Cargo loaders are essential to air mobility at major US aerial ports and rugged overseas bases. C-130s, C-17s, giant C-5s and a wide range of contract airlifters from 747s to Russian Antonovs all share one thing in common. Their aircrews strive to cut down time waiting on the ground for cargo and passenger loading. Time airborne means mission progress; time waiting on the ground must be held to a minimum.
Enter the cargo loaders – surely one of the most overlooked aspects of 21st Century airpower. While much bulk cargo moves by sea and land, air delivered cargo can range from units of blood to precision airdrop bundles for special forces fighting in the hills of Afghanistan. The professionals know it’s impossible to project power for joint operations without rapid air mobility.
Over the past decade the Air Force acquired two new cargo loaders to beef up its expeditionary abilities. The 60K Tunner, named after the general who led the Berlin Airlift, is the mainstay of aerial ports. The agile 25K Halvorsen, named for the lieutenant who organized candy drops to children in post-war Berlin, handles lighter expeditionary cargo loading.
While the Air Force has its full complement of Tunners, it is still short about 25% of its Halvorsen loaders for expeditionary operations. Pentagon cuts led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld contributed to budget shortfalls and the Halvorsen procurement was never completed. Older 25K loaders remain in the inventory.
The question now is whether the two loaders create enough capacity to streamline the force structure and meet combat cargo demands for the future. Joint forces are all projecting far more dispersed, expeditionary operations. The Army wants more responsive, direct support airlift. Allies are investing in airlifters, but often depend on the US Air Force’s loaders during major operations. Given future combat scenarios, the current inventory of loaders might not be enough to assure rapid air mobility.
This study was written by Dr. Rebecca Grant of the Lexington Institute.
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