In analyzing various weapons programs, we've occasionally invoked the maxim of the late Russian Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, who famously observed that "better is the enemy of good enough." I don't know what Gorshkov would think about the Air Force's proposed next-generation airlifter, but he might ask an obvious question: why is the service ready to retire its C-130 fleet, which has been meeting tactical airlift needs for more than 50 years? Modified and continuously updated over its long service life, the "Herk" remains the preeminent tactical airlifter for the world's air forces, and will remain in service for decades to come.
But the Air Force is facing a couple of challenges that will (apparently) make it difficult to sustain the C-130 program. First of all, the Army and Marine Corps are developing their next generation of combat vehicles, which will enter service in the coming years. These vehicles, designated the Future Combat System (for the U.S. Army), and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (built for the Marine Corps) weigh in at close to 26 tons apiece, making them a little too heavy for the Hercules. Both the Army and Marine Corps actively support an Air Force capability to transport these vehicles close to the battlefield, operating from short or unimproved landing surfaces when necessary.
Meeting that goal is a major goal of the Air Force's Advanced Joint Air Combat System, the renamed program that was once known as AMC-X. "AMC" stands for Air Mobility Command, the Air Force organization in charge of the service's airlift and air refueling platforms; "X" is a common designator for experimental or developmental aircraft. Whatever it's called, the program hopes to deliver a new tactical airlifter, for use by Air Force, Army and Marine customers, sometime during the next decade.
To satisfy that requirement, the USAF is considering a variety of proposals, ranging from a modified C-17 Globemaster III (which is already in service), to more exotic designs, including low-observable, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and even tilt-rotor models. Needless to say, aircraft with those capabilities will be very expensive; a single C-17, fresh off the Boeing assembly line, runs about $200 million a copy. A VTOL or tilt-rotor transport, capable of carrying an FCS or EFV, would be even more expensive.
And that brings us back to Admiral Gorshkov's observation about "better" and "good enough." About the time the new transport starts coming on line, the service will also be fielding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and paying for the development of a new bomber, among other projects. Factor in ever-increasing personnel costs, retiree benefits, and (quite likely) continuing obligations for the War on Terror, and you've got a program that could become a budget-breaker.
Do we really need a new airlifter? The answer is probably yes. By the middle of the next decade, the bulk of the Air Force's C-130 fleet will be getting long in the tooth, and planned acquisitions of the new J model won't compensate for airframes facing retirement. Additionally, the fielding of those new combat vehicles will create a size problem for the tactical airlift community. Developing a means to haul those vehicles--without over-taxing C-17 and C-5 strategic lifters--probably dictates a new aircraft for tactical airlift.
But building some exotic VSTOL or tilt-rotor platform would be wasteful and excessive. In reality, the requirement for close-in delivery of ground combat vehicles has existed for decades, but it's never been fulfilled, for a couple of reasons. First, the Air Force doesn't like the idea of putting expensive airlifters on the edge of the battlefield, and ground forces still flow through airfields (or other logistical hubs) en-route to the battlefield. Against a modern air defense arrays, it's hard to imagine an advanced tactical airlifter delivering FCS or EFV into even a moderate-threat environment.
Consequently, the best answer for the tactical airlift problem is probably a modified C-17, or a super-sized version of the C-130. But there's another factor at work that may derail these "good enough" solutions. Airbus is currently developing a new, turboprop transport (the A400M), that offers improved performance over the C-130. With 195 orders already on hand, there's concern that the Airbus product may eventually dominate the tactical airlift market that Lockheed (and the C-130) have owned for decades. Facing increased competition, there's a belief in the USAF--and among defense contractors--that the U.S. should offer something better. It's no coincidence that the AMC-X will be offered to foreign customers now operating the C-130. Those sales would help drive down unit production costs--and increase the number of airframes that the Air Force could eventually buy. For the moment, the Air Force seems to be leaning toward a practical response to the airlifter requirement, but competition and potential export sales may eventually drive the program toward something more exotic--and expensive.