An MRAP vehicle being loaded onto a C-17 bound for Iraq. While the Air Force has transported hundreds of the mine-resistant vehicles to the war zone, airlift shortages have forced DoD to contract with Russian carriers for deliveries of other MRAPs (Official USAF photo).
Barely a month ago, we posted an item on severe cost overruns in the Air Force's C-5 Galaxy modernization program. Ordinarily, such developments wouldn't attract much attention outside military aviation and contracting circles, but problems with the C-5 program deserve a wider hearing, since they create operational and strategic problems for commanders and policy-makers alike. Without the C-5 component of our long-range airlift assets, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to deliver critical cargo to war zones, particularly if the United States finds itself in another conflict, on top of existing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Supporting those conflicts--while retaining some capacity to support other missions--has stretched the nation's strategic airlift forces to the breaking point. With the retirement of the last C-141 in 2006, the Air Force's strategic airlift fleet now consists of 111 C-5s (both A and B models), along with 141 C-17s Globemaster IIIs.
Collectively, these assets represent our most effective means for transporting out-sized equipment to distant battle zones, without the extensive use of special, cargo-handling equipment. Additionally, the C-17 can operate from rough or unimproved runways closer to the front lines, although there has been considerable debate as to whether the Air Force would actually risk a $200 million airlifter in a higher threat environment.
While the Air Force's inventory of 252 C-17s and C-5s sounds impressive, it's actually below what the service needs to meet strategic airlift requirements. According to a 2000 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the service is 29% "short" of what it needs to meet airlift requirements under a "two major theater war" scenario. That problem is compounded by relatively low mission-capability rates for the aging C-5, which has a long history of maintenance issues. On any given day, only 60% of the Air Force's Galaxies are rated mission capable (MC), reducing the number of airlift missions that can be flown.
It should be noted that the C-17 was also hindered by relatively low mission capability rates during its early years of service, although the aircraft manufacturer (Boeing) claims a sustained MC rate of over 80% for the airlifter during FY'06.
Yet, despite the obvious need for more airlift--and the Globemaster III's improving performance--the Air Force doesn't have the funds to buy more C-17s, which would allow retirement of additional Galaxy airframes. The Washington Post reported recently that the service and Boeing have been lobbying Congress for a C-17 earmark to buy more aircraft, despite "official" Pentagon plans to end production of the Globemaster III in 2009. A group of seven Congressmen have proposed a $2.4 billion earmark for additional C-17s, but it's unclear whether that proposal will survive the budget process.
Uncertain funding for more C-17s is a major reason that the Air Force hedged its bets, spending billions on an upgrade program for the C-5. But, with costs now 15-25% higher than originally forecast (depending on whose numbers you believe), the project is clearly in jeopardy, and could be killed outright if overruns reach 40%, as the Air Force has privately predicted. That would leave the military with an insufficient mix of C-17s, a small fleet of refurbished C-5s and a larger number of "unmodernized" C-5As and B-models, still plagued by maintenance issues, and powered by engines that are anything but fuel efficient.
And, did we mention that some of the hangar queens and fuel hogs of the C-5 fleet are assigned to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Units that are "pet" programs of various Congressmen and Senators? Not surprisingly, lawmakers like Ted Kennedy and Delaware Senator Tom Carper don't cotton to the idea of retiring C-5s, since that would be a decrease in defense dollars and jobs for their constituents.
In fact, the Air Force recently established a depot-level C-5 maintenance facility at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts, so it's a given that Senator Kennedy will fight any effort to retire more Galaxies, without a firm commitment to replace them and station the "new" aircraft at Westover. Normally, the Air Force might go along with Mr. Kennedy's proposal, but (of course) it doesn't have the money to buy more C-17s.
It's a genuine airlift conundrum (some would say mess) that will probably get worse before it gets better. Looming on the horizon is January 2008, the Air Force's, recently-announced target date for announcing who will build its next-generation tanker. The new tanker is supposed to augment airlift forces, hauling cargo in addition to its primary mission of in-flight refueling. Originally, the Air Force hoped to announce a winner by the end of 2007, but the service says more time was required to "ensure that all parties have a clear understanding of the proposal and requirements." There are only two competitors for the tanker contract; the Northrup-Gruman/EADS team (proposing a modified Airbus A330), and Boeing, which is offering its 767 tanker.
In acquisition-speak, that means avoiding another debacle like the CSAR-X helicopter contract, which was originally awarded to Boeing last year. However, the contract was eventually scrapped (and the program re-opened for bids) after protests by Boeing's competitors. The eventual "loser" in the tanker competition will probably file similar complaints, delaying introduction of the new aircraft, and further restricting airlift operations in years to come.
Just how bad is the airlift situation? For a time last week, the Air Force's official website had a picture of a MRAP vehicle being loaded onto a C-17; the photo caption noted that some of the mine-resistant trucks are being flown to Iraq by Russian charter transports. The photo is still available, but the caption has been changed apparently because it makes the Air Force (and its airlift element, Air Mobility Command) look bad.
Truth be told, soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq probably don't care how their MRAPs arrived in country, and DoD doesn't either--hence, the allocation of millions on Russian contract flights to deliver the badly-needed vehicles. In reality, the Air Force has transported hundreds of MRAPs to the battle zone already, and will move more in the coming months. But the utilization of those Russian jets for critical cargo is another reminder of continuing shortfalls in our strategic airlift capability--and how far the Air Force is in "filling" that gap.