By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The U.S. Army is in a world of hurt. The service is bearing most of the burden of a multi-front war while simultaneously trying to transform itself into a modular, networked force of the future. Either one of these challenges would be a budget-buster, and the day is fast approaching when Army leaders can no longer count on huge supplemental appropriations to make ends meet. If they're lucky, most of the troops will be out of Iraq by then, but a residue of battle-worn equipment in need of restoration will remain well into the next decade.
The U.S. Air Force is in trouble too. Every category of aircraft in its fleet is running down due to age and overuse. Fighters are on flight restriction because of age-related metal fatigue, aerial refueling tankers have an average age over three times that of the domestic airline fleet, and many cargo planes are so old that they are dangerous to fly (although Congress won't permit their retirement). Nobody knows how the Air Force is going to find all the money it needs to modernize at a time when defense budgets aren't expected to keep up with inflation, but the service has already acknowledged it will have to get rid of over 40,000 personnel just for starters.
Obviously, now is the perfect time to begin yet another new weapons program. As Jonathan Karp of the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the Army and Air Force are proposing to spend $5 billion to buy over a hundred propeller-driven light cargo planes that can deliver small loads to remote airstrips in high-altitude, tropical conditions. Apparently, owning 180 C-17 jets, 500 C-130 turboprops, and 400 CH-47 helicopters -- all of which are capable of doing short-hop cargo missions of one sort or another -- isn't enough.
The services want at least 140 light turboprops that can satisfy the 2-3% of delivery needs for which existing airframes are deemed sub-optimal.
Unfortunately, no American company makes a plane that's exactly suited to this niche in the airlift market, so the services will probably end up buying a plane from Italy or Spain. But don't worry -- with the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods running at over a billion dollars a day, no one will notice the difference. On the other hand, warfighters are likely to notice a distinct difference if they have to rely on the "Joint Cargo Aircraft" rather than something bigger in future conflicts, because it can't fly very far, can't carry very much, can't accommodate the dimensions of most vehicles, and can barely get off the ground at all if it loses an engine (which has been know to happen in the High Andes).
Nobody doubts there are places where C-130's can't land that are hard to get to using a helicopter. That's why the Army National Guard owns a handful of Sherpa turboprops. But does it make sense to buy a specialized airlift asset to support a limited mission set at the same time budget constraints are forcing the Air Force to terminate more capable airlift programs?
You could buy 80 new C-130's or two dozen C-17's for $5 billion, each of which is more versatile that the proposed Joint Cargo Aircraft. Senior Army officials say that without more C-17's, their future combat systems may lack adequate mobility, and there are dozens of aging C-130's in need of replacement that provide refueling for the Marines, airlift for the National Guard, and gunfire for special operators.
America can probably win the "long war" without purchasing a unique solution to every little problem.