The U.S. military needs a lift. Airlift that is, and lots of it. The world has changed in ways that make the force more dependent on airlift than it ever was during the Cold War. First, global tensions have shifted from places like Europe, where the U.S. had large combat units permanently stationed, to places where the U.S. military presence is much smaller and much less welcome. Second, unlike past wars in Korea and Vietnam, today’s battle zones are far from the ocean, in locations enemies rightly regard as sanctuaries from sea-based forces. You can’t get to Afghanistan relying just on sealift. Third, the military is shifting from a forward-deployed posture to expeditionary warfare in which U.S.-based forces need to surge overseas quickly when threats arise.
All of these trends point to a requirement for robust airlift capabilities, both strategic (intertheater) and tactical (intratheater). That need was acknowledged in the recent report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, but in what may be the biggest logical disconnect of the whole exercise, the report was accompanied to Capitol Hill by a defense spending request that envisioned terminating both domestic airlift production lines. The decision to terminate those lines is all the more curious in light of the fact that it is justified by a “Mobility Capabilities Study” focused mainly on airlift needs early in the next decade. Airlift needs could grow considerably in later years. But picking the right mix of planes is complicated.
C-5 Galaxy. The biggest airlifter in the U.S. inventory is the C-5 Galaxy, which entered service in 1970. Each of the 111 Galaxies can carry 50 more tons of cargo than the other strategic airlifter in the fleet, the C-17. The C-5’s huge carrying capacity is reflected in the fact that during Operation Iraqi Freedom it performed 23% of airlift missions but delivered 48% of all the cargo airlifted. However, it requires much longer runways than the C-17 to takeoff and land, and is far less maneuverable on the ground. And although the C-5 fleet has no structural issues that would impede operations before 2040, it has suffered chronic readiness problems — a challenge the Air Force is trying to correct by adding new engines and electronics.
C-17 Globemaster. The C-17 is by all accounts the best intertheater airlifter that the Air Force has ever bought. It was designed to carry heavy or outsized payloads to remote airfields, and then maneuver in tight spaces on the ground by using reversed thrust from its own engines to back up. Costing about $200 million per plane, it sustains an impressive 92% mission-capable rate — which has led members of Congress to question why the Pentagon plans to terminate production at 180 planes. However, recent data collected by the Air Force do not support the argument that it is being overused in Iraq, and claims that it functions as well as smaller planes in short-hop missions within war zones are not accurate.
C-130 Hercules. The most ubiquitous airlifter in the U.S. fleet is the C-130 Hercules, which unlike the C-5 and C-17 is propeller-driven. That enables the Hercules to fly places no one would ever take a jet. As a result, it is used by the Air Force, Marines and special operations community for everything from aerial refueling to counter-insurgency firepower to electronic warfare. Most of the 500+ C-130’s are operated in short-hop, “tactical” airlift missions, although the newest “J” version can fly roughly as far as a C-17 or C-5, albeit with far less cargo. But the oldest C-130’s are growing decrepit with age, and Rebecca Christie of Dow Jones newswires reported this week that the Air Force is giving up on trying to modernize them. The Air Force wants to continue buying new C-130’s when the current multiyear production contract concludes in 2008, which means it may not buy an even smaller airlifter the Army claims to need.
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