By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Much of what makes America a military superpower resides in the U.S. Air Force. The United States is the only country in the world with stealthy bombers, a big aerial-refueling fleet, and enough cargo planes to quickly deliver a brigade of soldiers anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, uniqueness isn't the only thing these planes have in common -- they are all aging fast. Because the Clinton Administration reaped a peace dividend rather than buying military hardware and the Bush Administration diverted weapons funds to networking initiatives, the sinews of American air power have grown old and fragile.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of mobility aircraft -- the tankers and cargo planes that make it possible for the joint force to reach remote places like Afghanistan. The tankers are a disaster waiting to happen, with 90% of the 600-plane fleet consisting of Eisenhower-era aircraft that will reach an average age of 50 years in this decade. The cargo planes are newer than the tankers, but cargo planes are subjected to greater stresses as they fly heavy loads into isolated, austere airstrips. What to do about aging cargo planes -- "airlifters" -- has become a big dilemma for Air Force planners.
There are basically two types of airlifters: longer-range, jet-powered transports such as the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III, and shorter-range, propeller-driven airlifters such as the C-130 Hercules.
The Clinton Pentagon funded a rugged and versatile successor to the Hercules called the C-130J Super Hercules that, despite the best efforts of the Rumsfeld team to foul up, looks likely to replace the 300 or so C-130s currently in the fleet that have surpassed 40 years of age. That's good news for the Army, which uses them to move soldiers and supplies around Iraq; the Marine Corps, which uses them as aerial-refueling tankers; and the Special Operations Command, which uses them for everything from airborne fire support to airdrops of counter-terror troops.
The real puzzle in modernizing airlift is what to do about the big planes -- the 300 C-5s and C-17s.
The current fleet contains 111 giant C-5s: 60 "A" variants averaging 35 years of age, 49 "B" versions averaging 19 years of age, and two "C" versions set aside for non-military missions. It also contains 170 newer C-17s, with an additional 20 on order and Congress likely to add 10 more for a total of 200.
The C-5s are the biggest jet-powered cargo planes ever bought by the Air Force, whereas the C-17s are the most flexible and cost-effective. The Air Force had planned to stop buying C-17s and equip all C-5s with new engines and electronics to improve depressed readiness rates, but now it is having second thoughts about whether that is the best path forward.
The service is concerned that Army equipment it must airlift in the future may be too heavy to carry on propeller-driven C-130s. Since C-5s cannot land on unimproved airstrips near the front, that means all the oversized equipment will have to travel on C-17s -- which is a lot of equipment, especially since the Army is adding brigades.
So the Air Force is starting to back away from modernizing the older C-5As, even though fuel savings from new engines would cover the cost of modernization. It now looks likely to modernize only the 49 C-5Bs, and search for money to acquire a total of 250-260 C-17s.
Beyond that, it may eventually need to equip C-17s too with new engines and better landing gear to increase the number of airstrips they can use. With future money for modernization looking scarce, improving existing designs may end up being the only way to keep abreast of demand for more flexible airlift near the front.