The Mobility Edge

Aug. 1, 2003

In Gulf War II, USAF’s air mobility forces put on a superb performance. Airlifters carried out a swift buildup of US power in the theater—108,000 tons of cargo and thousands of troops in mere months. Day and night, they supplied hard-charging US units and also repositioned special forces on a moment’s notice. When Turkey barred US ground operations from its soil, airlifters dropped paratroopers, vehicles, and supplies into Iraq, creating a front where none existed. C-17s even hauled fuel to isolated ground units.

A tanker “bridge” stretched 9,000 miles from the US through Europe and Southwest Asia to the Indian Ocean. It, as well as theater-based tankers, made possible the strike missions flown by aircraft of all services. Tankers allowed bombers to fly nonstop from US bases to Iraqi targets.

In a way, USAF’s air mobility team was just carrying on a tradition. Its record of success is long. The 1948-49 Berlin Airlift thwarted Soviet aggression in Europe.

In Vietnam, airlift helped break the siege at Khe Sanh. Military Airlift Command resupplied Israel at a critical moment in the 1973 Mideast War. In Gulf War I, USAF staged the equivalent of one Berlin Airlift every six weeks. As for Operation Enduring Freedom, everything that went into or out of Afghanistan went by airlift, and every combat aircraft was dependent on tankers to reach a target.

As Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of US European Command, once noted, “That’s the big difference between us and other countries; we can get anywhere we need rapidly.”

Air mobility has had a sensational run and has come to symbolize US superpower status. It has been so good, for so long, that some may have forgotten that such capability is not a birthright but something that must be built, renewed, and protected.

It has limitations. In Iraq, the mobility force was pressed to the max, with Air Mobility Command averaging nearly 500 airlift and tanker missions each day, not including those flown by transports and tankers temporarily placed under US Central Command. In March, the first month of the war, 94 percent of all C-5s and 91 percent of all C-17s were committed to worldwide operations.

Despite such high utilization rates, there simply wasn’t sufficient lift for the war and the needs of other theaters. Gen. John W. Handy, the commander of US Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command, said on June 25 that he made six attempts to meet all the demands of the war plan shaped by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of Central Command. He could not do it, and he and Franks had to “negotiate” the use of lift and aerial refueling.

There is little doubt the transportation system could not have handled another major crisis and smaller demands in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Fresh appreciation of this reality has sparked calls for a new look at the mobility requirement. A landmark 1981 study concluded the US needed 66 million ton-miles per day of airlift capacity. A post-Cold War review in 1992 lowered the figure to 57 mtm/d. In 1995, a third study dropped the goal again—to 49 mtm/d. The most recent analysis, in 2001, pushed the number back up to 54.5 mtm/d.

USAF’s actual capability falls well short of this requirement. Present wartime capability comes in at 47.3 mtm/d, 13 percent less than the minimum stated need.

Moreover, the true requirement surely has risen. Today’s smaller force must be able to move swiftly and over long distances. Also, the Global War on Terror, which Handy said has brought “dramatic stress across the mobility system,” has quickened the pace of air mobility operations at home and overseas. In Handy’s view, a new requirements study is very much in order. “We want it as soon as possible,” he said.

One reason is uncertainty about the ultimate size of the C-17 fleet. The Air Force has approval to buy 180 advanced lifters, but Handy said USAF needs 222 C-17s, at least, just to meet the old 2001 goal. And, the C-17 line is winding down; if USAF is to buy more, it will have to decide to do so within the next year.

Another worry is the tanker fleet. It is based on 544 KC-135s (average age 43 years), many of which are shot through with corrosion and require huge amounts of expensive maintenance. Handy reported that, with planned budgets, tanker recapitalization would drag on for 40 years, meaning USAF would one day be flying 80-year-old KC-135s. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Handy, but “that is the reality we face.”

DOD has given the Air Force a green light to lease 100 KC-767 refuelers, modified 767 commercial jets, for $16 billion. Handy calls the 767s a “near-term solution to a long-term challenge,” requiring considerably more than 100 aircraft.

No one seriously believes that the United States can accept reduced air mobility. Even less do they believe current and planned programs will sustain today’s capability. Many would like to see more aggressive procurement.

Political support is uncertain. Some argue that the nation can get by with prudent upgrades and workarounds, without spending huge amounts. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claims the KC-135 could be maintained with a low-cost re-engining program. How that would remedy the corrosion problem, McCain does not say.

Clearly, the US faces a major challenge. The Pentagon needs to get on with the new requirement study and find out how many airplanes it really needs. After that, it should get busy acquiring them—fast. A military that runs on airlift can’t afford to run short.