Rising Risk in Air Mobility

March 1, 2006

Having dragged on for years, the Pentagon’s deepest-ever review of military mobility has ended with a wholly unanticipated conclusion.

It is that the United States military, far from suffering a shortage of lift, actually possesses enough air, sea, and surface transport to meet its current and future needs.

With that finding, the Mobility Capabilities Study turned aside years of warnings about a serious shortage of airlift.

The fundamental MCS finding likely spells the end of the line for production of the Air Force’s C-17 airlifter and a shift toward the outsourcing to US commercial carriers much of the armed forces’ transport activities. However, the analysis also underscored the need to act as soon as possible to replace at least some of the Air Force’s aged aerial tankers, most of which date to the Eisenhower era.

The MCS, nearly five years in the making, was carried out by members of the Joint Staff with little input from the armed services.

Its basic conclusion surprised many, because the Global War on Terrorism has placed such obvious stress and strain on the nation’s mobility assets, especially airlift.

Mobility forces, note officials, have been operating at near-peak capacity almost since the opening of Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001. The nation’s mobility leaders have said—frequently and consistently—that the nation needs more airlift capability to meet existing demand, let alone any new need.

An earlier study—completed in 2000 and released in January 2001, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, obviously did not factor into its conclusions all of the new requirements generated by combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Yet even that outdated study concluded that the United States had a serious shortage of lift.

The new realities include sharply higher operating tempo plus a host of strategy-driven changes, such as stepped-up use of fast-moving special operations forces, increased emphasis on expeditionary operations, expanded “home basing” of US forces, and pressure for humanitarian responses in times of disaster.

What MCS Left Out

Not all of those factors were counted in the new study.

Nor was the Army’s new organizational strategy, in which that service is re-orienting itself toward smaller forces with lighter equipment, intended to get to the action more swiftly via airlift. (See “Army Change, Air Force Change,” p. 36.)

While the MCS was supposed to have been comprehensive, the Pentagon left out so many critical factors that it already has begun work on a follow-up study, called MCS-06.

The Pentagon had claimed that it would make the final MCS report available to the public, with release originally scheduled for mid-December. However, it was stamped “classified” by DOD, without explanation. Thus, any knowledge about its main findings has emerged unofficially from Congressional sources and the public comments of senior defense officials.

In briefings to members of Congress, Pentagon officials noted that the MCS was not intended to produce firm procurement recommendations. Those were to result from the Quadrennial Defense Review, which translated the MCS findings into action items. These include moves to:

  • Terminate the C-17 program with the 180th aircraft.
  • Retain C-17 tooling for possible resurrection in the event the air mobility program runs into problems.
  • Pursue development of C-5 reliability improvements with an eye toward extending its service life by 25 years.
  • Buy up to a total of 79 C-130Js for intratheater airlift.
  • Begin development of a new hybrid tanker-airlifter able to perform both refueling and transport operations.
  • Develop a new small cargo aircraft suitable for resupply of forces ashore and ground forces served only by small, austere landing strips.
  • Enhance the Civil Reserve Air Fleet by adding more guaranteed work and financial enticements to promote and retain participation by the airlines.
  • Use more pre-positioning of war stocks on land and at sea.
  • Invest in the development and purchase of new, fast sealift ships.

In one controversial determination, the MCS concluded that the US already had achieved airlift capabilities specified in the previous 2001 study. That analysis, called the Mobility Requirements Study 2005 (because it was looking out to needs in that year), concluded that the US required airlift capacity of 54.5 million ton miles per day, but it could generate only 49.7 MTM/D. (See “The Airlift Shortfall Deepens,” April 2001, p. 54.)

The MRS-05 suggested a range of means to close the 10 percent gap. One was to increase the purchase of C-17s from the then-planned 120 to 180. That step was, in fact, taken.

Handy’s Warning

Since the MRS-05, however, the now retired commander of US Transportation Command and USAF’s Air Mobility Command, Gen. John W. Handy, had said repeatedly that the increased operating tempo of the war on terror had pushed his estimate of the need to 222 C-17s or more.

In 2004, AMC estimated that its requirement had actually crested to more than 60 MTM/D. (See “The Airlift Gap,” October 2004, p. 34.)

The MCS rebutted those figures. In fact, after using the MTM/D as the yardstick for measuring capability for more than 45 years, the Pentagon now downplays it as a useful metric, claiming the measurement is not a reasonable way to gauge lift capability. Defense leaders said predictions made under the MTM/D metric consistently disagreed with actual needs and results and that investments will be made in better modeling of lift requirements.

The MCS concluded that the levels requested in the MRS-05, having been achieved, are adequate for day-to-day operations and, in concert with other “surge” capabilities such as the CRAF, ought to be good enough in the long run. It considers the current surge operations supporting two theaters of war as a temporary situation.

In its judgment that the existing fleet will suffice, the Pentagon gave great weight to several factors. Example: DOD notes that modern equipment requires fewer personnel to maintain and fewer spares and pieces of repair equipment to fix, the result being a reduced overall need for lift. An F-22 squadron, for example, needs about half as many C-17s as an F-15 squadron needs to deploy overseas.

In addition, the logistics system has made dramatic improvements in developing precise knowledge of the location of an item, where it needs to go, and how it travels from point of origin to destination. This has led to a large reduction in the amount of materiel that must be moved.

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, head of US Transportation Command, explained to reporters in December that, in the first Gulf War, the US moved “mountains” of materiel to the Middle East and that much of it was never used and had to be shipped back.

“The solutions were brute force,” Schwartz noted. “We shipped stuff just because it seemed like the right thing to do.” Large amounts of materiel were picked up, transported, and piled up in the combat theater with little knowledge of what was in these piles or where items needed to go, leading, Schwartz said, to lots of duplication.

From Mountains to Mounds

Now, he said, “we’re no longer talking about mountains of supply; we’re talking about mounds.” Thanks to commercial techniques such as use of computers and bar codes, he said, “we have … exquisite insight into what’s in those mounds, who it belongs to, and what is the end item.”

Emulating big-box retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, that have nearly perfected the automated tracking, ordering, and delivery of goods, gives Schwartz “confidence” that the US “can operate in a different way than we have in the past, and with somewhat less [safety] margin, not zero margin.”

In other words, the US could make do with fewer assets, but not so few that the lack begins to pose a danger.

Other factors suggested lift requirements could be lowered, said officials. These include a decision giving TRANSCOM total “ownership” of the logistics process, removing service middlemen, and reducing the steps required in any resupply mission. In addition, the Pentagon is moving to reduce the lift burden by unlinking units and their equipment, rotating personnel in and out of a forward theater, but leaving their equipment in place. Such moves allow most of a redeployment to be accomplished by commercial passenger carriers, rather than large “organic” airlifters.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne said in December that the MCS examined “every available mobility asset” and “scored it for the likelihood of usage.” After calculating airlift along with those other assets—commercial air, commercial and naval sealift, self-deployment capabilities, and so forth—the Pentagon was “not uncomfortable” with its current lift capability.

“It became really very obvious that we had an overage—a margin—available,” Wynne maintained.

At the same Pentagon press conference, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, said it was clear that, historically and under the scenarios examined, the Army would not move mainly by air in the future.

“You move an army by surface,” Moseley said, declaring that it is not efficient to move “thousands of heavy pieces of armor” by air alone.

Wynne discounted the idea that the Army actually means to move the bulk of its forces by air. “The Army is right to move to more agility,” he said. “I do think, though, that it’s a tactical move. I think when you’re talking about strategic lift, you’re going to be moving by sea.”

Moseley observed that the Air Force had moved “a dozen M1 tanks by C-17” along with troops to the north of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom and would stand ready to accomplish a similar, limited maneuver in the future, but the Air Force should not be considered the main mode of transportation for a wartime Army.

The C-5 Risk

The MCS conclusions take as given many things that are still uncertain. It assumed, for example, that a plan to upgrade the C-5 Galaxy fleet with new engines and other reliability improvements will actually pan out. The benchmark is that the C-5 must achieve an availability rate of better than 75 percent; more availability translates to more “airlifter equivalents.” A development and test program is under way, but it won’t be known if the program will work until 2008—well after the C-17 line would close under QDR decisions.

“A key assumption in the study … for all of this is that the C-5 delivers,” Schwartz said, “and there is some risk in the current strategy until we have the answer to that question.”

To reduce the risk, Schwartz said, the Pentagon will consider a variety of hedges. One is to mothball the C-17 line or store the tooling so the Air Force could put the Globemaster III back into production should the C-5 upgrade come a cropper. Such a plan is not without cost; Schwartz didn’t have definitive numbers, but said storing the tooling would cost upward of several hundred million dollars.

C-5 assumptions include thoroughly funding the “program of record” for avionics and reliability upgrades, Schwartz said. He warned, “If that were not the case, if there was backsliding on that, … my position [on C-17 termination] would not likely be the same.”

Still, he expected that the C-5, despite its age and size, can be brought up to snuff and last the required period of time. Such a program worked very well for the KC-135R conversion, he said. “If we do as well with the C-5,” said Schwartz, “we’ll be in good shape. … I have to believe that this is within the state of the art of the American aerospace industry.”

Further MCS assumptions were that:

  • DOD will provide all required funding for overseas basing, infrastructure, and pre-positioned stocks.
  • Pentagon “transformation” reforms—intended to increase quality and effectiveness while decreasing a force’s “footprint”—will bear fruit.
  • Host nations and allies will honor existing agreements and that the global strategic situation doesn’t change dramatically.

Part of the pre-positioning assumptions include going ahead with some form of “Sea Basing,” a naval concept that calls for using offshore platforms as operating bases in a crisis.

Another assumption is that, even with two overlapping major theater wars, there won’t be more than about two to three weeks of peak demand that would tax the airlift system to its limit. Such was the case in wars in the Balkans in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003.

Schwartz contended that additional purchases of C-17 would pose a direct threat to modernization of the Air Force’s tanker fleet. If he had the chance, he’d buy both, he said, but, faced with the need to make a choice, “I will recommend promptly moving into a multimission tanker [program] and accepting, reluctantly, curtailment of C-17 acquisition at 180.”

The reason, he said, is that more C-17s would create an organic capability the Air Force would be obligated to use to give the taxpayer a return on investment. Such a move would consume funds and create capability that would “take cargo away from those commercial operators” that the Pentagon wants to keep in the system as “commercial augmentation.”

More business for private carriers is needed as an inducement to keep oversize cargo aircraft in the CRAF, Schwartz explained. Otherwise, carriers will go “naturally to more efficient airplanes—narrower body airplanes, machines which are perhaps less accommodating [of] cargo”—and officials lose the ability to call up the CRAF capability “on which we rely.”

Two-Way Tankers

Schwartz said a new tanker capable of swinging between the roles of aerial refueling and hauling pallets of cargo would give him enough flexibility to handle an unanticipated problem, without investing too much either in a government fleet or relying too much on civil contractors.

He wants to find the right “tension between commercial and organic, and hitting what I call the ‘sweet spot.’?”

Schwartz said he is mindful that, especially early in a conflict, there is simultaneous high demand for both tankers and airlifters and that one airplane can’t usually do both jobs at once. However, he insisted that his command is skilled at optimizing its assets and using them efficiently.

“More flexibility is always better than less,” he maintained.

“There are those whose only metric is capacity. And if you look at that metric, you come to one conclusion. If you look at the metric of reliability and versatility, you might come to a different conclusion. And, in fact, I do.”

Moseley said that the tanker-cargo combo also is a good tool to have because it sometimes has enough extra capacity to eliminate the need for more aircraft. He gave as an example the KC-10, which is “very useful in moving squadrons of fighters, because you can put a spare engine in there, plus your crew chiefs. You can put a deployable maintenance package on there,” as well as offload fuel for the deploying squadron en route.

Schwartz said that while the Air Force likely will not have to replace all 500 of its KC-135s, there is dwindling reason to keep the oldest of the type, the 45-year-old KC-135Es that are saddled with safety restrictions and are in the worst physical shape. They should not be upgraded to get more years of life out of them, Schwartz said.

“I don’t think you can make the economic business case that modifying the E models makes more sense” than obtaining a multimission tanker, he said. Asked when the tanker program should be launched, Schwartz said flatly, “I think we need to get started without delay, … right now. Get on with it.”

Wynne said he’s convinced the requirement for the new combi-tanker will be “more than 100, but I have a feeling it’s going to be far less than 500.”

Asked why it would make sense that, since adding a two-theater war, the mobility requirement has not grown compared to when MRS-05 was prepared, Schwartz said to look at real-world scenarios.

Airlift “Elasticity”

“Look at what we did during the hurricanes,” he noted. “We swung a healthy piece of the force to the Gulf Coast and yet maintained our ability to operate and support [commanders in Iraq] with virtually no impact. Now, again, this is not just using military aircraft, this was using all the assets at our disposal.”

There is, Schwartz said, even at high operating tempo, “some elasticity in this system.”

He cited as an example the movement of armor upgrade kits to Southwest Asia by air “because the requirement was to modify vehicles as quickly as possible.” However, after so many kits had been deployed that the modification team could continue at maximum rate until more could arrive by sea, “we went to sealift … because operating by sea is 10 to 20 times less expensive than by air.”

Schwartz declined to say what a new Light Cargo Aircraft would be, saying only that the niche exists and that it’s too early to define it. Such a machine would not only supply troops far afield, but also serve as the short-range transport connecting a sea base with shore. As such, he said, it could be anything from a fixed-wing aircraft to a helicopter to a tilt-rotor.

Last August, the Pentagon completed its overseas basing strategy, which called for the return to the continental US of some 70,000 troops now deployed overseas, in addition to the 50,000 that have returned in the last 10 years. Asked if this move would increase the need for lift, Schwartz said it would not.

“If you leave equipment in place, and you simply rotate the troops with personal equipment, … I would envision that being done largely by commercial capability,” Schwartz asserted. Deciding to move the heavy equipment as well means “the sustaining requirement would probably go up.”

Another reason that the MCS decided the lift fleet is adequate is an assumption that the operating tempo of the overall force will decline, that today’s high operating tempo will eventually subside.

Asked why he believes this to be the case, Schwartz said the assertion “that we’re busier than we were in the ’90s is absolutely true. And that’s unlikely to change.”

However, “the surge level of activity” associated with Iraq “is likely to subside over time. And I think that’s because it is unlikely that we’ll have 20 brigades in the [area of operations] indefinitely.” Schwartz said he sees this not as optimism but pragmatism.

Every commander, he said, wants some “management reserve,” but right now, “the ground forces, clearly, are more stressed … than some of the other pieces of the force,” and “we need balance in the force.”

Wynne said it’s not necessary to keep the C-17 in production to maintain a critical defense industrial base.

Unlike the fighter base, which is militarily unique and has no civilian counterpart, Boeing, the maker of the C-17, “actually has large airplanes” in their current product lineup. “They have the engineering talent to go back” and design new cargo aircraft or update the C-17, if the nation should demand it, and those skills won’t atrophy.

Schwartz added, “It’s not rocket science.” The conclusion of the MCS leaves the mobility issue far from settled, hence the push for an MCS-06. Congress is performing its own version of the QDR, with an eye toward maintaining capabilities that provide the US with unique advantages. (See “Washington Watch Hunter’s QDR Alternative,” November 2005, p. 12.)

The Pentagon’s QDR itself will be the subject of extensive hearings and scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Last fall, a nonbinding resolution, supported by more than 80 Senators, called for the Defense Department to go beyond production of 180 C-17s.

The C-5 upgrade is still in development, its success still uncertain.

The Air Force, aiming for a combination tanker-airlifter, also will have to prepare a new tanker analysis of alternatives to divine what kind of capability it wants and can afford.

All of these factors should keep the issue of mobility risk uppermost in the minds of military officials for some years.