Closing the Military Airlift Gap

Report Defense

Closing the Military Airlift Gap

January 23, 1986 15 min read Download Report
Executive Vice President
Kim R. Holmes is the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.

(Archived document, may contain errors)


482 January 23, 1986 THE c II i MILITARY AIRLIFT GAP INTRODUCTION Should a crisis develop in Europe or the Mideast, it would take the U.S. 483 C-5 and 1,558 C-141B cargo plane loads to rush the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division-with its 16,800 troops, 290 tanks, 430 armored fighting vehicles, 124 helicopters, 780 combat support vehicle s, 3,580 trucks and other equipment-from its base in Fort Stewart, Georgia, to the trouble spot within the prescribed ten days.

To support Europe alone, the U.S. would have to transport six such Army divisions 60 tactical fighter squadrons, and one Marine Amphibious Brigade to Western Europe.

In the event of such demands, the U.S. does not have enough cargo planes to speed its forces to distant battlefields. This strategic airlift gap is one of the American arsenal's most serious weaknesses.

That the U.S. needs more airlift capability is widely accepted. At issue, however, is whether the Air Force's $39.8 billion Airlift Master Plan is the best way to close the gap. By designating a new generation of cargo airplane,.the McDonnell Douglas C-17, as the Plan ' s centerpiece, the Pentagon may be making a serious and costly error The Air Force Plan suffers from two fundamental flaws: 1) it underutilizes aircraft already in the airlift fleet as well as such and at a significantly lower acquisition cost than the C- 17's $180 million each; 2) it rests on questionable operational and planning assumptions, such as using the C-17 for both tactical and strategic airlift missions.

Careful analysis by experts of U.S. airlift needs and of the C-17 program reveals that a new cargo plane is not needed to close the gap. As such, the Air Force should cancel the C-17, now in a proposed planes as the Lockheed C-5B, which could be produced s ooner i Ifull-scale engineering-phase of development, and instead, build more C-5B cargo and KC-10 cargo tanker aircraft. Better use, moreover should be made of the existing fleet of 2-130 and C-141B Starlifterll strategic.aircraft. Not only could this sa ve about $20 billion, but the U.S. would have the needed planes available much sooner.

STRATEGIC AIRLIFT AND U.S. MOBILITY REQUIREMENTS Strategic airlift is used primarily for the rapid deployment of forces, military equipment, and supplies to combat zones in the early stages of wars. Without the prepositioned military equipment that exists, for example, in Europe and Korea, most U.S. military contingencies in the Third World would require rapid air transport of men and materiel to the combat zone indispen s able for sustaining combat an average 30 days or longer, but it is often too slow to reach the combat zone for violent regional conflicts decided very quickly Transport by sea is The standard categories of airlift military cargoes are: 1 bulk, such as fue l , ammunition, and other cargo that when loaded on pallets can be carried by most airlifters; 2) oversize, such as trucks and towed artillery pieces that fit into all military cargo planes (C-5, C-141, C-130, and KC-10) and some specially designed civilian aircraft; and 3) outsize, such as main battle tanks helicopters, and other extremely'large items that can be placed only in the huge C-5 or the proposed C-17 cargo planes.

The principal aircraft in the Air Force's airlift fleet are its 70 C-5 t'GalaxyI1 a nd 234 C-141 llStarlifter" strategic airlifters, 16 KC-10 dual-capable cargo/tanker aircraft, and 512 C-130 INHercules1 tactical airlifters. The C-5A jet and its newer modified version, the C-5B, carry outsize cargo such as tanks and helicopters over inte r continental distances. The C-141, the workhorse strategic airlifter of the Military Airlift Command, carries a substantial volume of cargo over unlimited ranges with in-flight refueling prop-jet C-130, on the other hand, is the mainstay of the tactical ai r lift fleet, operating within combat theaters and carrying troops and cargo 100 to 2,000 miles helicopters and fighter planes, perform as an aerial gunship, airborne command post, or airmobile communication center. The KC-10 is essentially the three-engine McDonnell Douglas DC-10 long-range aircraft capable of carrying cargo and refueling other aircra.ft The When modified, it can refuel 1. Information provided 'by U.S. Air Force, Military Airlift Command 2- I SHORTFALLS IN STRATEGIC AIRLIFT In the late 1970 8 , the possibility that the U.S. would have to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf renewed interest in strategic mobility. mobility requtrements led to the Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study CMMS In 1981, the study concluded that the U.S. was woe fully short of cargo planes, ships, and military equipment prepositioned abroad airlift 66 million-ton-miles-per-day (MTM/D) to meet its glopal commitments. Currently, the U.S. has a 43 MTM/D capability.

Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that a 150 MTM/D air lift capability would be desirable just for reinforcing U.S. troops in Europe A congressional request that the Pentagon review strategic The study recommended that the U.S. be able to Even this vastly underestimates U.S. requirements In 1980, the Simultan eous wars in Europe and the Persian Gulf, or Europe and Korea, are thus far beyond U.S. airlift capabilities. Even the CMMS goal of 66 MTM/D, which will not be mft until the late 199Os, is the absolute minimum of what is required.

THE AIR FORCE AIRLIFT MAS TER PLAN Even before the CMMS was completed, the Air Force developed plans for a totally new long-range or strategic cargo plane to supplement the 1960s vintage C-5 and replace C-141s and C-130s. The capabilities of the C-X, as the glesign model was calle d , were determined before the CMMS was completed plane to have both intercontinental range and the Itmission The Air Force Airlift Master Plan required a 2. Final Rebort Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study, Department of Defense, May 1981 3. U.S. A ir Force Airlift Master Plan (Washington, D.C U.S. Air Force, 1983 p 111-

5. The million-ton-miles-per-day (MTM/D) standard measure of capability combines the amount of cargo moved (tons the distance to be moved (miles and the time within which the movement i s to be completed (days A follow-on study, Saber Challenge Lift recommended that at least half of the recommended 20 MTM/D additional airlift capability be for outsize cargo such as tanks and helicopters. The study recommended, moreover, that fast sealift capabilities be improved, u 4. Airlift Master Plan, p 111-5 5. U.S. General Accounting Office The Department of Defense Should Resolve Certain Issues concerning the C-X Aircraft before Requesting Proposals from Industry for Its Full-scale Engineering Deve l opment (PSAD-8 1 -B Washington, D.C., October 10, 1980 3flexibilityfifi to land at small, hard-to-land-on airfields in.or near combat zones. Proposed al/rlift characteristics included 'short landing and departure approaches for tactical operations and the capability to convert back and forth between cargo, troop, and aeromedical evacuation configurations refueling and of carrying such outsize cargo as tanks and helicopters. The C-X, therefore, was to be a hybrid cargo lifter.

Its mission was to be a cross between intercontinental and intratheater tasks traditionally accomplished by two different airplanes The new plane should be capable of aerial In 1983 the Air Force concluded that the C-17 would meet these requirements. The following year, in the Airlift Master Plan, and the Airlift Total Force Plan, the Air Force decided to:6 1) Build a strategic airlift force to meet the Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study goal of 66 million-ton-miles-per-day airlift capability 2) Double tactical airlift capability 3 ) Buy 210 C-178, using 30 for training and backup 4) Retire 180 C-130 fifiHerculesfifi short-range tactical airlifters 5) Retire 54 C-141 fifiStarlifterfifi long-range cargo planes and transfer the remaining 180 Starlifters to the reserves where their use rate and wartime capability will be lower 6) Use C-17 short-range or fifiintratheaterfifi shuttles to replace the retired C-130.planes and to augment tactical airlift capability by almost 80 percent.

Before the Air Force issued the Airlift Master Plan, th e Department of Defense already had decided to increase airlift capability in the near term buying an additional 50 C-~BS, 44 KC-10 fupl tanker aircraft, and 19 converted Boeing 747s for troop transport. The principal reason that these aircraft were bough t was that they would be available significantly earlier than the C-17 Its plan of January 1982 called for 6. See Airlift Master Plan, pp. V-8-9 7. The C-5B is a modified version of the C-5A. Modifications include a new engine (the General Electric TF-39-1 C new wings, modernized avionics, and a fuselage structure constructed from an aluminum alloy less conducive to corrosion 4- Air Force Plans Aircraft Number Onerational to Meet Airlift Goals c-5 70 Purchase 50 C-5Bs C-141 234 Retire

54. Move 180 tu reserv es at one-half current operating rate C-130 512 Retire 180 C-17 Purchase 210 KC-10 16* Purchase 44 CRAF Wide Body Cargo 39 Modify 19 747s 16 KC-10s assigned to Strategic Air Command 44 additional KC-10s to be added to Strategic Air Command fleet but dedic ated to airlift use Civilian Reserve Air Fleet for transporting cargo on modified passenger planes in times of national emergency.

Source: Military Airlift Command, United States Air Force.

The Air Force claims that the C-17 program is the most economical option it examined states: "The acquisition of 210 C-17s would-cost $16 billion less and require nearly 15,000 fewer personnel to operate when compared to alternatives based on the C-5 that provide equivalent capability.

The savings will come from the lower manpower and operational costs of the C-

17. Savings will also accrue from the retirement of 180 C-130s and from transferring 180 C-141Bs into the reserves at a lower operating level, which will cut down on active duty manpower and operational costs A ssistant Secretary of the Air Force Tom Cooper b 8. Hearings, Subcommittee on Sea Power and Force Projection, U.S. Senate, March 7, 1985 5 PROBLEMS WITH THE AIRLIFT MASTER PLAN The Air Force should be applauded for trying to come to terms with the perenni al problem of airlift shortfalls going about it raises serious questions.

But its way of Among them 1 Is ueneration strateuic airlifter necessarv? Under Air Force plans, the C-5 air cargo plane will remain in service along with the C-17 well beyond the year 20

00. Is there really a need for a new strategic airlifter if the current model, the C-5B, has.enough productive years left to be retained in the inventory for that long a period 2) The dual-caBabi1itv dilemma: A key element.of the Air Force plan is the capability of the C-17 to deliver troops, supplies, and military equipment not only over vast distances but directly to combat forces at the forward edge of the battlefield. This will be essential mainly because the Air Force plan w ould retire 180.C-130 Hercules from the fleet of 512 tactical airlift aircraft. The C-17 is supposed to fly tactical air sorties between strategic airlift missions.

In a major war, however, it is questionable whether the new and expensive C-17 will be available for tactical combat support roles.

Presumably, it will be flying intercontinental sorties across the Pacific or North Atlantic. Even if the plane were available, some experts see problems with a hybrid design that equips.the C-17 for both strategic and tactical airlift missions 3) Battlefield vulnerabilities Is it realistic to expect the Air Force to risk the C-17, which may cost $180 million or more each on Ilausterell airfields in or near combat zones? Former Air Force Secretary Vernon Orr apparen t ly does not think so. As he said in 1982, that with a very large expensive plane like the C-17 and a limited number of them, the forward commander may not want to order them up to the edge of the battle area This problem of the vulnerab i lity of a large, expensive, and valuable strategic carrier plagued the 1983 U.S. military operation in Grenada. Explaining why air cargo sorties were backed up, Colonel Dave Starling, now a commander of the Amyls 18th Airborne Corps Support Command, said: "Initially there was concern that the [cargo] aircraft was susceptible to gunfire and, if one got hit, weld have really been up a creek. IIAircraft were stacked up. to the ionosphere 9. Militarv Technoloev, Interview, August 1982, p. 87 10. Militarv Logis t ics Forum, July/August 1985, p. 23 6-c another commander said, who added that lift operations might have been term'inated had the enemy had longer range anti-aircraft guns 4) Cost: The estimated acquisition cost for the Airlift Master Plan is $39.8 billio n, of which $37.2 billion is for the C-

17. In its own terms, the C-17'~ price may be reasonable for the research development, and production of a plane using the latest aviation technology. But whether this plane is reasonable for the allotted task is ano ther matter. To be sure, the Air Force claims that its plan will be $16 billion less than alternatives based on the.C-

5. Yet by some calculations, adding 101 C-5Bs to the fleet to meet the Pentagon's goab of 66 MTM/D airlift capability would cost at most 16.8 billion. And this is at an inflated Ilthen-yearll dollar cost computed to reflect price hikes during the aircraft's production life. Yet this is still far below the then-year $37.2 billion acquisition cost for the C-

17. Anticipated economies in producing a plane that has been in production for some time, moreover, could reduce the total acquisition cost of 101 C-5Bs to $14 billion.

Greater savings will come from,not retiring the C-141s and C-130s as required by'the Air Force Plan. While it is true that the C-141s will have to be replaced some day, their service life can be extended to help meet strategic airlift requirements at a lower cost until 1998..In this time, the Air Force can develop and deploy a follow-on tactical airlifter to replace the C -130 By extending the service life of the Inwork horsell C-141B at a cost of about 300 million, the Air Force could keep 180 of these aircraft in active stagus, and not, as is currently planned, transfer them to the reserves may be considerably lower, but readiness is also.

Cost there The savings from building more C-5Bs instead of C-17s will enable the- Air Force to keep the C-130 in operation aircraft currently marked for retirement could be kept in service until a new short-range tactical airlifter is d eveloped and produced.

Keeping the C-130 in the air would safeguard the Air Force's tactical The 180 of these 11. Ibi 12. This figure is based on a Lockheed fixed unit price proposalof around $100 million a copy (in 1984 dollars which includes Air Force a dd-on costs. The total then-year cost is derived from a Selective Acquisition Report estimate of $8.4 billion for 50 C-5Bs in then-year dollars. This puts the unit cost of a C-5B at $168 million for a program funded over the FY 1983-FY 1987 period. Adjust ing for lower expected inflation results in an estimated then-year cost of $155 million a copy for the C-5B, which compares favorably with $180 million a unit for the C-

17. Selective Acauisition ReDort, Department of Defense, September 30, 1985 13. Inform ation provided by Lockheed Corporation. It includes cost of extending service life of C-141 from 45,000 hours to 60,000 hours 7-airlift mission. It would. ensure that there are enough short-range airlifters to perform the many tactical airlift' missions f or.which an expensive and essential strategic airlift cargo plane like the C-i7 may either be unavailable or overqualified.

Many experts argue in fact, that a new tactical'airlifter to replace the C-130 is needed far more than a new long-range air cargo plane like the C-

17. Said Lt. General William Richardson, former Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans: "The C-17 is not the Isolutionl--there will always be a need for a smaller, STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft that is technologic ally superior to the C-13 0 I1 It is true that the C-17, with a minimum crew size of three and low maintenance personnel requirements, will demand less manpower than the C-5B, which has a minimum crew size of seven or eight. Decreasing manpower adds to sa v ings The Air Force claims that the C-17 option will require 15,000 fewer personnel than the C-5 option. This accounts for some of the alleged savings of the C-17 approach savings comes not from C-17 operating and manpower economies but from the cut in mai n tenance, operations, and manpower costs if the C-141s and C-130s are retired. It makes little economic sense, however to purchase a new type of aircraft .to replace old ones when much of the existing fleet is still capable of longer service at a relativel y low cost But the major portion of the Air Force projections for C-17 THE e-5 vs THE C-17 TECHNICAL ISSUES There are a number of technical issues involving the relative merits of the C-17 or C-5 option. Among them 1) Desiun and ORerational Concer)ts: Some critics of the C-17 argue that the design and operational concepts for the C-17 and C-5 are remarkably similar. The C-17 probably has a capability advantage at the tactical airlift end of the nission spectrum, while the C-5 has the advantage at the strate g ic end 14. "Army Operations Chief Says He's Tired of USAF's C-17 Defense Week, February 14 1983, p. 3 15. For a more complete comparison, see Jeffrey Record Reauirements and Caoab 'ilities (Cambridge, Massachusettsyid Washington, D.C Institute of Foreign P olicy Analysis, 1985), Appendix B Stratepic Airlift 8 I C 2) Availabilitv of Airfields: The C;5B requires runways 4,000 feet long and 150 feet wide for landing. But Lockheed Corporation the manufacturer of the C-5B, claims that recent tests of the wing-mo d ified C-5A demonstrate the abilityl,of the C-5A and C-5B to land on runways only 3,000 feet in length. The design requirement for the C-17, on the other hand, is the gapability to land on runways 90 feet wide and as short as 3,000 feet. Even if the C-5B s till needs 4,000 feet to land, operationally it barely will be at a disadvantage compared to the C-

17. The reason: only a tiny fraction of airfields in Europe, Northeast Asia (Korea and Japan), and Southwest Asia are between 3,000 anfi 4,000 feet long and thus can accommodate the C-17 but not the C-

5. In Central America, however three-quarters of all airfields are shorter than 3,000 feet and thus can handle neither the C-17 g,or the C-5B. This is the case in many other Third World countries. I 3) Airfield Conaestion and Obstacles: A major Air Force argument for the C-17 is that because it is smaller t h an C-5B, it is less likely to cause congestion at airfields during operations is undoubtedly true than the C-17 (261,000 lbs. vs. 172,200 lbs fewer C-5Bs than C-17s will be needed to aeliver the same load, thus decreasing congestion front and rear loading doors allow them to move in and out of the airports quickly.

It is argued that trees, fences, and other obstacles at the periphery of some narrow airfields in Europe can hinder C-5B access because of its broad wingspan (228 feet compared to 165 feet for t he C-17 and 195 feet for a Boeing 747 commercial jet however, can be removed quickly. Preparing European airfields, and when necessary, non-European allied airfields, for better use by the C-5B is no major undertaking This Yet because the larger C-5B deli v ers more cargo Backups are cut even further by the C-5s because their Trees and fences 16. Ibid, p 44. Information also provided by U.S. Air Force, Military Airlift Command, Scott Air Force Base 17. Record, QLL cit. p 29. Lockheed Corporation claims that t he C-5 can operate on dirt runways as well 18. Air Force, Military Airlift Command I i 19. Record, OD. tit. pp. 29-30 20. As for the C-5Bs wider runway requirement, it would be more cost effective to widen runways by pouring more concrete or laying metal p lanks to handle the C-5Bs 150 feet runway width requirement than to buy the C-17 9- RECOMMENDATIONS AND PROPOSALS The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget balancing bill is going to force careful examination of all federalspending an airlift-enhancement program t h at can be sold to Congress as cost effective and close the airlift gap could be jeopardized airlift-enhancement proposals should be constructed to get the most military capability for the money spent be to establish the strategic and military operational p riorities for the program, and then to find the most economical way to meet these priorities The Air Force'thus needs If the program cannot be sold, the entire effort to narrow The guiding principle should I All I I To do so, the Air Force should 1) Retai n the Congressi-onally Mandated Mobility Study goal of 66 million-ton-miles-per day of airlift requirements consensus behind this number future, but the 66 MTM/D goal appears adequate for the purposes of an affordable airlift program There is a broad More c apability may be needed in the 2) Cancel the C-17 program, build more C-5Bs and KC-lOs, and retire no C-130s 3) Retire and transfer no C-141s. Keep all 234 of them in the active force by modifying them to extend their service life. The entire C-141B fleet of 271 airplanes can be extended 15 years for about $300 million 4) Consider developing a new short-range "tactical" airlifter to replace the C-1

30. The Air Force will know more about this need after the completion sometime this fall of the Pentagon's Wo rldwide Intratheater Mobility Study (WIMS which Rill include an analysis of future U.S. tactical airlift requirements. Because the U.S. needs a robust tactical airlift capability the current force of over 512 C-130s should be kept in place until a follow- on tactical airlift is deployed to take its place. To do so, a service life extension program will be required for the C-130.

For the United States, whose militaw oblhations are spread across thousands of miles, the ability to- fly tsoops, supplik and mili tary equipmeat over great distances is absolutely indispensable to its global strategy. The U.S. now suffers from an airlift gap--and it 21. The fact that no current or planned strategic airlifter can operate on three-quarters of the airfields in Central A merica is a powerful argument in favor of developing a new tactical airlifter which can 10 must be closed. Yet the Air Force's proposed new'generation cargo plane, the C-17, and the Airlift Master Plan are not the way to proceed. while moving rapidly to b egin the development of a new generation short-range tactical airlifter TheAdministration should buy more C-5Bs instead of C-178 Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

Policy Analyst 11 I No. The Heritage Foundation 214 Massachusetts Avenue N.E. Washington, D.C; 20002 (202) 546-4400 Note: Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.


Kim Holmes

Executive Vice President