September 29, 2006

Air Force likes C-17s, would prefer tankers
Congress offers funding for 10 extra of the long-range transport craft, but planes for refueling are top priority.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Air Force officials thanked Congress Wednesday for providing funds for 10 more C-17s than the administration had requested, but insist that they would prefer to buy a new airborne tanker that can carry cargo rather than more of the long-range transports.

Meanwhile, Boeing officials said they are working on a number of programs that could keep C-17 production in Long Beach going for years past the 2009 closure. But they conceded that they have no firm customers for those new versions of the plane, also known as the Globemaster III.


Those views emerged in a series of presentations and news conferences earlier this week at an Air Force Association conference. The gathering convened three days after Congress added money to the 2007 defense funding bill to buy 10 C-17s, in addition to the 12 the Pentagon had requested to complete the planned purchase of 180.

Refueling planes are dated

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, opened a news conference by thanking Congress for the extra C-17s. Wynne noted that the existing four-engine transports were being used at an exceptionally high rate because of the global war on terror and a number of humanitarian missions worldwide.

But when asked if they would like even more, Moseley reminded reporters that "we have often said that the better air mobility platform is the new tanker."

That was a reference to the Air Force's long-standing effort to start buying a modern aircraft to replace the KC-135 air refueling planes, some of which are 50 years old.

While noting that the long-range airlift situation can change quickly, on balance "we probably would prefer to have more tankers, and sooner," Moseley said.

The Air Force on Monday issued a preliminary document indicating what it wanted in a new air refueling plane. That will allow the two likely competitors -- Boeing and a team of Northrop Grumman and the European-based Airbus -- to begin drafting their proposals.

Commercial C-17 proposed

Boeing has been proposing a modified version of its 767 airliner. But Boeing officials said they might offer instead the newer and bigger 777. Their rivals are expected to offer a modified Airbus 330.

Also at the AFA conference, John Sams, Boeing's vice president for Air Force programs, held out hope that the service would buy more than 190 C-17s. The company also has firm or expected orders for 15 more for U.S. allies, and Sams indicated there may be a few more such international buys.

Sams said Boeing also is pushing plans for a commercial version of the C-17. He said the company believes there is a market for 30-50 of the transports, which he said could be used to haul heavy oil-production equipment to remote locations or by commercial entities to conduct Air Force contract work.

He also described a proposal for a new military version, called the C-17B, which would be able to land in small, rough fields.

Fate of Long Beach

Plans for any new version of the C-17 could be affected by Boeing's decision in August to tell its suppliers to stop producing parts for future C-17s and the expectation that the Long Beach plant would have to shut down by late 2009 or early 2010 without additional orders.

Also at the AFA conference, Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of the Air Mobility Command, praised the C-17's performance in support of the global war on terrorism.

"The C-17 has completely changed the way we do airlift," McNabb said, because the Globemasters can fly heavy or oversize cargo across the oceans and then deliver it to crude airfields in the combat theater, blending the strategic and tactical airlift missions.