By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The U.S. Air Force is the only military organization in the world that operates a diverse fleet of airlifters capable of transporting large forces over long distances on short notice. The airlift fleet currently consists of three classes of planes: the propeller-driven C-130 Hercules, arguably the most versatile aircraft in military history; the huge C-5 Galaxy jet transport that first debuted in the 1960s; and the C-17 Globemaster III, widely regarded as the best long-range airlifter ever built.
There are about 800 planes in the airlift fleet, not counting hundreds of tankers that can carry some cargo and commercial freighters available in wartime through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
That sure sounds like enough, doesn't it? The Air Force thinks so, and so does defense secretary Robert Gates. Gates recommended on April 6 that production of the C-17 be ended at 205 planes, leaving the C-130 turboprop as the only military transport still in production (it is needed to replace hundreds of aging Hercules in the U.S. and allied fleets).
But a curious thing happens when you start analyzing real-world warfighting scenarios. Much of the airlift fleet disappears, in the sense of not being able to fly required ranges, or carry required cargos, or land at required destinations.
Consider the case of the Army's Stryker, an 18-ton armored vehicle that is widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stryker weighs roughly the same amount as the Army's heavy trucks and the "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" MRAPs developed for coping with improvised explosives. The redesigned infantry vehicle for the Army's brigade combat team modernization program that will be briefed to Secretary Gates around Labor Day will also be in the same weight range. So imagine you need to get several hundred Strykers (or heavy trucks, or MRAPS) to Helmand Province real quick. There's lots of planes to choose from, right?
Wrong! The tankers and commercial freighters can't carry Strykers at all due to the weight and shape of the vehicle. C-5 Galaxies can each carry four Strykers, but they can't land at austere forward airstrips. The C-130s can carry one Stryker each -- armor might need to come in a second plane -- but with such a heavy load their ability to reach forward bases will be severely constrained.
It turns out the C-17 is the only plane that is well suited to the mission: it can carry three Strykers over long distances at jet speeds, and then land on pretty much any surface that's hard and flat.
It's precisely that capability that explains why C-17s are being used as heavily as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, they're being used much more heavily than expected. But here's the problem. If we keep employing a mere 205 planes so intensively, aren't we going to use them up long before a successor becomes available? Probably we will.
By the end of President Obama's first term, over 90% of Army combat units will be based in the U.S. -- the one place they are least likely to be needed. Getting them to hot spots around the world fast will require a lot of jets, and in many cases they will need to go places that a C-130 cannot reach, or where a C-5 cannot land.
So it's kind of obvious that 205 C-17s just isn't enough for the long term. But don't tell that to an administration that seems totally fixated on the short term. They don't want to hear it.