One of the eternal mysteries of large organizations is the way they bring smart people together in support of dumb ideas. Invading Iraq. Merging with AOL. Building the Edsel. It’s hard to believe the best and brightest minds of a generation were involved in making such decisions, but they were. There’s an extensive body of academic literature that explains how organizational processes produce sub-optimal outcomes, even when everyone in the room is a genius. But don’t take my word for it — look at the Pentagon’s recent decision to terminate production of its C-17 cargo plane.
The C-17 Globemaster III is by all accounts the best long-range military transport ever built. It can fly very big loads into very small places, it has a 90% mission-capable rate, it is cheap to operate, and it costs no more than a commercial airliner. The plane is so popular with military users that it is being used at a rate 40% higher than expected. Basically, every C-17 that’s available is in use everyday, delivering supplies to troops in Afghanistan, providing humanitarian relief to refugees, evacuating wounded soldiers from Iraq (which is one reason why the time it takes to get wounded from the war zone to stateside hospitals has declined from ten days in the first Gulf War to three days today).
So of course, policymakers have decided to stop building the plane. They say they have enough C-17’s to meet strategic airlift needs for the foreseeable future. Even though their stated requirement for how much airlift is needed hasn’t changed since a “Mobility Requirements Study” was conducted in 2000. Perhaps you remember what it was like back then. No global war on terror. No shift to expeditionary warfare. No plans to return troops in Europe to the U.S. No big hurricane evacuations. The good old days.
So how is it possible that a projection of future airlift needs calculated before 9-11 could still be valid? Simple — you just make up the assumptions to assure they give you the results you wanted. And just to be on the safe side, you keep almost everybody from the Air Force’s mobility community out of the room. That’s how the Pentagon did its update of the 2000 study last year, producing a mobility analysis that concluded the war on terror and the Katrina disaster added nothing to the discussion about future airlift needs.
Is it any wonder that many Americans believe in conspiracy theories? Someday in the not-so-distant future, American soldiers are going to die because the joint force couldn’t get essential supplies into some remote airstrip fast enough. When that day comes, critics will recall the optimistic assumptions that justified killing the nation’s only modern jet airlifter and say, “How could anybody think that 180 C-17’s would be enough to cover the world when the only other long-range airlifter in the fleet was designed in the 1960’s, couldn’t use small airstrips, and had chronic reliability problems? It must be some sort of a conspiracy!”
Believe it or not, the reason policymakers say they shouldn’t buy more C-17’s is that Congress won’t allow them to retire old cargo planes, and if they have too many planes the airlines will stop setting aside widebodies for military missions. Apparently they haven’t heard that the reason airlines are dumping widebodies is because they’re shifting from hub-and-spoke to point-to-point commercial routes. With half the nation’s airlines facing bankruptcy, military missions are the last thing on their minds. But fear not — the Pentagon says it will mothball the C-17 production line just in case it’s needed again. There must be some other conspiracy to freeze all those skilled workers who otherwise would have to find new jobs.
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