The fate of the best jet airlifter ever built is hanging by a thread on Capitol Hill. If Congress goes along with Senate language to buy ten more Boeing C-17s in 2010, that number combined with eight planes funded in the 2009 supplemental war appropriation will be enough to keep the California production line humming. If, on the other hand, the Senate accepts a floor amendment to strike the money for ten more, or recedes to the House and only orders three more, the outlook for the production line darkens. Personally, I think they should buy more: it’s a fabulous plane, and I don’t trust the assumptions of those who argue that 205 C-17s is enough to meet airlift needs over the next 30 years.
However, there is one place where I part company with C-17 supporters. Some of them say that since the Air Force doesn’t want to operate more than 300 long-range airlifters, it should retire older C-5 Galaxies to make way for more C-17s. The C-5 may lack some features of the newer C-17, including a high mission-capable rate, but it is the biggest airlifter we have, and we can’t simply throw away airframes with 45,000 hours of service life remaining because we like a newer plane’s ability to back up under its own power on the ground.
The Air Force is spending a lot of money to fix the things that have given C-5 a mixed reputation. All 111 planes will get digital electronics, and about half of them will get new engines that raise mission-capable rates to above 80% while saving fuel. The new engines will also enable the C-5 to take off and land on shorter runways, giving it access to more bases. That won’t make it as versatile as a C-17, but it will be a lot better than it was. And it will still be able to carry more cargo further than a C-17 (for example, two Abrams tanks rather than one). So while there is reason to believe we need more C-17s, that case should be made on the basis of unique C-17 features and requirements unmet by the planned fleet, rather than by advancing the wasteful idea of retiring a good plane that will soon be better.
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