There was a ceremony at Dover AFB, Delaware on Monday, celebrating the arrival of the first, refurbished C-5M Galaxy.
The venerable C-5 has been a fixture at Dover for decades, but the upgraded "M" model represents a significant improvement in capabilities. Each Galaxy modified to the "M" standard has new, more fuel-efficient engines and improved avionics. Collectively, these upgrades are supposed to enhance the operational efficiency of the C-5 fleet.
While the Galaxy remains the largest airlifter in our inventory, the aircraft has been plagued by mechanical and reliability problems throughout its long career. At various points, C-5 units have logged mission capability rates of less than 50%, meaning that more than half of the Galaxy fleet was grounded by mechanical problems, inspections and scheduled repairs.
With better engines and avionics, the Air Force believes the C-5M can achieve mission capability rates of better than 75%. That's considered the "break even" point for the upgrade program, which costs an estimated $147 million per aircraft--that's only $20 million less than the Air Force paid for the "B" model Galaxies that were acquired from Lockheed in the 1980s.
The high price tag for the C-5M upgrade program is evidence of a program that spiraled out of control. Originally, Lockheed estimated that each C-5B could be modified for about $86 million per aircraft, but cost overruns (and other issues) resulted in a final price that was nearly twice that amount. At one point, the upgrade effort actually appeared to be in danger of cancellation.
Instead, the Pentagon and Congress reached a compromise. Only the newer "B" models will receive the new engines and advanced avionics; older C-5As, which date from the 1970s, will only get a new avionics suite. They will continue to operate with older engines that are anything but fuel efficient.
That means that a portion of our heavy lift transport fleet will continue to struggle with mission capability rates and operating costs for the rest of its service life. The only other option is to retire the older "A" models (assigned mostly to ANG and Air Force Reserve units) and replace them with the slightly smaller, but more efficient, C-17.
Unfortunately, there isn't enough money in the Air Force budget to support that initiative and the service has invested too much time--and tax dollars--to pull the plug on the upgrade program. That's why the C-5 modification effort will always be haunted (to some degree) by what might have been.
What if Lockheed and the USAF had done a better job in implementing the upgrade program? What if the contractor had been able to hold the line on costs, or if the Clinton Administration made the tough call 10 years ago, and decided to replace C-5As with C-17s on a one-for-one basis?
The answers are obvious. Those early-model Galaxies would be in the Bone Yard; our strategic airlift fleet would be in much better shape, and we wouldn't be facing the daunting challenge of squeezing more service out of a costly and inefficient jet.
What if, indeed.