Air Mobility in the Doldrums

Aug. 1, 2005

The problem of aging aircraft is taking a bite out of America’s lift capability. Airplanes are grounded—with more to come—and each time it happens, mobility forces must scramble to find more work-arounds to meet the airlift needs of a nation at war. The problem of old airplanes is beginning to limit military options, and there is no prospect of a quick solution. Things will get worse before they get better.

“I would hope we never have to fail to make the point,” said Gen. John W. Handy, the commander of US Transportation Command and USAF’s Air Mobility Command. However, Handy has had to remove aircraft from flying status because of age problems that are not easily or cheaply fixed, and he finds it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of the war effort.

The issue of recapitalizing the mobility fleet comes to a head this summer, as the Joint Staff at the Pentagon moves to release a long-delayed Mobility Capability Study. The study updates one that came out just before Sept. 11, 2001, and became instantly obsolete. That one said the US in 2001 already had a severe shortage of airlift, even before going into the war on terror. Now, two airlift-intensive military campaigns later and in the midst of a herculean sustainment effort, the airplanes are four years older, in heavier use, and little has been done to turn things around.

In a recent interview, Handy, who retires in October after a 39-year career spent mostly in the airlift world, gave a snapshot view of how TRANSCOM and AMC are coping with high demands and diminishing assets. He also offered his views on what he hopes the MCS will—and will not—say about the future of lift.

Neither TRANSCOM nor AMC are involved in developing the mobility study.

Handy said his role has been merely to provide data when asked and observe the process from a distance. However, he’s uneasy about the potential conclusions of the MCS. Specifically, he’s worried that the Joint Staff will decide that, in a surge situation, much more can be done with nonorganic capabilities—whether they be aircraft or people.

Handy said he would be concerned if the report concludes there should be greater reliance on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

Keep “Reserve” in CRAF

CRAF is a program under which civilian airlines and air cargo companies volunteer their aircraft for wartime “call-up” to support a military deployment. CRAF has only been activated a couple of times since its inception and should not be confused with the routine hiring of commercial carriers to move military cargo and people, something that happens virtually every day.

“We probably get as much today as we’re ever going to be able to get out of our commercial endeavors,” Handy asserted.

His concern is that a decision to rely routinely on CRAF call-ups—rather than to invest in organic capabilities—will discourage companies from participating at all.

“If you had … routine activation of the CRAF to get the job done, how could those business people plan a commercial business?… If we activate them, they lose the routes, potentially, to competitors” that either do not participate or are not called in the first stages of CRAF.

Civilian operators “have committed all they can possibly commit, and we should exercise that CRAF activation very, very judiciously,” Handy maintained. CRAF, he believes, should be held in a true reserve, for times of extreme national need. A similar program exists for sealift carriers, and those participants face the same dangers if they, too, are obliged routinely to fill the gaps in organic lift capability.

The Bush Administration has also made liberal use of the Guard and Reserve in meeting manpower requirements, but Handy is worried that this reliance, too, poses risks.

“You’ve got to be careful that you don’t assume” that authority to call up the Guard and Reserve in a future conflict is “going to be automatic,” Handy noted. “There are many, many scenarios that I’ve been involved in, over my … 39 years in this business, that we might have liked to mobilize the Guard and Reserve, but it wasn’t possible, for a whole lot of other reasons.” He cautioned that the Joint Staff should be wary of assuming the reserve forces will be activated early in a crisis, because “my experience says that doesn’t happen.”

Handy asserted that “when you strip away some of these assumptions—or these desires—about early mobilization or CRAF activation, you have to realize that you have to have some distinct, organic capability—air, land, or sea—and it has to be by active duty people with the right, modern weapon systems to do the country’s bidding.”

The reserve issue in particular is in high profile right now, because AMC’s mobilization authority will run out in December, and many reservists now bearing some of the crushing mobility load will go home.

“There are some units that might go into their second year; that’ll get us into 2006,” Handy said. However, there must be some reduction in commitments to give the reserve force time to rest and reconstitute.

There has been some abatement in operating tempo, Handy said, despite the near-constant need to deploy and redeploy troops throughout Southwest Asia, all the while not missing a beat on the regular, “peacetime” commitments to other regions.

Part of the reduction stems from practice.

“We have achieved efficiencies … at TRANSCOM,” Handy said, that have flowed from lessons learned “into processes improved and documented.” TRANSCOM also reaped benefits when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld assigned “distribution process ownership” to TRANSCOM, enabling the command to decide how it will move needed gear and supplies from “factory to foxhole,” Handy reported. Cutting out middlemen in the form of multiservice logistical bureaucracies has not only sped up the process but saved hundreds of millions of dollars, a figure that is “auditable,” Handy said at an Air Force Association symposium in February.

At the same time, the military services are now well practiced with repeated deployments, Handy noted.

“They’re current and qualified. … They’ve learned their lessons. … They’ve documented their lessons, and those lessons are in their tactics, techniques, and procedures today, so that the whole system has become more efficient.”

A Limit to Efficiency

While all this has allowed TRANSCOM to do more, with fewer assets, there’s no reason to assume that such improvements will continue indefinitely. Handy said that TRANSCOM and AMC have achieved “amazing efficiencies,” leading some to think there is no need for more. In fact, senior Air Force officials said the MCS had been sent back for rework because the Joint Staff questioned the way airlift requirements traditionally are expressed—which is in millions of ton miles per day.

“If that’s not the metric you want to use, fine, but give me some other metric that’s relevant,” a senior USAF official commented. By early summer, there was still disagreement about how requirements should be measured.

Senior USAF officials suggested that the Office of the Secretary of Defense wanted to discard the million ton miles/day metric because they are unwilling to spend the money necessary to fulfill the requirement.

“If you don’t have a number you have to meet, you can’t be accused of not meeting it,” said one.

Since February, Handy has ordered the grounding of 37 C-130Es discovered to have severe cracking in main structural members. The 45-year-old aircraft are no longer flyable. The critical center wing boxes, which hold the aircraft together and bear much of the dynamic load, have reached the end of their planned service lives. Still, they had been kept in service because of the demands of the war. Some had to be pulled out of workhorse duty in Iraq, to be replaced with less geriatric models. Seven of the grounded C-130Es were retired by early June.

Another 57 C-130s, a mix of Es and early H models, were restricted because they are “approaching the point where they may end up being grounded, too,” Handy said.

These aircraft are limited to flying passengers or light cargo loads, but have to avoid stressful conditions such as high speeds, violent maneuvers, and turbulence. Such an injunction is almost ludicrous, Handy has noted, as turbulence can rarely be seen and avoided.

Continuing to press on with such debilitated equipment can have potentially disastrous consequences.

“A lot of people recall the C-130 that folded its wings” on a fire-fighting mission in California in 2002, Handy noted. “That’s the dramatic picture we have in our minds, that if these things fail, that’s the outcome.”

The aged civilian aircraft—which had received certified maintenance to the wing box—was on a routine maneuver, dropping fire retardant, when its wings snapped off and it crashed, killing three crew members.

To get the 30 grounded C-130s flying again would cost $270 million; fixing all 87 that are affected by the wing box problem would cost $783 million. Air Mobility Command does not have the funds.

The C-130s are not the only capability loss issue. Handy also had to take 29 KC-135E tankers off flying status because of corrosion problems in the engine struts. To give each airplane a temporary fix would cost “several hundred thousand dollars,” Handy said. A permanent fix would cost $4.5 million per airplane, or $126 million total—another sum AMC doesn’t happen to have on hand. The quandary is whether to spend that money on aircraft that have already served 45 years and whose true life expectancy is “unknowable,” Handy asserted.

These tanker decisions will have to wait for yet another long-delayed study on aerial tanker alternatives. It was to be completed by November 2004, but it was still in revision this summer.

Handy said he would “vote” not to spend substantial money on an airplane that old. He said he’s “anxious” to see the tanker alternatives analysis so that AMC can begin making plans.

The Air Force wanted to retire 41 KC-135Es, including the 27 with the strut problems, this year. However, Congress enjoined the Air Force from retiring any tankers until it completes the tanker alternatives study and decides how to proceed. If Congress doesn’t renew the injunction this year, the Air Force probably will simply retire the afflicted KC-135Es in 2006.

With the 29 KC-135Es out of action, AMC has begun reshuffling its tanker assets and personnel to minimize the impact of the loss.

“We’re replacing those E models in the Guard and Reserve—and that’s where they all are—with R model aircraft out of the active component. And we’re retaining the manpower in the active units and increasing the manpower in the reserve components,” Handy reported. Also, crew ratios have been raised. That means that the KC-135Rs, because they have received new engines and other upgrades over the years, can fly more frequently and take up some of the slack.

The Seven-Percent Solution

“The analysis shows us, in the first 30 days of a major theater conflict, we’d only lose five to seven percent of our air refueling requirements,” Handy said. “That’s not bad.” He added that, as TRANSCOM commander, he considers the reduction a “reasonable risk to assume” in the short term.

However, the projection of a five-to-seven-percent loss in capability assumes that no additional aircraft are sidelined by structural problems. This is a dangerous assumption, given the age of the tanker fleet. Even the upgraded KC-135Rs average more than 43 years of age. Keeping that fleet viable is expensive; Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff, said that KC-135s are virtually “remanufactured” during depot maintenance, a process that requires the machining and certification of individual parts out of series production for decades.

One aging aircraft crisis narrowly has been averted. In December, the Pentagon ordered the Air Force to end production of new C-130Js in Fiscal 2006. That decision has now been reversed, as it became clear that it would cost less to complete a multiyear buy of 62 airplanes than to pay the contract termination and shutdown costs. (See “Washington Watch: Rumsfeld Retreats From C-130J Termination Plans,” July, p. 12.)

Handy said the C-130J has been a star performer and that USAF should continue to buy enough to at least replace most antiquated aircraft in the Hercules fleet. Two C-130Js were sent to Iraq in late fall 2004, and since then, they’ve performed “at an incredible rate,” Handy reported. “The two of them are equal to roughly three C-130E models, and so that gives us some additional capability.”

He said the J model aircraft can in a single day complete missions that the E models need two days to complete.

“That has an impact on crew duty day and crew utilization, so, the more Js we get into the fight, the better off we’ll be,” he asserted.

The Joint Staff’s mobility study also is examining the C-17 used in the intratheater role, traditionally the province of the C-130 alone. The C-17 has indeed been used—and extensively—providing lift within the Southwest Asia theater, but Handy said it should not be seen as a substitute for the C-130 in that role.

“If the cargo volume is sufficient, then we can run C-17s in there and get it done, but it doesn’t make any sense to have a C-17 hauling C-130-sized loads.”

Handy has said repeatedly that AMC is not looking for a single aircraft other than what is required to do the mission.

Handy had high praise for the performance of the C-17 in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting, “It’s done everything we ever dreamed we’d do, to include going up close and personal in combat. A lot of people said, ‘You’ll never put this airplane under threat,’ but we have, and we do.”

The Mobility Requirements Study-2005, which was completed before 9/11, established a notional airlift requirement for a fleet of 222 C-17s, compared to the 180 now on contract. However, Handy says the new requirement is likely to be closer to 300 C-17s.

The C-17 has been so heavily used that Handy worries about its long-term life expectancy.

“We are flying the C-17 and all our weapon systems at a much higher flying hour rate than we ever anticipated or programmed,” Handy said. “What service life we have eaten up on the far end of the C-17, … we just don’t know about. … We’ve eaten up some service life rather dramatically in the near term.”

< He said he had instructed USAF engineers to develop a way to assess how much C-17 service life is being consumed by the high operating tempo.

Handy would like for commercial entities to buy C-17s for the civilian oversize lift market. Such firms would then participate in CRAF in exchange for some compensation and preference for other government contracts, such as airlifting humanitarian relief supplies.

“Right now, the unfortunate part of that equation is, while I support it, I need every C-17 I can get my hands on,” Handy said. He is loathe to let one off the assembly line that doesn’t go right into USAF service.

“We need to continue the C-17 buy,” he said flatly.

The C-5 Galaxy has also been a large part of the sustainment operation in Southwest Asia.

Two C-5s are undergoing a structural teardown analysis to see if there is any reason the aircraft can’t reasonably be upgraded to serve 20 more years.

“I’m not aware of any … surprises that may have come out of the teardown,” he said. “That’s good news, because we need the airplane. It’s an incredible performer for us, so I’m hopeful that continued analysis will support our assumptions.” If so, he said, the C-5 Avionics Modernization Program and Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program upgrades—the AMP and the RERP—can go forward.

Risky Business

Handy believes that the Joint Staff study will conclude that the US must keep the level of risk in the airlift world at a “moderate” or “low” level.

“Some days, I have felt we were getting into the ‘high’ risk [area] because we just couldn’t snap our fingers and and make everything happen the way we really needed to, to support either Gen. [Tommy R.] Franks or Gen. [John] Abizaid today.” Franks and Abizaid are the two most recent commanders of US Central Command. Handy said he doesn’t know what level of risk the MCS will assume, but “it certainly cannot be, in my humble opinion, ‘high risk.’?”? The Air Force can’t afford a high riskmobility structure because that brings danger to troops in combat. Handy also said he realizes that fiscal constraints limit what can be done to reverse the graying of the airlift fleet, or, for that matter, the rest of the Air Force.

“I can give you the same pitch for F-15s, F-16s, the fact that we need the F/A-22 in a tremendous way,” he said. However, “when it comes to a war, especially a world war, people tend to put aside their concerns over finances and want the job done—not tomorrow, not next week, but right now.” He added that “we cannot keep debating, … keep analyzing, … keep wringing our hands” about the aging of the fleet. “We have to do something about it.”