Gates Is Right: The Air Force Has Enough C-17s, Other Needs Are More Urgent

Over the past few years, Congress has continued to fund production of the C-17 airlifter despite the insistence of Air Force leaders that they had bought all the strategic lift they were likely to need. I supported continued funding for three reasons. First, C-17 is the best long-range airlifter ever built, and it is being heavily used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, the mission-capable rate of the C-5 Galaxy, the only other jet airlifter in the joint fleet, has been quite low in recent years. Third, threats are evolving at a rate that makes the possibility of new mission requirements and wartime attrition higher than the Pentagon is anticipating. For all of those reasons, I felt the purchase of additional C-17s made sense.

But the world has changed, both inside and outside the Pentagon. Not only has a substantial increment of additional C-17s been ordered that provides a cushion against unforeseen needs, but several prospective missions for the planes have disappeared. For example, rapid-deployment concepts the Army developed for its defunct Future Combat Systems program have been scaled back, and plans for a transportable theater missile-defense system have been replaced with a different approach that will rely more on forward-based elements. In addition, recent tests of a re-wired and re-engined C-5 configuration have proven that the giant airlifter can achieve much higher levels of performance and readiness while remaining in the airlift fleet for at least three more decades.

The latter development is especially important because so much of the joint force’s airlift capacity is concentrated in 111 C-5s. Each of those planes can carry twice as many armored vehicles as a C-17, but the planes have been so under-productive that some Air Force leaders wanted to retire them despite the fact they had decades of life remaining. Now, tests of the upgraded C-5M have demonstrated that the Galaxy can be greatly enhanced at a fraction of the cost of buying new C-17s. The C-5 will never have the ground-handling flexibility of a C-17, and there are some places it cannot land that a C-17 can, but the simple truth is that it looks like the Air Force will soon have all the long-range airlift it needs. Studies conducted by military research organizations confirm that finding, and therefore argue against buying more C-17s.

I hate coming to this conclusion because the C-17 is a fabulous airframe and it is the last military aircraft being fully assembled in the L.A. Basin — once the heart of the military aerospace community. But the one other thing that has changed over the last few years is that the federal government is now spending $4 billion per day that it does not have, and I don’t want my kids to get stuck with the bill for all that borrowing. That’s one reason why I supported the decision of Secretary Gates to kill the Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer and the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. It’s also part of the reason why I stopped fighting for the Air Force’s F-22 fighter when Gates decided to cancel that program. Our nation is living beyond its means and gradually destroying what previous generations have built. We cannot afford to keep buying military systems that aren’t needed, even if they are the best such systems the world has ever seen.

I would support purchasing a few more C-17s in order to smooth out the production line as it transitions to being a foreign military sales program. There seems to be considerable overseas demand for the C-17 in places like India, Europe and the Middle East. But once that transition occurs, it is time for the Air Force to move on. The service needs a new aerial-refueling tanker much more than it needs additional strategic airlifters.