Airlift Gets a Boost

Dec. 1, 1997

The delivery of more than two dozen C-17 transports in the last three years has given military airlift a much-needed shot in the arm, but even so, air mobility forces are among the oldest and most neglected of the Air Force’s assets. Thanks to a recent comprehensive strategy review and some enlightened leadership, however, the situation may, finally, be turning around.

The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, completed last spring, was a cutting machine that lopped off personnel and force structure in many mission areas. However, it spared airlift and aerial refueling forces. QDR officials recognized that smaller forces might be adequate to their missions if, and only if, they could be transported swiftly and over great distances.

In the final QDR report, defense officials reaffirmed that the US must be able to fight two Major Theater Wars at more or less the same time. They further concluded that, without a healthy and up-to-date air mobility force, hopes of achieving that strategic goal would be little more than wishful thinking.

The QDR results gratified Gen. Walter Kross, commander in chief of US Transportation Command and commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. He said he was pleased to see new emphasis being put on airlift and even more pleased at the reshuffling of scarce defense dollars that resulted.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense is “putting their money where their mouths are,” Kross said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. In funds allocated, he explained, “we’ve edged up a little.” The general added that the QDR evinced, more than any previous study, “a clear recognition of how important air mobility is going to be in support of our national military strategy” and that in the future, “it might be even more important than it is today.”

The QDR concluded that USAF should make no reduction in the size of its airlift or tanker fleets. Indeed, it noted, the loss of overseas bases and the spread of “Smaller-scale Contingencies” will cause the Pentagon to reevaluate and give “increased emphasis” to lift in future budgets.

Kross said that, without a sustained injection of funds during the next few years, airlift forces would not be up to the task given them and would struggle to meet even basic requirements. He pointed to the QDR view that airlift has a role not only in fighting two theater wars but also in supporting the many Smaller-scale Contingencies, such as humanitarian missions, that have cropped up more frequently in the last decade.

“Tremendous Support”

“We have seen a tremendous amount of support … from the Air Force … and OSD” in putting resources toward long-deferred modernization and renewal projects, Kross reported. Air mobility projects were preserved in the current five-year defense plan “while a lot of other things were cut.”

The QDR effectively laid to rest the idea that the United States can meet its military obligations with fewer than 120 C-17s, blessing the multiyear buy of the airplane and endorsing the idea of direct-to-the-front strategic lift. Plans call for the 120-aircraft C-17 fleet to replace 256 Air Force C-141 long-range airlifters as the backbone of the air mobility force.

After the C-17, however, priorities for air mobility shift to the less glamorous but equally vital task of updating the rest of the airlift fleet with new international-standard avionics. In short order, the Global Air Traffic Management, or GATM, project went from being virtually a budgetary nonentity to a recognized priority.

“Last year … there wasn’t even a name ‘GATM,’ let alone the amount of monies we’re going to see,” Kross noted, adding that, after the QDR, it “got immediate attention.”

The GATM project will provide AMC airplanes with the avionics they need to be certified to operate out of major airports and fly at preferred altitudes under new flight control regimes adopted worldwide. Without the upgrades–some of which must be installed in less than a year–AMC airplanes would not be able to fly the most efficient routes.

After GATM, Kross said the next priority is rather down-to-earth: repairing and renewing the fuel handling infrastructure at US bases at home and abroad.

“We have … a very large–almost $1 billion–backlog of deteriorating fuel infrastructure around the world,” at places like Andersen AFB, Guam, Yokota AB, Japan, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii, Kross explained. “Pipelines, hydrants, storage tanks–all the things we need in our en route locations in order to support both Major Theater Wars.”

This infrastructure has languished for five years because, in 1992, the Defense Logistics Agency was given the maintenance responsibility but no money.

Show the Money

The DLA was “never given the resourcing to handle it, so it went chronically underfunded,” Kross said. After the situation was explained to Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre–the former DoD comptroller–DoD scavenged money from other parts of the budget to fund GATM and the fuel infrastructure accounts. GATM will get between $70 million and $100 million a year, Kross said, while the preferred approach to the fuel infrastructure project is to carry out a $100 million per year effort that can wipe out most of the maintenance backlog in five years.

“The warfighting CINCs,” said Kross, “have been unanimous in their strong support and partnership in helping me justify these requirements.” He added that support also has come from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and Defense Resources Board, which weigh funding priorities among the services.

“We had to justify our requirements, but the requirements are there, they’re solid, and getting support,” Kross said. These add-on projects are “over and above the TOA [Total Obligational Authority]” in the Air Force budget.

Kross also reported a huge turnaround on another seemingly mundane but still critical program: loading equipment. The vast majority of AMC’s cargo handling gear is failure-prone and antiquated, but relief is arriving in the form of a new 60,000-pound loader that is exceeding all expectations.

“Remember–last year we had zero in the 60K [loader] line,” Kross noted. “This year we’ve got … [about] $80 million to buy 60” of the new loaders.

“They’re coming off the production line; they’re doing very well,” he noted.

The loader has been named the “Tunner” after the late Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner, the airlifter famed for his roles in World War II operations over “the Hump” into China, the Berlin Airlift, and airlift in the Korean War. The choice of name was not a whim, Kross said. “For the first time, we’ve given the name of somebody who’s really a central figure in our heritage … to a piece of materiel handling equipment. … It calls attention to how important strong, workable, reliable, materiel handling equipment is to our entire process. This thing replaces three pieces of equipment and a lot of people.”

He described ceremonies marking the delivery of the first Tunner at Ramstein AB, Germany, in which a single technician was able to drive the loader off a C-5 transport, raise it to full height, and “plug it right into the side of a KC-10” sharing the ramp. This one airman then loaded a KC-10 pallet onto the Tunner, lowered it, drove it to a waiting C-130, and loaded it on the smaller airplane.

Seven-Minute Shift

“That took seven minutes,” Kross said. “That is the seamless transition between strategic and theater lift.”

With current gear, the same transfer would have required three pieces of equipment and nearly an hour, assuming that none of the old equipment broke down in the process. The Tunner has a mean time between failure of 350 hours.

“This is phenomenal,” Kross enthused. He noted that Dover AFB, Del., and Travis AFB, Calif., will be the first bases to get the new loader.

While it is hard to argue against upgrading equipment and facilities, Kross noted one area where modernization is posing a political rather than technical problem. The area in question is theater airlift.

The Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command, and Air National Guard all maintain C-130s in their inventories. Last year, a theater airlift study determined that about 50 C-130s could be withdrawn from service because they were excess to USAF’s requirements. Kross observed that Congress has forced the withdrawal of the C-130s from the Active force, where they can’t be spared, rather than Guard and Reserve units, where they can.

Moreover, he pointed out, Congress has been adding funds to buy brand-new C-130J airplanes for the Air Force for the last few years, though USAF has asked only for a few to test and evaluate. The new airplanes are earmarked to go to Reserve and Guard units rather than the Active force.

Such Congressional tinkering with the size and composition of the theater airlift force poses potential hazards in the not-too-distant future, Kross said.

The situation is “upside down, inside out,” he warned, when the Reserve and Guard have the newest airplanes and the Active forces–especially those overseas that are working harder–have the oldest and least-reliable airplanes. The situation has occurred gradually “over the last 20 years by interests that were not based on centralized planning but rather on constituent interests,” Kross said. “We have to tackle that.”

While he’s not complaining about Congress adding money for new airplanes, Kross is concerned that if the modernization mix between Active and Guard/Reserve gets too out of balance, it could pose problems.

He noted that the C-130 schoolhouse at Little Rock AFB, Ark., is flying airplanes far older than those found in operational squadrons. He also warned that putting the newest airplanes in the Guard and Reserve means that a “sense of ownership” isn’t developing in the Active force, suggesting there may not be the incentive to lay in the depot support and spare parts needed to operate the new J models.

“The J is 80 percent a new airplane,” Kross said. The change looks “incremental,” but “it is, indeed, a new airplane,” and he worries that while Congress is adding aircraft, it is neglecting to add the monies needed to support them.

Something Wrong

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” Kross said.

“The Guard and Reserve [are] built on Active forces operating the same kind of equipment,” he asserted, adding that there should at least be a “one for one” side-by-side equipage of the Active and Reserve component airlift structure. He said, “If all the airplanes were going into the Active force, and none were going into the Guard and Reserve, I’d be the first person to tell you that was wrong, too, because that’s not ‘Total Force.’ “

To illustrate the problem, he pointed out that the Active forces will retire their last C-141s in 2003, but the last Reserve units won’t release theirs until 2006.

“You will find that they are nervous … about that three-year period and us not having a proper sense of ownership in the interim,” Kross reported. “Well, if they’re worried about it for the -141, they ought to be seriously concerned about it for the -130J.”

To keep like airplanes together, USAF has earmarked most of the C-130Js to update the hurricane-chaser squadron, which is getting 11 C-130Js, and its jamming squadrons, which are getting three. The remaining, currently funded C-130Js–16 airplanes–are going to Reserve and Guard cargo squadrons.

The Air Force is looking at the problem of bedding down, fielding, and supporting the C-130J, and Kross said a “tiger team” is studying the best solutions. Part of the solution may be to task some Reserve or Guard units to overseas assignments on a semipermanent basis, so the most modern airplanes are located where they’ll be most in demand.

Though there’s no deadline for a plan, it will likely be made final by May 1998, when the services must submit their five-year Program Objective Memorandum for DoD reviews.

“The C-130J is a wake-up call that the way we are procuring airplanes for our tactical airlift forces … is not pertinent as it relates to our wartime and peacetime requirements,” Kross asserted. “We ought to modernize the Active [force], Guard, and Reserve at the same time.”

The 1996 theater airlift study also found that the C-17 could serve a very important role within a theater–as it did in Bosnia in late 1995 and early 1996–and not just as a strategic airlifter. It suggested that, for this purpose, the Air Force should buy two additional squadrons–a total of 32 airplanes. However, Kross said that this particular requirement is “very fuzzy” yet.

What has been more sharply defined is a requirement to replace retiring special operations C-141s that have no designated successor, yet.

“No one ever swept up those special operations requirements … in support of several critical plans” in the C-17 requirement of 120 airplanes, Kross said.

Because the C-17 is a larger airplane than the C-141, and already has a night vision goggles­compatible cockpit, it’s unlikely that they would be bought as one-for-one replacements for the 13 C-141s now doing the special ops job.

“And so, we believe that we need at least another squadron of C-17s, over and above the [currently planned] 120, in order to handle those special operations requirements, which are simultaneous with Major Theater War requirements,” Kross revealed.

“At Least” 120 C-17s

He also noted that the Defense Planning Guidance–which lays out the ground rules for all procurement–was changed this year to read “that the Air Force should buy at least 120” C-17s. While he’s not pushing now for more C-17s–“This is not something we need to do this year or next year”–Kross said, “We are building the justification.”

There had been 33 C-17s delivered by early fall, of which about 24 were in squadron service and the rest in test or modification. The schedule calls for nine to be built in Fiscal 1998, 13 in Fiscal 1999, and 15 a year from 2000-02, with a close-out build of five in 2003, under the multiyear procurement contract.

However, before the Air Force buys “the 121st or 141st” model of the C-17, it must step up to the task of upgrading the giant C-5 transport, Kross asserted.

AMC has commissioned the Institute for Defense Analyses, located in the Washington area, to provide “an unimpeachable third source” opinion on whether, indeed, upgrading the C-5 makes more sense than some other alternative to maintaining the outsize-load airlift force, Kross noted.

The Air Force bought two distinctly different C-5 models at widely separated times. USAF took delivery of 81 C-5As between December 1969 and May 1973. Under a subsequent major modification program, USAF extended the service life of C-5A wings by 30,000 flight hours. Modification of all aircraft in the inventory took place between 1982 and 1987.

The first C-5B, incorporating major improvements in the wings and avionics, arrived in January 1986. Fifty were delivered by April 1989.

At present, the Air Force has 126 C-5s of all types in Active, Reserve, and Guard units.

Due to engine and avionics problems, the C-5 is only achieving a departure rate of about 80 percent, causing vexing problems in “flow management.” Culprits are unreliable engines and an outdated avionics suite and cockpit. Lockheed Martin has made an unofficial proposal to upgrade the C-5 with, among other things, new CF6 engines–which would be leased–and a glass cockpit for around $30 million­$40 million per airplane.

Kross thinks there are few alternatives that could match a C-5 upgrade in capability delivered for the cost.

Noting that the C-5s generally have about 60,000 hours remaining–80 percent of their structural life span–Kross concluded “it would be very foolish” to discard the airplane and buy something new. This is especially true, he said, in light of the fact that infrastructure, simulators, and spare parts for the airplane “all exist already,” and flight and ground maintenance crews are “already trained.”

It Takes Two

Kross believes it would be a mistake to assemble a fleet made exclusively of C-17s to do the airlift mission. “What the CINCTRANS needs is [about] 250 strategic airlift airplanes … to do its work: That’s 120 C-17s and 126 C-5s,” he said. “You wouldn’t ever want to have 250 of the same kind of airplanes … because you have to hedge against having your entire fleet grounded for some common cause.”

If the C-5 could be brought up to a departure rate of 94 percent, then “I’m able to do a really tremendous flow,” said the general. “It’s an exponential thing.”

While no formal negotiations on a C-5 upgrade have taken place, Air Staff planners are already struggling with how to handle the leasing arrangement. A proposal to lease new engines for the B-52 fleet last year was abandoned because of indemnification issues. The question of termination liability–who has responsibility for the airplanes and who takes the loss in the event of accident or program termination–has proved so thorny that the replacement of a handful of VIP airplanes had to be changed from a leasing arrangement to an outright purchase.

At present, seven obsolete and deteriorating VC-137 airplanes are being replaced with four C-32s–a special variant of the Boeing 757–and two small “VC-X” airplanes, which will be Gulfstream 5 aircraft.

Unless the parties can resolve the indemnification issue, the C-5 upgrade with new engines could become unaffordable. Next year, the Pentagon will launch a formal study to consider alternatives to a C-5 upgrade, in case the legal problem proves intractable.

Kross is keen on the upgrade idea, however, especially since the engines would come with a 10-year warranty. According to the general, “If anything goes wrong, they fix it for free, because the engines are that reliable.”

One of the long-awaited upgrades that will go forward is Pacer CRAG, a program to update the Air Force’s KC-135s with new avionics that improve their reliability and capability while eliminating the need for a navigator.

The program was set to go forward last winter, but Kross halted the project because “in the form that it was in last year, [it] actually yielded less combat capability.” The new color radar planned for the upgrade had a narrower beam than the old radar, making formation flying more difficult, “so we had to add another piece of equipment so we could do formation right,” Kross reported. The new equipment is a collision avoidance system, and operational testing has shown the new suite to be a winner.

The update was delayed nine months, “and in that I’ve had to keep the navigators in the force longer,” said Kross. He added, “Now, the light is at the end of the tunnel, we’ve got an even better Pacer CRAG capability than we would have had before, and it will be entering the force in earnest in Fiscal Years ’98 and ’99.” Kross explained that all 590 KC-135s are set to receive the upgrade, which also includes inertial navigation systems, Global Positioning System capability, assorted air traffic control improvements, and extensive software improvements.

The Mobility Force Selected Airlift/Tanker Aircraft Types

Aircraft Type Active AFRC ANG Total
C-5 Galaxy 81 32 13 126
C-10 (KC-10) Extender 59 0 0 59
C-17 Globemaster III 27 0 0 27
C-141 Starlifter 156 46 18 220
C-130 Hercules 311 141 242 694
C-135 (KC-135) Stratolifter 303 72 224 599
Total 937 291 497 1,725

Note: Figures current at beginning of Fiscal 1997. C-130 and C-135 lines include a few special purpose aircraft. Figures denote total aircraft inventories.

What the QDR Said

The final report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, released in May 1997, said the following about air mobility forces:

“A robust and effective strategic lift capability is critical. … The QDR reaffirmed DoD’s baseline requirements for intertheater mobility, as outlined in the 1995 Mobility Requirements Study Bottom­Up Review Update. To meet our force deployment objectives, the mobility update recommended an airlift capability of approximately 50 million ton-miles per day. … The review reaffirmed these requirements which, in turn, will guide DoD’s long-range planning for strategic mobility forces. …

“The burdens placed on US strategic mobility forces will not become less demanding in the future. To the contrary, the potential demands of peacetime engagement, reduced infrastructure at overseas bases needed to support airlift en route to a crisis, the likelihood of Smaller-scale Contingencies worldwide, and the increased possibility of confronting nuclear, biological, and chemical threats all pose challenges for mobility forces that were not accounted for in the mobility update.

“These and other key issues will be evaluated and will receive increased emphasis as DoD formulates upcoming budget requests for strategic mobility programs.”