is raging on Capitol Hill about whether to buy ten more C-17 military airlifters. It’s astonishing, given that the C-17 is perfect for “the wars we are in” as the Pentagon likes to say. Right now, a C-17 is probably executing a lights-out landing on a dark field in Afghanistan. Another C-17 could be air-dropping ammunition, food and water to a remote firebase there.
But let’s consider the question: will ten more C-17s really make a difference when over two hundred have already been paid for? The answer is yes, they could, in many ways. The first is strategic. Critics make much of the fact that ten more C-17s are supposedly “unwanted” by the Pentagon. In fact, a major mobility study says the nation is already short on airlift. A global strategy relies on airlift for everything from a sudden crisis overseas to a major natural disaster (or worse) here at home. The C-17 has performed superbly in combat settings and is in constant demand. It’s key to tactical flexibility for combat operations or humanitarian relief. Recall the bold airdrop of U.S. paratroopers into northern Iraq in 2003? It was done with C-17s that had to fly out of a box canyon in poor weather. Fast earthquake relief to Pakistan in 2005? C-17s again.
Ten more C-17s could matter a lot to allies. Britain, Australia, and Qatar operate the aircraft and a NATO consortium is buying three. With the line open, several allies and partners will be able to purchase C-17s and enhance their global partnership capabilities.
Remember that the C-17 decision made now seals the next thirty years of airlift. Over the past few years, C-17s in the war effort have been flying more than planned. Some are logging 1400 hours per year instead of the target 1000 hours per year. At those rates, a C-17 built to fly for 30 years might wear out in only 21 years. But surely, the U.S. aerospace industry could just build more someday, right? It’s not that easy. When the C-17 line closes – and it will, eventually – the U.S. will have no jet military transports in production.
Don’t believe for a minute that the C-17 plant in Long Beach, California could be mothballed and reopened. The main reason is that the people who build the planes are just as important as tooling on the factory floor. The average worker on the C-17 line is over 50 years old, with 20 years experience in aircraft production. Lay-offs mean permanent loss of manufacturing capacity. In the 1970s or 1980s an aerospace worker on the West Coast could move from space shuttle final assembly in Palmdale to a secret bomber program in Pico Rivera or an airliner or tanker in Long Beach. Little of that industry remains.
President Obama campaigned on a pledge to sustain the global reach and mobility of American airpower, and for good reason. Consider the case of Marine Lance Corporal Justin Ping, who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah, Iraq in 2006. Burns covered his face and arms and 20% of his body. Shrapnel cut his legs and threatened the loss of his right eye. A C-17 on a cargo mission reconfigured for intensive care, boarded a medical team, and flew the Marine direct from Iraq to a hospital in Texas without stopping – courtesy of two air refuelings. Sometimes, just one C-17 makes all the difference.
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