During budget briefings this week, defense secretary Robert Gates has gone out of his way to insist that the time has come to end production of the C-17 airlifter. Gates acknowledges that the C-17 is a versatile carrier of cargo, troops and other items, but argues that the 223 planes on order are adequate to meet future needs. He arrives at that position by considering the many other options that the joint force has for performing airlift, including several hundred C-130 tactical airlifters, over a hundred giant jet-powered C-5 Galaxies, and commercial freighters available through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. The Pentagon’s community of captive analytic organizations has tended to share the Gates view, which he first expressed during the Bush Administration.
While I do not share the view of some that C-5 Galaxies should be retired to make room for the more modern C-17, there are many reasons to believe that Secretary Gates is wrong about terminating production of C-17. First of all, the various government-sponsored studies of airlift needs are based on forecasts of future threats and requirements that Gates himself acknowledges often turn out to be wrong. Second, the studies typically ignore or minimize the likelihood of wartime attrition in the airlift fleet, even though sophisticated surface-to-air missiles are increasingly available to enemies like Iran and Hezbollah. Third, the studies fail to adequately consider that most of the airlifters in civil and military fleets lack the flexibility and resilience of the C-17 in conducting tough missions like delivering heavy armored vehicles to remote locations. Finally, the studies seldom address the possibility that the nation may need to surge its production of airlifters in response to a national emergency.
The latter issue is especially troubling, because C-17 is the last large military aircraft being built anywhere in the United States. Plans for a future aerial-refueling tanker and maritime patrol aircraft involve modifying commercial airframes not suitable for heavy airlift in war zones, and Gates says the proposal for a next-generation bomber may not come to fruition for two decades. That means that when the C-17 production line closes in 2013 as presently planned, there will not be a single facility anywhere in North America assembling large aircraft designed to military specifications. This hardly seems consistent with the assertion of the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review that the defense department is taking steps to strengthen the nation’s industrial base. The Department of Commerce reported in 2005 that closing the C-17 production facility would effectively foreclose the possibility of ever building C-17s again, and probably have similar consequences for the jet engine line assembling the plane’s powerplant in Connecticut.
This would have far-reaching implications even if the C-17 were not the best long-range airlifter ever built (which it is). With the planes being utilized at a higher rate since 9-11 than originally anticipated, the oldest C-17s will begin reaching the end of their design lives only a few years after the line closes. The Air Force will undoubtedly move to extend their time in service as it is already doing with the C-5s, but is it really sensible to close the only active production line for long-range airlifters when there is no replacement being developed and the operational fleet is being used up faster than expected? Global lift is one of those core competencies that distinguishes America’s joint force from the militaries of other nations, but it’s a little hard to see how that skill can be preserved if we simply cease building planes for decades while the existing fleet grows as aged as our decrepit bombers and fighters.
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