continued. USAF mobility forces dropped 4.1 million pounds of cargo. Final figures for October and November weren’t yet available, but all signs were that the cargo numbers continued to rise.

A C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 97th Air Mobility Wing, Altus AFB, Okla., takes off from a runway at Nellis AFB, Nev., during a May mobility exercise. (USAF photo by A1C Brett Clashman)

Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, then commander of Air Mobility Command, said AMC is “working very hard, no doubt about it.”

Airlifters have similarly delivered thousands of troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan this year without any major snags, said Lichte. In fact, improved fleet management practices mean AMC is managing its operations better than it has in years. Despite the monthly delivery records, operations have actually attained a “steady state,” according to USAF’s airlift commanders.

AMC and US Transportation Command officials have nearly completed work on the first major review of mobility requirements since the Mobility Capability Study of 2005. The new study should be finished up sometime this month. Some trends are already apparent.

The health of the Air Force’s mobility fleet is strong, said Lichte, but the weak link is the tanker fleet, which may have arrived at a tipping point between success and failure. The general admitted he would give his tankers a grade of D and soon an F—if a replacement aircraft does not come on line quickly.

Wrapped Up

The Air Force sent the last KC-135E, from the Maine Air National Guard, to the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., in September. It now serves as a parts supplier for the slightly newer R/T models remaining on active duty.

Seventy-four KC-135Es will be in storage at the Boneyard, effectively in “bubble wrap,” according to Lichte, and available for restoration per Congress’ direction.

Costs to maintain the remaining KC-135s will accelerate from $2 billion a year up to $6 billion starting in 2018, Lichte said. The Air Force will then have to look at reskinning the aircraft and installing new wires and flight controls.

After 2020, the force’s newest tankers—the KC-10 fleet—will be due for a service life extension program, also focusing on rewiring and replacing the airframes’ skin. Time is clearly running out on the healthy tanker fleet.

A C-17 drops a container delivery system during the same exercise at Nellis. The training has proved valuable as C-17s have air-dropped ever greater quantities of supplies to isolated forces in Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Taylor Worley)

Despite the tanker difficulties, officials say the Air Force overall has a good handle on its mobility fleet. This requires a delicate balancing act, particularly with the strategic airlifters—the C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy.

Half the C-5 fleet has undergone the Avionics Modernization Program (AMP), with operational testing of three fully re-engineered and re-engined C-5M Super Galaxys now under way. AMC is now hoping Congress will lift the retirement restriction on the C-5As, which were previously pulled from the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP).

Due to Congress’ recent proclivity for adding C-17s to the Air Force’s inventory (the program of record now stands at 205), senior leadership has urged lawmakers not to block the service from retiring some of the oldest, poorest performing C-5As. Some of these Vietnam-era Galaxys are notoriously fickle, with high maintenance costs.

Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley told reporters in September that he has urged Capitol Hill to allow retirement of older C-5As, so the strategic fleet can be maintained at around 300 tails as new C-17s arrive. The 2010 defense appropriations bill, for example, saw the Senate adding 10 C-17s while the House added three. The bill was headed to conference as of early October.

Lichte called the ability to retire old C-5As a “big deal,” noting that otherwise, if the Air Force starts going above 205 C-17s, AMC starts running out of money, manpower, and ramp space. “It’s a physical limitation,” Lichte said. This trade-off would preserve needed capability since a C-17, while not as large as a C-5, can make up for capacity with “velocity” and reliability.

Lichte is bullish on the prospects for the planned C-5 RERP, saying flight testing has so far gone well. (A C-5M, taking off from Dover AFB, Del., unofficially set 41 new aeronautical world records on Sept. 13, climbing to 12,000 meters in less than 28 minutes with a 178,000-pound payload—setting time to climb, payload, and altitude records, among others.)

A C-17 soars over the Pyramids of Giza during Exercise Bright Star, a joint international military airdrop exercise in October. (USAF photo by SSgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

Hot Strategic Airlift Production

The Air Force needs the 52 planned C-5Ms, Lichte said, a program that would consist of RERP upgrading all 49 “AMPed” B models, one A model, and two C-5Cs.

With the number of C-17s still to be determined, AMC needs flexibility just with its C-5A inventory.

This past fall, it appeared Congress may be ready to relent on its C-5 retirement restrictions. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) called the C-5As “hard to maintain, and often broken,” adding that he expected the Pentagon to conclude it has a requirement for a “hot” strategic airlift production line in the ongoing mobility review. In October, however, the 2010 defense authorization act passed with a provision which prevents the Air Force from retiring any C-5As until USAF completes operational testing and evaluation of the one C-5A converted to the C-5M configuration.

There are concerns about the health of the C-17 fleet as well. Globemaster use in Iraq and Afghanistan has quickly outpaced the expected flying hour program: The Air Force initially planned on flying C-17s about 1,000 hours a year for 30 years, Lichte said, and when the US “went into Afghanistan and Iraq, … we started flying much harder.”

Just a few years ago, operations were pushing fleet usage rates north of 1,250 hours a year per C-17, on average. But as more C-17s have entered the fleet (the 190th was delivered in October), the average use rate has begun to come down. Currently, the Globemaster fleet averages 1,035 hours a year per airframe.

“We can spread that flying time out,” Lichte said. “It’s all about fleet management.”

The Air Force has greater flexibility now with a larger inventory to manage the fleet as it sees fit, moving tails from one base to another, shifting Air National Guard and Reserve assets into use, and other initiatives.

The Air Force is reassured because the Civil Reserve Air Fleet—commercial partners that aid movement of materiel and personnel around the globe—is in better shape than it was just 18 months ago, when airlines were feeling the effects of the economic crunch. Commercial contribution to strategic lift is crucial to daily success of the air mobility enterprise, according to US Transportation Command. CRAF provides 1,083 aircraft through 34 companies, and on any given day, 170 of the 480 airlift missions tracked by TRANSCOM are flown by commercial airlift.

In fact, most of AMC’s passengers are moved on commercial air. “Our commercial partners, air and sea, have been instrumental in our ability to handle the surge going into Afghanistan,” said Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of TRANSCOM.

The airline industry has raised concerns about the future of CRAF business, as Iraq operations wind down and because the Afghan buildup won’t last forever. Lichte said AMC is meeting with the commercial partners every six months to work out concerns, and talking with lawmakers about giving the fleet enough work to stay viable.

“Their big concern is, OK, we’re doing [well] now, and we’re sustaining ourselves. What happens when this all comes to an end?” Lichte said.

The upcoming mobility study should help illuminate CRAF requirements for the next several years.

Airmen and Army paratroopers board a C-130J. (USAF photo by SrA. Kenny Holston)

While the Air Force is trying to balance its heavy airlift and tanker programs, its tactical mobility portfolio—revamped just over a year ago—is suddenly facing new questions.

Last August, the Air Force updated its plans for the C-130 Hercules fleet, with the centerpiece being the purchase of 132 C-130J aircraft, the retirement of all C-130Es by 2015, and modernization programs for 221 C-130H models. The money saved by retiring the E models would go toward C-130Js.

“We have three … out testing now; they’re doing very well,” Lichte said of the C-130H Avionics Modernization Program. Unfortunately, the future of the program may be decided by cost management instead of operational need.

The Air Force has spent $1.4 billion developing AMP, and the cost per kit is now about $8 million. A contract for low rate initial production of the first two AMP kits was signed in September 2008, and testing ran ahead of schedule this past spring. The current contract requires Boeing to manufacture 26 kits and install the modification on 11 aircraft.

A Piecemeal Plan

The plan, however, has run afoul of Congress. C-130 AMP funding was zeroed out of the Fiscal 2010 defense spending bill. Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees noted that USAF has been unable to spend its Fiscal 2008 and 2009 funding on the program until this past summer—citing a one-year delay in beginning production.

In September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said the service was exploring other options for the AMP program—citing affordability as a prime concern.

Under consideration at the time was a piecemeal improvement plan for existing avionics to meet global air traffic requirements, instead of the AMP’s more comprehensive “glass cockpit” approach.

If C-130 AMP is not revived, safety and obsolescence will become a concern in older C-130H aircraft, Lichte said.

The fleet’s C-130Js are doing well (the Air Force recently took delivery of its 67th J model), have modern avionics, and are highly interoperable with several allied air forces, Lichte said. Adding to the C-130J buy as an alternative to a scrapped AMP is an idea worth considering, he said. International flight restrictions on aircraft that do not feature robust avionics (such as those in the J models) will kick in around 2015.

Questions regarding the Air Force’s tactical mobility mission come at a time when the service is taking on the Army’s direct-support needs—assuming sole ownership of the C-27J mission, formerly the Joint Cargo Aircraft, with the Fiscal 2010 budget. The size of the program has contracted from 78 to 38 aircraft, and the Air Force and Army remain in discussions over final basing and deployment. In late September, AMC was studying how the Air Force could successfully implement the direct-support mission. By the fall of 2010, Lichte anticipates the first deployment of C-27Js in theater.

Airmen and soldiers jump from the bay of a C-130J Super Hercules during an airdrop over Germany in May. (USAF photo by SrA. Kenny Holston)

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates may have something to say about this, however. He has commented on the C-27J program several times, including saying that his perception is that the JCA mission overlaps with the Air Force’s C-130 mission.

National Guard officials have stood by the original 78 aircraft as the standing requirement, and Donley stated the revised 38-aircraft program is the “floor, not the ceiling,” for the program.

Lichte believes there are “synergies” rather than overlap in the C-130 and C-27J missions. With the Joint Cargo Aircraft, AMC will be able to accomplish some of the direct-support mission in addition to the intratheater mission, he said.

AMC is expanding its associate units across the force to meet the needs and better use iron across the active, Guard, and Reserve inventory. The Air Force has decided its future is in associate constructs. These include both the classic associate, with the Guard or Reserve working with an active duty unit, and active associate units (such as the active duty 30th Airlift Squadron, which operates and works with the Wyoming ANG’s 153rd Airlift Wing).

The Air Force plans to eventually make all of its KC-X units some kind of associate unit, Lichte said.

In December 2008, the Air Force announced three ANG KC-135 wings would become active associate units, with full operational capability by September 2011. Active duty airmen are being assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Wing at Birmingham Arpt., Ala., the 126th ARW at Scott AFB, Ill., and the 157th ARW at Pease Intl. Tradeport ANGS, N.H. The Guard units will now host the active duty aircrews, maintainers, and support personnel—who will work next to their Guard colleagues, providing increased manning and mission capability and reducing duplication of effort.

Creative basing arrangements can’t solve all of AMC’s difficulties, and Lichte said AMC is struggling quite a bit with manpower—particularly with a shortage of maintainers. As the force has become more expeditionary, deployed units have required the more experienced maintainers and technicians—the five levels and seven levels—to deploy downrange with assets.

“We have a lot of three-level maintainers, but many of them are not experienced enough yet,” Lichte said. The Air Force is trying to determine what the impact at the home station is when the most experienced maintainers are deployed. Once again, a balance is critical. “If you send a good aircraft out into the system, do you need your most experienced folks at home or deployed?” Lichte asked rhetorically.

“One of our mandates” in the current mobility study is to capture the changes in the mobility world “from the last decade,” said David Merrill, director of AMC’s analyses, assessments, and lessons learned directorate. There have been a number of lessons from mobilization practices, utilization of active duty and reserve units, and maintenance and aircrew rotations in combat. All of these data points from the past eight years are being used to inform the “tools and assumptions” for crafting the air mobility footprint for the foreseeable future.

Beyond the mobility capability study, the Air Force is still in the “discussion phases” of what air mobility will look like in 10 to 15 years, Lichte said. AMC programmers are exploring a next generation airlifter concept (known on planning documents as the C-X). A great deal of the out-year requirement for air mobility depends on reaching an agreement with the Army on its Joint Future Theater Lift concept—a possible next generation airlifter.

Gone are the days when you just needed to put a few jeeps into a C-141, Lichte said. Now you have C-17s carrying enhanced loads and very adaptable C-130s. A good deal of this depends on the final number of C-130s, Lichte said of future mobility concept cooperation with the Army.

A host of concepts is being examined to eventually replace the C-17, from hybrid dirigibles and modified existing airframes to aircraft constructed from composite materials. “It’s that whole next generation. Is it going to be manned or unmanned? … We don’t know yet,” he added.

Soldiers from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, settle into a C-17 Globemaster III at Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan, en route to a deployment. (USA photo by SSgt. Adam Mancini)

JPAD Revolution

Technology is only part of the solution, McNabb noted. Intermodal tools—moving materiel and passengers from ground, to air, to sea, and back—have helped speed needed supplies to the war zones and saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

Since TRANSCOM was granted distribution process authority (having influence on the supply chain all the way from the US to the combat zone) in 2003, McNabb estimated DOD has saved about $500 million a year.

From warehousing critical supplies at forward areas to moving cargo by ship to certain ports then flying in to the theater on organic and contract airlift (as was done with a Stryker brigade from Diego Garcia into Kandahar, Afghanistan, earlier this year), mobility planners have created a more fluid and responsive process to resupply troops in combat.

“We have the most combat-ready force that we’ve ever had, and they’ve figured out how to do things with C-17s, C-130s, and tankers that they never have done before,” McNabb said.

The 2009 mobility capability study (MCS) is scheduled to arrive this month. The stand-up of a new major command (US Africa Command), the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps, and new missions will be factored into the new requirements. This study is looking at mobility holistically, and will update force structure through 2016, AMC officials said.

Previous mobility studies “looked at a period of time usually less than a year. This one is spanning a seven-year time horizon,” said Merrill. MCS (an OSD- and Transportation Command-led effort) examines sealift, pre-positioning depots, offshore assets, air refueling, theater lift, strategic lift, and other factors. The study also will account for the “enduring nature” of operations in Southwest Asia, Merrill added.

A C-5M that has completed the AMP and RERP takes its first fight. There are three Super Galaxys now undergoing operational testing. (Lockheed Martin photo)

MCS will make recommendations on the number of airlifters needed to conduct all scenarios. The direction clearly will come at a critical time as AMC seeks balance in new tactical and strategic airlifters, modernized older platforms, and commercial lift.

Even seemingly minor developments can have major effects. DOD’s use of the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) has exploded in the last three years, McNabb said, as the satellite guided all-weather system has enabled reliable delivery of materiel—freeing up critical rotor-wing assets for other missions.

While only in use a few years, JPADS has already revolutionized airdrops—and that fact could have a long-term strategic effect on mobility fleet requirements. What this effect will be, though, is still unknown.

“Do we have to pay attention to it? You bet,” Lichte said. “This is a wonderful office, but it doesn’t have a crystal ball.”