Mobility Boom

June 1, 2002

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Pentagon is dramatically increasing its investment in air mobility–expanding buys of transport airplanes, accelerating the replacement of tankers, and renewing ground infrastructure. The resurgence of support for air mobility is seen as both an answer to demands of wartime operations half a world away in Afghanistan and a concrete acknowledgment that all branches of the US military must move more rapidly in future conflicts.

After long and heated debate, planned procurement of C-17 airlifters has, with little fanfare, been increased by one-third, and there seems to be support for raising the bar even further. The Air Force has a program in place to evaluate a C-5 fleet life extension modification. Service C-130s will be modernized or displaced with the new C-130J. USAF’s aging aerial tankers likely will be replaced with new airplanes starting five years earlier than planned. En route infrastructure–everything from fuel tanks to cargo loaders–is being rehabilitated.

“All that seems to say we’re in better shape than we were five years ago,” said Gen. John W. Handy, Commander in Chief of Transportation Command and head of Air Mobility Command. As for the airlift force of five years from now, he added, “I feel very upbeat about it.”

In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Handy discussed the role played by the lift and tanker fleets in the war on terrorism and the new push to revitalize AMC’s most essential hardware.

C-17 Comes Through

Military operations in Afghanistan are being supported and resupplied almost exclusively by air. The bulk of what’s being moved is going by C-17, the only airlifter that is able to travel intercontinental distances with outsize cargo and land in the war zone on an unimproved dirt strip. These qualities, along with the C-17’s ability to back up and operate on a narrow ramp and maintain high mission capability rates, make it “the weapon system of choice” for Afghanistan, Handy said.

The C-17 played a key role in early days of the conflict. The aircraft began delivering air-dropped humanitarian rations to starving Afghans even as the air campaign to dislodge the Taliban got under way. Initial C-17 food drops were escorted by fighters until Taliban air defenses were neutralized. More than two million humanitarian daily rations had been delivered by mid-December.

The C-17 is “performing exquisitely well [at] all the things that we bragged about” during its development, said Handy. The Air Force had already contracted for 120 of the new cargo aircraft. Now, it has arranged with Boeing to acquire 60 more under a multiyear contract of about $9.2 billion. Thus, the C-17 fleet will number 180 aircraft by 2008.

Because the C-17 production capability is well along the learning curve, each of the 60 new models will cost an average of about $152 million, compared with a per-airplane average of $198 million apiece on the first 120. The new airplanes will also have additional fuel tanks for more range–an improvement already being added to units on the assembly line. Each new C-17 is being delivered about three months ahead of schedule.

“We’ve got 82 C-17s delivered right now, and we’re using about 46 to 48 a day on a routine basis,” Handy noted. “We have used, at times, every C-17 we own” because of the great demand for the aircraft.

To keep the airplanes moving, the Air Force has started flying its C-17s with three pilots on board. This practice has put additional strains on the pool of C-17-qualified pilots, but Handy said the aircrew issue at this point is not an “insurmountable” problem.

Handy observed that the C-17 has been called on to do so much that “we’re aging even our newest systems much faster” than had been planned or for which the Air Force has budgeted. Spare parts and flying hours on the aircraft fleet are being consumed at a rate greater than predicted.

“It’s going to be one of these ‘pay me now [or] pay me later’ dialogues,” Handy observed. “At some time in the future, we’ll have eaten up the precious flying hours we hoped to expend later on. … The other side of that coin is, that’s why we bought them. They’re there to be used.”

Good Shape, So Far

Operation Enduring Freedom is not a Major Theater War in lift terms, Handy said. In an MTW, he went on, “we would open up a lot of FOLs [Forward Operating Locations], we would dump a lot of resources into the theater, and so, it would dramatically tax the lift system.” That hasn’t happened in Afghanistan, he pointed out. No huge movements of troops and vehicles or helicopters, with all their support gear and personnel, deployed to many, widely dispersed bases has been required so far.

While mobility forces are busy, they have not had to slack off in other areas. Nor have they had to defer large amounts of maintenance and training. After both Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Allied Force in 1999, months of reconstitution were necessary to bring the force back up to par.

Handy said he’s not sure whether such extended downtime will be required after Enduring Freedom. This is true “predominantly,” he said, “because we don’t know how long this is going to last.” However, he added, “There will be a point in time where we’ll have to … take a breath and look at reconstitution.” This would apply chiefly to people, who cannot go indefinitely without a rest or proficiency training. When it comes to the airplanes, Handy said, “We’re taking care of [them] as we go. … We’ve not deferred any maintenance, and we’ve not deferred any depot work” on fleet aircraft since Enduring Freedom began.

“We can’t afford to,” he said. “We couldn’t kick the can.”

However, unabated, extended operation of the C-17 fleet could lead to a maintenance “bow wave or bathtub” in the future, Handy allowed.

Air Mobility Command people are working “a lot harder and longer than they traditionally would have done” and will need to take a breather at some point in the near future, Handy said. However, across the world, the troops have told him that they’re in this for the long haul and have not suffered any diminished morale. He is determined “to not abuse that high morale and enthusiasm to get the job done.”

The Pentagon is about to undertake yet another Mobility Requirements Study–the third in four years–to determine whether its calculus for identifying the required gross ability to move things and people is correct. This version will also take into account the way in which the fleet is now being used.

Handy noted that production of 180 C-17s will not provide enough airplanes to carry out a tail-for-tail replacement of the C-141, and even though each C-17’s volume and lifting ability is greater than the older aircraft, the same airplane can’t be in two places at once. For this reason, AMC has decided to postpone the retirement of the last 63 C-141s, to make more airlifters available in more places during the current operation.

The new MRS will explore this volume-vs.-tails issue and take into account events of Sept. 11 and afterward, as well as new political realities around the planet, to determine what the new benchmark should be. Senior Pentagon officials have said it likely will not be expressed in terms of MTWs at all.

“I think for sure it’ll change,” Handy asserted. “And I am convinced it will go up.”

Last year’s examination–known as Mobility Requirement Study 2005–found that USAF needs a minimum of 51.1 million ton-miles per day capability to be able to handle two MTWs and 54.5 million ton-miles per day of airlift to meet those and other requirements from special operations forces and to support noncombatant theaters.

To meet all airlift requirements, the United States would need to have airlift capability of 67 million ton-miles per day. (See “The Airlift Shortfall Deepens,” April 2001, p. 54.)

The new plan for 180 C-17s will allow Air Mobility Command to reach the 54.5 million ton-miles per day objective with four airplanes to spare. However, the other elements of the fleet also count against that level, and meeting it depends on bringing the C-5 up to a better standard of operating reliability. If the C-5 can’t contribute more, and more reliably, then USAF may have to buy even more C-17s to close the gap.

222 C-17s “Minimum”

The true requirement for C-17s is higher anyway. USAF needs “a minimum of 222” aircraft, Handy asserted. At this level, the Air Force could comfortably meet all requirements–the standing ton-mile-per-day requirement as well as the need to be able to operate in many places simultaneously.

Handy said the corporate Air Force and many in the Pentagon top leadership agree with the objective of 222 C-17s.

“I can assure you that ‘more than 180’ is certainly a well-known need of the Department of Defense,” he said.

When the C-17 program began in the 1980s, plans called for building 210 airplanes. As a result of the end of the Cold War and an anticipated letup in requirements, the figure was cut in 1990 to 120 airplanes. That letup never materialized, however. Instead, deployments increased substantially.

Handy said the new MRS will not take as long as the others to complete, inasmuch as the Pentagon already has in hand lots of fresh real-world data. Besides the information collected for MRS-05, the Pentagon will “fold in some of the lessons of Afghanistan, from the Philippines, from the continental United States missions, the C-130s, and … the tanker piece.” Defense leaders have not yet named a study leader or set the scope of its inquiry, so no deadline has been set.

The Air Force will evaluate a possible broad update to the C-5 fleet and reach a conclusion in time to make “an intelligent decision” about going beyond 180 C-17s before the line begins to close, Handy observed.

Despite an infusion of money for spare parts, Handy said the C-5 is still just “holding its own.” Earlier this year, the fleet turned in a quarterly mission capable rate under 60 percent. Over the next few years, a Re-engining and Reliability Program for the C-5 will be developed to see if the type can be improved sufficiently to warrant a fleetwide upgrade.

Originally envisioned for the C-5B only–which are about 14 years on average younger than the A models–the upgrade may now be applied to a mix of A and B models, depending on how many hours are on each airframe, how physically stressed they are, and which ones have traditionally been less problem-prone.

Some have “more wear and tear than others,” Handy explained.

The upgrade will certainly improve the performance of the two B models and one A model that will be modified, but Handy said the determining factor in going ahead with a fleet mod will be the results of a reliability, maintainability, and availability analysis in 2007.

“We will test them for a year, and the metric that’s long been established is a minimum of 85 percent … mission capable rate,” he explained. The requirements statement also calls for a utilization rate of 11 hours per day. If the modified C-5s can meet or exceed those minimums, the upgrade will proceed.

However, “it’s conceivable that none of this work does us any good at all,” he added. “We could go through all these studies and testing to find out we’ve improved it, but not enough to spend the money to modify the rest of the fleet.”

C-17 Option

For this reason, he went on, it’s important to “keep our options open” with regard to the C-17. The buy of 180 C-17s will dovetail nicely with the results of the C-5 RERP. If the C-5 upgrade doesn’t pan out, production of C-17s, which will be winding down at that point, can be extended again.

Given the fast pace of C-17 deliveries–the Air Force wants a 15-per-year delivery schedule–there is a competitive push on Lockheed Martin to make the C-5 upgrade financially and operationally attractive. “It certainly puts some heat on the C-5 program as to how quickly we can get some of the initial analysis out of the way, to decide,” Handy said.

Perhaps the most urgently needed–and most controversial–mobility program is the effort to revitalize aerial refuelers.

Operations in Afghanistan required extraordinary and sustained use of the tanker fleet to boost the Navy’s carrier-based fighters to make the seven-hour trips from the Arabian Sea to and from their targets. Tankers also made possible the air bridge of supplies into the region and fueled the bombers coming into the theater from the US and Diego Garcia. The operation would not have been possible without the constant and comprehensive use of tankers.

Even as this extraordinary effort was unfolding, a full quarter of the KC-135 tanker fleet could be found in the depots, awaiting maintenance. This is a process which, in the last few years, has begun to consume more than 400 days–the result of the growing problem with corrosion on the 40-year-old aircraft. In April, the active duty Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command had a total of 546 KC-135s. Of that number, 131 were in depot maintenance.

In April, USAF Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he’s not overly concerned about the high percentage of tankers backed up in depot maintenance. While he acknowledged that corrosion has become a greater-than-expected problem, he also noted that the tanker fleet has received steady investments in avionics updates and that the size of the available force is adequate to handle the demands of Enduring Freedom for now.

“We’ll work our way through that,” he said.

Can They Last

Handy said the Air Force has for some time planned to begin replacing the oldest KC-135s with a KC-X, beginning in roughly the 2012-15 time frame. Long-standing AMC plans call for acquiring 276 KC-Xs between 2012 and 2024, and the Air Force has earmarked $3 billion for KC-X in its 2005-09 plan. However, a big question, Handy noted, has always been “can you keep [the KC-135Es] alive” that long? He explained that, like an old car, the KC-135Es cost more and more to fix, spare parts are harder to get, and they spend an inordinate amount of time in the shop.

The Air Force would like to retire the older KC-135Es outright. It would then move the KC-135Rs–which received a re-engining modification and other updates over the last 15 years or so–into Guard and Reserve units. The KC-135Rs would in turn be replaced in active units with a new tanker, derived from an off-the-shelf commercial airliner.

With the downturn in airline orders after Sept. 11, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche began to explore the possibility of the Air Force leasing some “white tail” 767s–airplanes in production for which orders were canceled–from Boeing to be used as tankers. Congress granted the Air Force permission to negotiate a lease arrangement in its Fiscal 2002 defense budget appropriation.

“We said maybe there’s a way, just as years ago some of our predecessors picked up DC-10s and made them KC-10s,” Roche explained to the House Armed Services Committee in March. “Is there some way we could help us and also do some other good at the same time?”

The Air Force would pursue such a scheme if it would be cheaper and faster to get new tankers than to spend money fixing and upgrading 130 KC-135Es over the same period, Roche told the House panel.

A lease deal would bring new tankers into the force beginning in 2005, a full 10 years sooner than would be the case if the Air Force stayed with its current plan. If a lease would not be cost-effective, a purchase might be pursued, but USAF could not get the aircraft until 2008 at the earliest.

The Air Force requested information from Boeing and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. on what kind of tankers they could provide. Further discussions with EADS were ruled out, though, because the company has no experience building tankers. USAF encouraged EADS to develop a tanker for future competition, but began immediate negotiations with Boeing.

Roche told the House committee that refurbishment of the KC-135s will entail basic maintenance and operating costs of more than $2.5 billion, while the oldest KC-135Es will need another $2 billion in modifications to comply with new international air traffic hardware and communications requirements. Neither investment would push the KC-135 service lives past 2012.

Two Plans

An outright buy is “Plan A,” Roche said; the leasing scheme is “Plan B,” but is being vigorously studied because the price tag of either approach is daunting: in excess of $20 billion. A “vanilla” civilian 767 off Boeing’s line, without military-specific hardware or refueling gear, costs between $150 million to $225 million, depending on equipment, a Boeing spokesman said.

Handy said he favors a lease “if the numbers are good for the taxpayer and the Department of Defense.”

However, “if we can’t pull off a lease option … then we ought to look at a purchase option, and we’ve got some money laid into the budget to start that piece of it.” He reported that the goal was to get the options laid out so funding could be put in the 2004 Program Objective Memorandum, or five-year plan, but that the time lines might be too short to accomplish that.

“Certainly by ’05, we should have some pretty conclusive numbers to make a decision,” Handy predicted.

Last year’s Pentagon “Transformation Study” suggested a goal that the American military be able to take control of a military situation anywhere in the world within 24 hours and win an MTW in 30 days. Toward that end, the services recognized they would have to deploy much faster. The Army, for example, has set a new requirement of being able to move a brigade in 96 hours.

Handy said neither the existing airlift fleet nor that which is planned would be able to accommodate all such schemes. However, regional Commanders in Chief will decide on the flow of people and equipment, and their plans may not resemble those of the services.

Meeting all the service deployment plans in the time they postulate would be “virtually impossible, with today’s fleet size,” Handy said flatly. “There’s a finite amount of lift.”

However, he went on, “The supported CINC … is the person who validates the Time-Phased Force Deployment Data, the TPFDD, on a sequence that he or she wants to have [people and materiel] arrive in the theater.

“As services, we can all say we want an AEF [Aerospace Expeditionary Force] … or an Army component in a certain amount of time, and that’s appropriate for the services to [set] those readiness goals. But ultimately, it’s the warfighter who calls forward those forces, in some orderly fashion. And quite often, you’ll see that they don’t want them in that sequence or that fast or that slow.”

Handy said he is aware of and “wholeheartedly” supports the Army’s push to “repackage” its forces to be lighter, leaner, and more lethal, but neither AMC nor TRANSCOM has made any such demands of the Army. Rather, the Army is trying to slim down on its own, and Handy noted with approval that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki has mandated that all newly developed systems be able to fit in “a C-130-sized module.”

Although the C-17 has taken on some of the intratheater lift mission traditionally performed by the C-130, Handy said there’s no reason to assume the C-130 is no longer necessary.

About 30 Hercules transports are serving in Afghanistan in their traditional role, moving troops and materiel to the far-flung outposts of Enduring Freedom, Handy said. It has also taken on a new and urgent role domestically, standing by in many locations to bring emergency crews or military support to cities struck with a major disaster, such as a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

“Our plans are still to replace about 168 of the oldest C-130s that we have in the fleet,” Handy reported. These oldest airplanes will be replaced with C-130Js at a modest rate. Simultaneously, C-130s of more recent vintage–H models, mostly–will be updated with new navigation systems, cockpits, and structural improvements to a C-130X configuration. The result will be a fully modernized tactical airlift capacity by 2015 or so.

Handy said TRANSCOM has been pleased with the Defense Logistics Agency’s efforts to upgrade fuel tanks and other facilities at en route bases, which were beginning to seriously deteriorate in the last few years.

“There’s a lot of effort going there,” he said, “a lot of resources going into en route infrastructure.”

He also said AMC is making bigger investments in “our non-fixed, that is deployable, en route infrastructure,” such as large fuel bladders, cargo-handling gear, and other bare-base items. A more formidable effort in this regard is due to a new emphasis on Air Force task forces, one of which is the Global Mobility Task Force, to improve USAF’s expeditionary capabilities.

The Air Force is more than halfway through an effort to replace its 376 obsolete 40,000-pound loaders with the modern Tunner aircraft loading/unloading vehicle, having accepted 187 units of a planned 318.

About 147 of a planned 206 wide-body elevator loaders have also been delivered, and all planned loading vehicles are now fully funded.

Despite the new investments, there is still a lot of old metal flying cargo and people for the Air Force. Handy said the C-17 extension will only begin to “drive down the age of the airlift fleet” in about 2007, when the current buy winds down. The C-17, though, is “contributing dramatically” to AMC’s ability to carry out operations it really couldn’t do before, “and we ought to certainly be bold enough to talk about that.”