March 2, 2006

Air Force may need more C-17 planes
Line of transport aircraft built in Long Beach is set to end in two years but war effort and humanitarian operations may require more.

By Otto Kreisher
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Air Force leaders indicated strongly Wednesday that they would like to buy more C-17 transports than the 180 authorized, but would need help from Congress.

The proposed 2007 defense budget offers $3.1 billion to buy the last 12 of the Air Force's authorized C-17s. Unless the Air Force decides to buy more of the transports, or some of the possible foreign sales materialize, Boeing's C-17 production line, which employs about 6,000 workers in Long Beach, would shut down within two years.

A half-dozen members of the House Armed Services Committee, including the chairman, Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and the top Democrat, Ike Skelton of Missouri, asked the Air Force secretary and the service chief why their proposed budget would stop C-17 purchases at 180 when they had ranked seven more of the transports as their highest-priority unfunded requirement.

Secretary Michael Wynne and Gen. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, explained that the C-17s were being flown at rates far higher than anyone had anticipated in support of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for humanitarian missions on the U.S. Gulf Coast and in Asia.

"We are burning up C-17s at an unexpected rate," Moseley said, referring to the rapid use of the maximum hours an aircraft is expected to fly in its service life. "We might need a hedge against the higher operational tempo," Wynne said.

The former commander of the U.S. Transportation Command had testified repeatedly that he needed at least 220 of the four-engine transports, called Globemaster III, to meet his requirement for long-range airlift. But a mobility capabilities study completed late last year said 180 were enough.

Moseley said that conclusion was based on the Air Force retaining all 112 of its massive C-5 Galaxies and using the smaller C-130s and a proposed small cargo aircraft for airlift missions.

Under that plan, the Air Force could not afford to buy more C-17s, he said.

But the 50 oldest C-5s would need to go through an expensive modernization program and receive new engines to improve their poor availability rates and remain in service, which Air Force officials have said may not be feasible.

"In my personal opinion, the C-17 is a much more desirable vehicle than the C-5," Moseley said, because the Globemaster can perform a wider variety of missions and can operate from smaller airfields.

Moseley and Wynne pointed out that Congress ordered the Air Force to keep all its C-5s until it completed a detailed test of the feasibility of modernizing the oldest Galaxies. But, they noted, that test would take years and the decision on what to do about C-17 production must be made soon.

Wynne said the Air Force might buy more C-17s if it were relieved of the requirement to retain all the C-5s.

"We need to hear from this body," he said, referring to Congress.

Hunter suggested that the committee would hold a closed session within four or five days to discuss options with the Air Force.

A Boeing official said in January that its suppliers had produced the last components needed for the 180th authorized C-17s, but the company was risking its own money to buy more parts to avoid losing its supply chain.