The U.S. Air Force currently operates two types of jet-powered cargo planes capable of traveling intercontinental distances: the giant C-5 Galaxy and the smaller but more nimble C-17 Globemaster III. There are 111 Galaxies in the fleet, and the service plans to own a total of 222 Globemasters when production is completed.
No other nation has anything remotely approaching the reach or carrying capacity of the U.S. airlift fleet. But the C-17 has lately been the darling of the fleet while the C-5, although capable of carrying far more cargo, has been something of an embarrassment. The main reason was that the C-5 was equipped with aged, under-powered engines that caused chronic reliability problems. It wasn't hard to convince Congress that additional C-17s needed to be bought, because C-5s were out of service so much of the time.
Now that looks likely to change, thanks to a series of upgrades that will transform many Galaxies into a vastly improved "M" variant. The C-5M is so much better than earlier "A" and "B" versions that it's almost as though the Air Force has bought a new plane:
-- Carrying 45 tons of cargo, the C-5M can fly 900 nautical miles farther than earlier versions of the Galaxy without refueling, and 2100 nautical miles farther than a C-17.
-- Carrying the same load to a destination 4,200 nm distant, a C-5M requires only 5400 feet of runway to get airborne, compared to 6300 feet for an earlier Galaxy and 7800 feet for a C-17.
-- If filled to make maximum use of its cargo capacity, a C-5M can transport twice as much cargo as a C-17 -- six troop carriers versus three, 36 pallets versus 18 -- while flying 50 percent farther.
-- When moving comparable loads, C-5Ms cost 35 percent less than C-17s to carry a pallet of cargo a given distance, and consume 40 percent less fuel -- while generating considerably less greenhouse gases.
Of course, the C-17 has important virtues too, such as the ability to back up on the ground using thrust reversers and land in some places where C-5s do not fly. But after a year of testing three pre-production models of the upgraded C-5M, a delighted Air Force is beginning to realize that its ugly duckling may now be as good or better than the C-17 swan in many measures of performance.
In March, the Air Force Operational Test & Evaluation Center in Georgia rated the C-5M as "effective, suitable and mission-capable" -- adjectives that didn't used to be applied to the Galaxy very often. Although the program to modernize the plane's electronics and engines ran into some cost problems, it looks likely the improvements will pay for themselves through greater productivity, improved fuel efficiency and reduced maintenance costs.
There's a lot of talk these days about bolstering the efficiency of the military, with much of the discussion focusing on process improvements where progress is hard to measure. But the Air Force's C-5M program offers a different, more concrete path to achieving big savings. A plane that once spent much of its time in hangers awaiting repairs will now be highly mission-capable, and unlike other strategic airlifters will be able to fly straight from the East Coast to the Middle East without having to refuel -- producing huge savings in logistics costs.
The Air Force has taken a mature but sound airframe (30 years of service life remaining) and made it markedly more flexible, reliable, versatile and productive. The engines are actually ten times more dependable on the C-5M than they were on earlier versions. They're even more environmentally friendly.
If Pentagon policymakers ever decide to reward medals for bolstering efficiency, the people who are executing the C-5M effort deserve to be early recipients.