Daily Breeze

January 31, 2006

Boeing gambles on the C-17
Company has bought parts for its 181st air transport, but the Pentagon has delayed a decision on keeping the plane in production.

By Otto Kreisher
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Boeing is buying parts for the C-17 transport at its own expense while it waits to find out if the Air Force will buy more than the 180 aircraft it has ordered, a company official said Monday.

But Boeing vice president John Sams said he did not know how long the company could avoid a decision to cut off the suppliers and begin shutting down the C-17 production line that employs about 6,000 workers in Long Beach and thousands more around California.

The last of the parts supplied by other companies for the 180th C-17 has been produced, Sams said. "We're protecting our ability to produce the 181st," by having the suppliers continue to make parts, he said.

"We are at risk," he said, meaning Boeing must pay for those parts if no one buys another of the four-engine jet transports.

Asked how long they could continue that gamble, Sams said, "We don't know."

"But we want to give the Air Force the option of exploring all of their thought processes with (the Pentagon) and not have to cross a trip wire from which there is no return," Sams told reporters at Boeing's local headquarters.

The Air Force has contracted with Boeing to buy 180 of the long-range transports at a rate of 15 a year. The last of those would be delivered by 2008.

The previous commander of the U.S. Transportation Command said repeatedly that the military needed at least 222 to meet its requirements for hauling heavy or large equipment, such as tanks, for long distances to a forward operating air base.

Only the C-17, called the Globemaster II, can carry those kinds of loads virtually anywhere in the world, using in-flight refueling, and land on relatively short and crude airfields.

But the comprehensive study of national security needs for the future, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the accompanying 2007 defense budget reportedly will call for stopping C-17 purchases at 180. Both will be released Feb. 6.

The Transportation Command leader, Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, has said he is satisfied with 180 Globemasters.

But to meet its future long-range airlift needs, the Air Force plans to invest an estimated $11 billion to put new engines and other improvements into its 112 massive C-5 transports, which have very low availability rates.

Schwartz said he also would like to buy a new fleet of aerial tankers that have the ability to double as cargo transports.

Sams, who heads Boeing's tanker program and the military transport work, said that would not work because when forces have to be deployed to a distant conflict, the Air Force needs both tankers and transports.

The 767 airliner that Boeing is offering as a new tanker can carry cargo, but cannot haul heavy or large gear, such as tanks, he noted.

Another senior Boeing official, George Muellner, told the publication Defense News that for the money the Air Force would spend on the C-5s, it could buy 55 C-17s, which are more versatile and would be in service long after the older C-5s are forced into retirement.

The Air Force reportedly will ask Boeing to keep the C-17 production machinery in some form of storage in case it needed to buy more Globemasters in the future.