Why the C-17 Has Lived On

Dec. 1, 2009

Since 2007, DOD has been laboring mightily on a new mobility capability study. An explicit goal of this study is to determine airlift needs in future years. The C-17 is the only long-range airlifter still in production, so one would have thought it was safe, pending the study’s completion.

One would have been quite wrong. For the better part of a year, top Washington figures have tried hard to kill the C-17, well in advance of the conclusion of the study. That is nothing if not strange.

Current plans call for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and joint-service US Transportation Command, the prime contributors of this new assessment, to complete it this month. Yet influential government officials such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have pressed an anti-C-17 offensive for months.

McCain: The US has “more than necessary strategic airlift capacity” and should not buy C-17s.

Gates: The Pentagon “does not need additional C-17 aircraft.”

The question is, how could either of them possibly know

Gates and McCain were reacting to Congressional proposals to allocate up to $2.5 billion to buy up to 10 new C-17s, airplanes the Air Force had not included in its 2010 budget request.

Gates wrote on Oct. 14: “Analyses by DOD have shown that the C-17s already in the force or on order, together with existing … C-5 aircraft, are more than adequate to meet the department’s future needs, even under the most stressing of situations. Procuring additional C-17s is an inefficient use of critical defense resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.”

If only it were that simple. Ending C-17 production now would leave the nation without a source of widebody military airlifters, even though strategic lift is in high demand and in short supply worldwide.

The assertion that the US does not need additional C-17s is simply that—an assertion. No study supports it.

Gates’ claim that analysis shows that existing C-17 and C-5 fleets are good enough is obsolete. The last time DOD comprehensively studied strategic airlift requirements was in 2005, before the Army and Marine Corps were expanded by 92,000 troops and the C-5’s Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program was dramatically scaled back.

The 2005 MCS called for 292 to 383 strategic airlifters. The following year, DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review specified 180 C-17s and 112 fully modernized C-5s, but plans now call for only 52 C-5s to be fully modernized. The other 59 C-5s (all older and less reliable A models) will only receive an avionics upgrade.

Meanwhile, TRANSCOM upped its C-17 requirement to 205 aircraft—the number built and on order—but that number assumed all of the C-5 modernization programs would henceforth go without a hitch.

As for the claim that $2.5 billion to build 10 C-17s is an inefficient use of defense dollars that could be better put to use elsewhere, it is hard to determine Gates’ priorities. In his successful drive to kill the F-22, Gates repeatedly blasted the Raptor as unnecessary overkill not needed for today’s wars. The C-17 is exactly what is needed—for both today’s conflicts and possible large-scale future wars.

No one doubts the C-17’s capabilities; even Gates and McCain laud its performance. The airlifters are being flown, in combat, at rates 25 percent greater than expected. They can operate on much shorter runways (including dirt strips), have dramatically better reliability, and cost less than half as much to operate.

For critics, however, the only real issue is cost. “The C-17’s excellence is one of those facts that is indisputably true but irrelevant to the issue at hand,” opines Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik.

What is relevant, however, is that new requirements are due and no one knows whether they can be met without more C-17s.

Indeed, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the US “cannot take the chance that we ‘may’ have enough aircraft.” She points out the obvious fact that it would be irrational to kill production before Congress has a chance to review the forthcoming study.

The Congressional support is a mixed blessing; the Air Force desperately needs the right to manage its airlift inventories. Air Mobility Command would like to retire old C-5As on a one-for-one basis as additional C-17s are purchased, but Congress prohibits AMC from doing so.

“Too much aluminum is almost as bad as not enough,” noted Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, USAF Chief of Staff.

Meanwhile, both chambers of Congress have passed funding bills including C-17 purchases. In the Senate’s consideration of the 2010 defense appropriations bill, McCain proposed an amendment to strip out all $2.5 billion in C-17 funding. He got torched, with his amendment going down to defeat by a 68-to-30 margin. The House appropriations bill also included C-17 money. There is no conference report yet, however, and no Presidential signature.

Meanwhile, December is looking to be a big month for the C-17—either up or down. The MCS is due for delivery. So is an independent assessment by the Institute for Defense Analyses. It now seems that lawmakers will decide this month how many C-17s to buy (up to 10) in 2010.

So it won’t be a case of “ready, fire, aim” after all.

More information: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0950.pdf