It has begun to dawn on many observers that President Obama doesn’t care much about defense. He honors the nation’s warfighters and supports their programs, but his heart lies elsewhere — mainly in reforming the economy and building a more equitable society. So his pronouncements on the military tend to be formulaic, while the setting of defense priorities is left largely to his Pentagon team.
That makes any direct endorsement of a weapons program by the President unusual, and worthy of mention. There were precious few of those during the election season, but he did cite at least one aircraft program by name: the C-17 airlifter. In his principal campaign-trail statement on military strategy, candidate Obama said: “We need greater investment in advanced technology ranging from the revolutionary, like unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare capabilities, to systems like the C-17 cargo and KC-X air refueling aircraft — which may not be glamorous to politicians, but are the backbone of our future ability to extend global power.”
Mr. Obama did not single out any other aircraft in his statement for such recognition. Why the C-17? The fact that it is the last military aircraft built in Los Angeles certainly helped. But the candidate could have bolstered his election chances more by embracing the V-22 Osprey or F/A-18 Super Hornet, both of which are built in swing states. Instead he cited the C-17, because that program epitomizes where Mr. Obama’s advisors think the military needs to go in the future: towards greater agility, reach and versatility.
The C-17 is the newest jet transport in the joint force, and by most accounts the best strategic airlifter ever built. “Strategic” in this context means intercontinental, but the C-17 has also proven remarkably agile in shorter-range, “tactical” roles. It can lift cargo as unwieldy as the 70-ton Abrams tank out of airstrips only a thousand meters long, and maneuver easily on the ground thanks to its ability to use thrust reversers to move backward as well as forward. The exceptionally high readiness rates of the plane combined with low operating costs make it a case study in American ingenuity.
The only real problem with the C-17 is that the Air Force lacks the money to buy a sufficient number. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz says that 205 C-17s combined with 111 older C-5 Galaxies is an adequate fleet of strategic airlifters, because the service also has access to commercial cargo planes. But airliners can’t move tanks, and the C-5s have suffered from chronic readiness problems that will only be partly fixed by providing the planes with new engines and electronics. The C-17 will be the backbone of the airlift fleet for decades to come, and 205 isn’t nearly enough to cover the world.
Consider all the new airlift missions that are emerging. Humanitarian relief and disaster assistance. Transport of the Army’s Future Combat Systems family of vehicles. Rapid deployment of theater missile defenses. Counter-insurgency and nation-building in places like Africa. With ground forces growing and global roles proliferating, the list of emerging missions gets quite long, many of them requiring a plane like the C-17 that can land in remote, rugged locations. But despite purchases by allies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, the list of remaining C-17 orders to be filled is not long at all. In fact, the line will have to begin shutting down this year if more orders are not received — which would hobble the joint force when it desperately needs the mobility C-17 provides.
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