Airlift for Near and Far

Oct. 1, 1984

Airlift is combat capability in wars of all sizes. Operations in the Grenada rescue last year required more than 750 airlift sorties in the first twelve days, delivering 8,800 tons of supplies and equipment and moving more than 18,000 troops and American citizens.

Airlift must keep pace with the growing requirements of combat forces and the demands of sort-notice contingencies. Airlift must cope with reduced warning time, must accommodate the Army’s larger equipment and new, highly mobile, light infantry divisions, and must be ready to operate in potential trouble spots. Add in uncertainty about overflight and landing rights and questions about airfield conditions in the crisis areas and take a look at requirements vs. capabilities, and the continuing concern about airlift is understandable.

Justifying Requirements

“This nation is woefully short of airlift,” says Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr. The US has the finest and most capable airlift force in the world – but it isn’t enough.

Since 1974, at least eighteen major mobility studies have compared established airlift requirements with capabilities. In every case, these studies conclusively documented that airlift requirements far exceed capabilities. In the words of Secretary Orr, “The Air force recognizes that current airlift forces cannot meet theater commanders’ wartime requirements.”

The comprehensive Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study (CMMS), prepared by the Department of Defense and submitted to Congress in 1981, quantified the strategic intertheater deficiency. The CMMS recommended a “minimum” – within fiscal realities – intertheater airlift capability of sixty-six million ton-miles per day (MTM/D). This would enable Military Airlift Command to move the equivalent of sixty tactical fighter squadrons, one Marine Amphibious Brigade, and six Army divisions to Europe within ten days. Even with this increased airlift capability, Air Force officials say that extensive prepositioning would be required.

Reducing the Airlift Gap

The military airlift system blends active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and Civil Reserve air Fleet (CRAF) personnel, aircraft, and equipment into a national airlift force for peace or war.

Active-duty MAC forces form the nucleus of the military airlift system. MAC operates C-5, C-141, and C-130 aircraft in thirteen airlift wings and groups in the US, Europe, Alaska, and the Far East.

Today, the Air Force has seventy C-5As, 234 C-141s, and 218 C-130s in its Primary Aircraft Authorized (PAA) strategic and tactical inventory. MAC-gained AFRES and ANG forces provide an additional 302 C-130 PAA aircraft, which will be transferred from the active inventory.

Today’s intertheater airlift capability has grown y thirteen percent since FY ’83. Despite that increase, our total capability is still less than fifty percent of the CMMS goal of sixty-six MTM/D.

According to a DoD study on “Improvements in US Warfighting Capability FY 1980-84,” strategic airlift capability has been increasing – up twenty-eight percent since 1980. The amount of intratheater cargo that the airlift fleet could deliver during wartime is also up, by sixty-seven percent, since 1980. The improvement is a result of stretching all C-141 aircraft by twenty-three feet and modifying them for air refueling, strengthening the C-5A wings, adding two squadrons of KC-10s, and increasing squares and crews to support increased flying hours under mobilized conditions. Another contributing factor was the conversion since 1980 of one AFRES and four ANG squadrons from C-7 and C-123 aircraft to C-130Hs.

Wartime cargo-carrying capacity has increased, but that is not the only aspect of airlift that has improved. One measure of capability is the “mission capable [MC] for spares” rate, which quantifies the number of aircraft available for wartime in terms of adequate spare parts. A second measure of capability is the number of spare engines on hand, and a third is launch-reliability rates. Dramatic improvements have been made in all three of these categories since 1980 (see chart).

The nation’s airlift capability will gradually improve further with the procurement of fifty C-5Bs, an additional forty-four KC-10s, projected CRAF enhancements, and the addition of programmed spares and crews. However, even with these programs, the Air Force will be about 17.5 MTM/D short of the CMMS goal by FY ’89.

How will the gap be filled? “The C-17 buy will eliminate the shortfall as well as add to the nation’s intratheater capability in the years ahead,” says Gen. Thomas M. Ryan, Jr., MAC’s Commander in Chief.

Furthermore, the Air Force is buying eighteen C-23As (the Short Brothers’ Sherpa) to be the new European Distribution System Aircraft (EDSA). Expected to reach initial operational capability next year, the EDSA program will increase the sortie-generation capability of fighter forces in Europe. “We will use this aircraft to redistribute spare parts and supplies within the European theater, enabling us to increase our fighter force sortie generation by up to 800 sorties per day,” says General Ryan. “EDSA could be described as a military version of Federal Express.”

Even so, the Air Force is considering the basing of at least one additional C-130 squadron in Europe as soon as possible. However, such as increase in aircraft and personnel would be subject to congressional approval.

Today, the Air Force uses its Airlift Master Plan as the guide to fulfill long-range airlift needs. Presented to Congress in late 1983, the plan enjoys strong support from the JCS, DoD, and Congress. The Airlift Master Plan has become a “de facto contract,” according to General Ryan in an interview with Air Force Magazine, “a sound framework for our future military airlift force structure.”

The 1998 force structure recommended in the plan will contain a balanced airlift mix of C-5s, C-141s, C-17s, KC-0s and C-130s in the active force, ANG, and AFRES. (For more details on the Airlift Master Plan, see Air Force Magazine, May ’84, p. 58.)

“Even after a year, the plan is essentially on track,” says General Ryan. “It is an excellent airlift road map within fiscal realities.”

However, it will not be a simple task to select a force structure to meet future validated requirements. “Tradeoffs must be made among military utility, operating costs, manpower requirements, force stabilization, and force modernization to achieve the most beneficial results,” General Ryan says.

Improving Existing Forces

“It wouldn’t have made much sense for us to ask for C-5Bs and the C-17 until we did all we could to maximize the effectiveness of what we already own,” says General Ryan. And that’s precisely what MAC is doing.

Here is a brief look at major programs in progress to enhance readiness, sustainability, and capability of current airlift systems:

• Spare parts stocks are being increased (with full stock levels expected by FY ’88) to permit higher utilization rates of the C-5 and C-141 aircraft.

• Aerial port personnel and airlift support equipment, including container-handling equipment, are being added. Also, Air Force and MAC officials are developing specifications for a new generation of aircraft-loading equipment to replace the 25K and 40K loaders.

• MAC C3 systems are being upgraded. Officials hope to have thirty percent of the communications, data automation, and facility acquisitions funded by FY ’85 and eighty-eight percent by FY ’89.

• The C-5A wing is being strengthened, extending the lifetime of each aircraft by 30,000 flying hours and allowing greater loads up to 242,500 pounds. To date, Lockheed has complete twenty-five aircraft, with twelve aircraft in work. Lockheed is delivering three aircraft every two months, and actual costs are under budget. Program completion date is FY ’87. Also, a new camouflage paint scheme called “European 1” – a combination of mostly greens and grays – has already been applied to fifteen aircraft. The new pant will provide corrosion protection as well as a camouflage effect.

• The C-130B/E wings are being modified to correct corrosion and other problems. This program will extend the service life of the air Force’s 492 C-130B/Es and is expected to be completed by FY ’88. In addition, C-130A wing repairs will allow operations into the 1990s. Other C-130 improvements include a self-contained navigation system, modernization of the station-keeping equipment that allows a pilot to fly in formation in weather, and a defensive systems program that includes IR and ECM suites.

• The C-141 fleet has undergone a fuselage stretch and the addition of an air-refueling receptacle. This was completed under cost and ahead of schedule. The stretch increased the C-141’s pallet capability by thirty percent. As of July 1984, 393 crews were qualified for inflight refueling. The aircraft service life was also validated to 45,000 hours. During FY ’85, additional C-141 improvements will include the upgrading of station-keeping equipment. These improvements will enable the airdrop of a brigade-size force in adverse weather. Even with all the modifications, sixty-one aircraft will have reached the end of their service life by the year 2000.

• CRAF passenger airlift is being enhanced. In September 1983, MAC awarded a $617 million contract to Pan American for conversion of nineteen Boeing 747 airliners to CRAF cargo-carrying configuration. The contract covers start-up costs of the modification line, the modification of each aircraft by Boeing and subcontractors, the cost of down-time while they are being modified, and the extra operating costs of the aircraft, which will be heavier and use more fuel after conversion, for twelve years of peacetime airline operations. The stronger cargo floors, a cargo door, and roller-and-rail systems will add almost 3,000,000 ton-miles a day of bulk and oversize capability to the CRAF. Currently, five of the aircraft are on contract, with funding for four more scheduled for release in January 1985. Funding limits may preclude the exercising of options for the remaining ten aircraft.

Transfer of Aircraft to the ARF

The Air Reserves Forces (ARF) currently provide forty-nine percent of the C-5 and C-141 aircrews, fifty-eight percent of the C-130 force, forty percent of the combat rescue aircrews, eighty-nine percent of the aeromedical crews and medical technicians, and fifty-nine percent of the wartime aerial port personnel.

Last year, in an effort to meet congressional end-strength limitations, MAC proposed a plan to transfer some of its C-5s to ARF units. In addition, Congress directed the Air Force to expand the force structure of the ARF further by transferring two squadrons of C-141s and to develop a plan for the transfer of additional assets.

On April 26, 1984, the air Force submitted the initial plan to Congress, outlining the transfer of twenty-two C-5As and sixteen C-141s to the ARF over the next few years. The 433d Tactical Airlift Wing (AFRES), Kelly AFB, Tex., will convert to fourteen C-5As, and eight C-5As will go to the 105th Military Airlift Group (ANG), Stewart IAP, N.Y. The 172d Tactical Airlift Group (ANG) at Allen C. Thompson Field in Jackson, Miss., will received eight C-141s in FY ’86, as will the 459th Tactical Airlift Wing (AFRES) at Andrews AFB, Md.

Eventually, the Air Force plans to transfer an additional twenty-two C-5s and, as the C-17 enters the inventory, an additional sixty-four C-141s to the ARF in the long term; however, beddown locations are yet to be determined.

“Placing C-5s in the reserve forces now will reduce peacetime flying costs and extend their service life as we will fly them less than the active force would,” said Maj. Gen. Sloan R. Gill, Chief of the Air Force Reserve, in an interview with Air Force Magazine.

“I hear the critics who say the C-5 is too sophisticated for the reserve forces. They said that about the C-119 and the C-124 when we started flying them. The results over the years show we can handle any aircraft. I am concerned, however, about obtaining the support equipment and parts we will need and about having the new facilities completed on time,” General Gill said.

Another concern for the Air Force is to pick the proper time to transfer the C-141s to the ARF. “The C-141 is the most heavily tasked MAC aircraft,” General Ryan told Congress. “Its peacetime commitment is occasionally above eighty percent and recently as high as eighty-eight percent. Transfer of a large number of C-141s to the ARF, prior to delivery of C-17s, would limit MAC’s ability to support nonmobilized contingencies.”

The only other major airlift modernization effort for the ARF is the C-17. General Gill says, “New airlift aircraft are needed as the support requirement for the ARF increases. The only thing we have on the horizon that is going to let us take some of those aging C-130s in the early 1990s and put them in the boneyard is the C-17.”

Why the C-5B and the C-17

Air Force officials stress that both the C-5B and the C-17 are critical to meet wartime requirements. “It is C-5B and then C-17,” says General Ryan. “An either/or approach is not satisfactory. We need both. The C-5B is available sooner, and the limited buy of fifty aircraft will permit an orderly transition to production of the C-17 to meet the long-term requirement.”

The Air Force is already committed to the first five C-5Bs. However, two of ten C-5Bs to have been procured in FY ’85 were slipped to FY ’87. But Air Force officials say the program is on track, with the contract options allowing for variations in quantity until FY ’87 (fourteen for FY 86; twenty-three for FY’87). Unit flyaway cost for each C-5B in constant FY ’84 dollars is $141 million.

The C-5B is an updated C-5A, with current engineering changes including a 30,000-hour wing, G TF39-1C engines, simplified landing gear, improved avionics, and the use of more durable, corrosion-resistant alloys. The first C-5B will be delivered in December 1985; the last is scheduled for February 1989.

Lockheed officials say production work is proceeding on schedule, with more than 30,000 engineering jobs released to production. A new computerized tracking system is now working so that Lockheed personnel can manage approximately 18,000 different typ3s of nuts, bolts, fasteners and rivets, valued at more than a million dollars, required to build each C-5B.

Meanwhile, structural tests, including characteristics of new alloys, durability and damage tolerance, fatigue strength, and various fastener tests, have been completed.

For the C-17, the Air Force has planned a moderately paced R&D program so that the delivery of the first aircraft follows delivery of the last C-5B. The air Force has restated its need for 210 total (180 PAA) aircraft through 1998 in the Airlift Master plan and the C-17 Validation Report. (For more details on the C-17, see Air Force Magazine, May ’84, p. 61.)

“The C-17 is our number-one aircraft acquisition program in MAC,” says General Ryan.

The decision for full-scale development is due this fall. General Ryan foresees no problem with getting a green light. “We’ve got good support for the C-17 within the DoD and Congress,” he says.

The first airplane is scheduled to be built in FY ’88, with the first flight in FY ’90 and initial operating capability in FY ’92. Unit flyaway cost in constant FY 84 dollars is $100.3 million per aircraft. Current R&D is concentrating on wind-tunnel tests to verify aerodynamic design; is expanding cargo compartment and cockpit mockup; is analyzing and testing the zero-forward speed, high-bypass-ratio thrust reverser; and is developing a logistics support analysis program.

Perhaps most important, the manufacturer has provided strong warranties on the reliability and maintainability of the C-17.

Leasing Aircraft for the OSA Mission

Two new types of airlift aircraft are now arriving at Air Force bases to replace aging CT-39s in the Operational Support Aircraft (OSA) mission.

Rather than buying the planes outright, the Air Force obtained them through a novel-leasing plan. Gates Learjet will lease eighty C-21As (Lear Model 35A) to the Air Force and Beech Aircraft will lease forty C-12Fs (Beech Super King Air B200). The contracts call for five-year leases with an option for three additional years. The Air Force can also purchase the aircraft when the leases expire.

Recognizing that leasing offers substantial write-offs to the contractors, the Air Force investigated the full extent of tax considerations thoroughly in their pre- and post-contract studies and concluded that leasing was the most cost-effective way to acquire these aircraft.

The Air Force will provide pilots (approximately 400), passengers, fuel, and cargo. The contractors provide training for the initial group of Air Force pilots and all levels of maintenance of the aircraft, including en route maintenance. Both companies must maintain an eighty-five percent partially MC) based on a monthly flying schedule of fifty-six hours per aircraft. The only servicing Air Force people will provide is routine support by transient alert personnel at en route bases.

The Air Force uses the OSA fleet to move critical cargo and passengers during wartime and for seasoning new pilots prior to transfer to larger aircraft.

“As an example of OSA contingency involvement, the CT-39 force flew fifty-two sorties in direct support of US operations in Grenada,” says General Ryan. These priority missions involved transportation of high-ranking officials, intelligence information, classified materials, and spare parts.

Improving Crew Efficiency

“Our efforts to modernize and enhance our airlift capability will be of little value if we fail to meet the needs of our people who ensure the success of our mission,” says General Ryan.

Currently, the training programs for the C-5, C-141, and C-130 are being revamped. “There is quite a bit going on in the training area, even though the command has very good programs,” General Ryan says.

In the C-5 area, MAC is planning to contract out the classroom and simulator training at Altus AFB, Okla., and then upgrade aircrew-training devices at Travis AFB, Calif., and Dover AFB, Del. With the C-141, existing simulators will be upgraded and trainers for a specific task added.

New simulators, with realistic, full-visual displays, are now being used at the C-130 school at Little Rock AFB, Ark.

In conjunction with the Air Force Human Resources Lab, MAC is also developing a new Model Aircrew Training System (MATS) to make full use of the new simulators and procedure trainers. The command is also studying initiatives in computer-aided instruction.

For the past several years, MAC aircrews and planners have felt the need to devise new tactics and training to counter the vulnerability of their aircraft in high-threat environments. Prior to September 1983, there was not central or formal training for airlift and special operations tacticians.

Now MAC has the Combat Aircrew Training School (CATS), located at Nellis AFB, Nev., to fill the void. This site was chosen because it is near the home of the TAC Fighter Weapons Center and existing threat training facilities. In the past year, twelve three-week classes of pilots, navigators, and intelligence people from C-130, C-141, and helicopter wings have been conducted. Graduates of CATS return to their parent wings and set up unit training programs.

But efforts to increase wartime aircrew proficiency go beyond the classroom and the simulator. MAC crews participate regularly in major JCS-sponsored exercises like Bright Star, Reforger, and Team Spirit. With the Army proposing to air-drop troops and equipment at lower altitudes to reduce exposure to any enemy, MAC crews train to keep pace with requirements.

Finally, competition serves as a readiness experience for airlift participants. Annually, MAC conducts its airlift competition of more than 1,200 people at Pope AFB, N.C. Called Volant Rodeo, the competition highlights aerial delivery and ground operations. Participants in this year’s event in June included teams from the active-duty force, ANG, AFRES, and eight allied countries. An Italian Air Force crew was the overall winner. The 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, Little Rock AFB, Ark., won in 1983.

Beyond the Airlift Master Plan

The Airlift Master Plan defines airlift force structure requirements from now through the turn of the century. It provides a workable strategy for matching expected capability with long-term airlift needs. However, planning does not stop there. USAF and industry planners are actively pursuing initiatives beyond the scope of the airlift Master Plan. Numerous studies, particularly in the intratheater arena, are under way.

Where past studies identified the needs for increased airlift within the intratheater battle area, they did not quantify transport requirements. Current studies are attempting to define these requirements. The Worldwide Intratheater Mobility Study (WIMS), conducted by the DoD and JCS with service participation, is concentrating on support of a Southwest Asia force during a worldwide conflict scenario. That study, scheduled to be completed in early 1985 is tasked to determine specific intratheater mobility requirements – including airlift.

As part of a historic Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed this year between the Air force and the Army, both services are working to establish a joint office to determine intratheater airlift requirements and to develop joint positions on intratheater airlift programs. This office will also invite inputs from all theater commanders and, in turn, will join with the WIMS group to provide the Secretary of Defense with the best analytical and practical assessment of intratheater and tactical mobility requirements. In joint action on the FY ’85 budget, both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have requested that such an assessment be provided by February 1985.

Planners at MAC and the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) have been developing joint positions on airlift for some time. Signed in August was a MAC-TRADOC memorandum of understanding further defining joint concepts in support of the Army’s Airland Battle doctrine. “We want to ensure that MAC capabilities keep pace with changes in Army doctrine and that the Army does not expect more capability than we can provide,” say MAC officials.

A related effort is Aeronautical Systems Division’s (ASD) Mobility Mission Analysis, which began in January 1984. ASD, in concert with MAC, began this two-year study to forecast the airlift system at the turn of the century. Their goal is to determine airlift options and the timing for those options while emphasizing a high degree of survivability.

This process of concept development has historically been provided by ASD for other major Air Force commands in their acquisition of new weapons systems. But this study is a first for MAC. Even though this study is still in its infancy, a dialogue among Air Force, Army, Marine, and private-industry conceptual planners has been established that should provide positive long-range directions for airlift.

Within MAC headquarters, an Advanced Tactical Transport (ATT) working group is presently developing the basis for a statement of need that is tied to the Army’s evolving doctrine and that will be coupled with results of the WIMS and ASD’s Mobility Mission Analysis. The ATT working group is also comparing military efforts with those of the major aircraft manufacturers who, through independent research and development, are evaluating numerous concepts of their own.

All of these initiatives focus on the evolving tactical airlift requirements of the future and on how to quantify and support them.

The Trend in Wartime Cargo-Carrying Capacity

October-December 1980

October-December 1983





Mission Capable for Spares*





WRM Engines on Hand





Launch Reliability





*C-5 rate increases less because of longer lead times.

The Future of Helicopters

The deficiencies of current USAF helicopters are well documented. The average age, for example, of the H-1s, H-3s, and H-53s used for combat rescue, special operations, and support missions approaches twenty years. Maintaining these aging systems is getting more and more difficult. And, except for eight Pave Low III H-53s, the entire fleet is limited to visual flight operations.

“Lack of night/adverse weather and defensive counter-measures capabilities will make things more challenging,” says Col. Tom Pilsch, Chief, Airlift and Training Division, Directorate of Operational Requirements, DCS/Research, Development and Acquisition, Hq. USAF.

Advances in aerodynamics, propulsion, and avionics hold promise for leading the Air Force out of its current problem.

Officials are acutely aware that fiscal and political realities tent to delay fielding of needed systems. Nevertheless, replacement efforts are in progress as part of the “Combat Helicopter Modernization Program.”

Currently, the Air Force plans to procure an additional ninety HH-60A helicopters. The program has been restructured several times during the past year to reduce costs. The HH-60A will be a derivative of the Army’s UH-60A Blackhawk. Current features include low-level precision navigation, extended range, cockpit integration for operations in the demanding night/low-level environments, and commonality with Army and Navy versions of the H-60. However, the aircraft will not be capable of adverse weather operations. (See also “Jane’s Supplement” item, p. 97.)

“The HH-60A will meet minimum near-term requirements while providing growth capability for the future,” Colonel Pilsch says.

In another program, the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for H-53s will extend the service life of the aircraft and will provide interim long-range vertical lift capability until the Joint Service Advanced Vertical Lift Aircraft Development Program (Experimental) (JVX) aircraft becomes operational in 1994.

Finally, the Air force is in the preliminary stages of searching for a replacement aircraft for the nine Bell UH-1N and three Sikorsky CH-3E helicopters assigned to the 89th Military Airlift Wing, Andrews AFB, Md. The aircraft are used as part of the plan to ensure continuity of government in national emergencies.

As a secondary mission, the helicopters will be used for what the Air Force terms “safe, reliable, and timely transportation” of high-level military, government, and foreign officials in the Washington area. They also provide emergency humanitarian medical airlift and support the national search and rescue plan. A statement of need has been developed, allowing the program to compete for money with all other Air Force programs in the next budget cycle.

SOF: That Special Airlift Requirement

The Army and Air force have agreed, as part of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed in May 1984, to transfer responsibility for providing SOF rotary-wing lift support from the Air Force to the Army.

The MOA should have minimal near-term impact on Military Airlift Command, says Gen. Thomas M. Ryan, Jr., Commander in Chief of MAC. “We anticipate that the Army will develop appropriate helicopter systems and support structures to meet the short-range operations lift requirements identified by the theater CINCs,” he says.

“We will take all precautions to assure that we do not degrade our nation’s SOF capability during the transition of mission responsibilities,” General Ryan emphasizes.

Turning to its fixed-wind SOF fleet – the AC-130, MC-130, and Air National Guard EC-130 – the Air Force is going ahead with plans to modernize. On the horizon are twenty-one new MC-130H aircraft over the next several years, incorporating improved navigation, ECM, and special avionics capabilities.

Finally, what about JVX? This program is a DoD initiative, with the Navy as executive agent, the Marines providing the program manager, and the Air Force responsible for unique systems development.

The goal is to develop a common vertical takeoff and landing vehicle to satisfy service requirements. The aircraft would be used for Air Force special operations, Marine vertical lift assault, and Navy combat rescue. The air Force requested $1.1 million during FY ’85 for unique avionics for the SOF mission.

“The technology promises a substantial increase in Air Force special operations capability,” says General Ryan. “The JVX will replace the SOF HH-53 and supplement the MC-130 to provide a long-range infiltration/exfiltration capability not currently available.”

JVX requirements include a 700-nautical-mile unrefueled radius, ability to carry twelve to twenty-four people at night and in adverse weather, a dash speed of 275 knots, and air-to-air refueling capability.

Procurement is scheduled to begin in FY ’91 with the purchase of six aircraft out of a planned eighty. The air Force will share two test aircraft of seven with the Navy for operational testing. IOC of six aircraft is planned for FY ’93.

The demands of the SOF mission require unique aircraft with special capabilities. “As the likelihood of low-intensity conflict increases, we must respond with upgrade of our special operations forces to meet growing mission requirements,” General Ryan says.

Maj. Michael B. Perini is Deputy Chief of the Operational Forces ranch in the Secretary of the Air Force’s Office of Public Affairs. An Education With Industry officer with Air Force Magazine in 1982-83, Major Perini holds a bachelor’s in social studies from Washington State University and a master’s in social studies/education from the University of Southern Mississippi. He served as Chief of the Public Affairs Division of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Va., prior to his tour as an EWI student, and has also served as a public affairs officer at Hill AFB, Utah, and Keesler AFB, Miss. He joined the Air Force in 1972 after receiving his commission through the AFROTC program.