Heavy Lifters

Nov. 1, 1998
From a hardware perspective, things couldn’t be much better for mobility forces. The Air Force is receiving new strategic and tactical airlifters and loading equipment, the Navy is getting new sealift ships, and the Army is buying new railcars. Pre-positioned equipment is funded and in place, civilian air- and sealift auxiliaries are near full strength, and even some problem infrastructure items–like aging fuel tanks–are getting overhauled.

Mobility forces are “healthy,” Air Force Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., the new chief of US Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command, told Air Force Magazine.

The state of the force, he said, is a result of lessons learned in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent defense reviews, the last of which, now two years old, gave to lift more focus and attention than it had received in some time. The Global Air Traffic Management program-which will update Air Force cargo and tanker aircraft to be compliant with new international avionics standards-was even given add-on money once it became clear that, without it, US air mobility forces would be restricted to less-desirable routes and altitudes and denied certain overflight rights. Not even a program, as such, two years ago, GATM is now fully funded, Robertson said.

However, readiness spending-spare parts, depot maintenance, and, especially, operating tempo and benefits to AMC people-are front and center as concerns, and he worries about the trends in retention of pilots and crews. The Defense Department is also preparing to overhaul its stated lift requirements, having rethought many of the assumptions that underpin the mobility force size it is now pursuing.

“By every predictive indicator, by every metric we use, we’re meeting all the conventional requirements, as we measure readiness,” Robertson said. “Our C-ratings are fine; even departure reliability rates and [mission capable] rates-though declining-are still in the acceptable range.”

The Unseen Problems

What troubles him most are “the things that you don’t measure.” These have to do with the morale-sapping effects of a prolonged, elevated operating tempo; military pay “that is perceived to be inadequate;” turbulence in moving to the “still maturing” Tricare health system; the scarcity of high-quality child care; and problems with things as basic as household goods movement, he said. In the general’s view, these are quality-of-life concerns that give a private sector job much appeal at the moment.

With national unemployment so low and given that “the commercial sector right now is doing better than we are” in addressing quality-of-life issues, “we’re coming up short,” Robertson observed.

Air Mobility Command has designated 1999 as the “Year of the Family.” The theme is intended to highlight concerns about family life in AMC and help the Air Force take visible steps to improve it, Robertson said. This is especially important, he asserted, because “it’s not just [Air Force] members making these decisions” about whether to remain in military service. “It’s families. … And they are … weighing all these factors” such as child and health care, as well as pay and retirement.

Introduction of the new Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept, unveiled this summer, will go a long way toward easing quality-of-life problems, Robertson said. While operating tempo “is high, and it always will be,” due to AMC’s being a worldwide, constantly in motion cargo operation, the EAF concept will give planners far more lead time in knowing what units will have to move to forward bases at a given time. That in turn will permit AMC to give its crews–Regular, Guard, and Reserve-better warning of when they’ll be deploying and for how long.

Moreover, “this predictability” will permit AMC to do a more thoughtful analysis with the warfighting units involved to figure out the most efficient means of moving what really needs to deploy as well as what doesn’t.

“We can tailor their requirement to a reasonable load that’s right for them and right for us,” Robertson asserted. The predictability of deployment will also permit greater use of the Guard and Reserve, he added.

“They want to play more [of a role]; they want to contribute more to the total Air Force mission, and their problem has always been that they are limited in how far in advance they can see a mission,” he explained. “Now they’ll be able to see them six months in advance … and make the maximum contribution [possible] to the requirement.”

Greater foreknowledge of what it will be doing allows greater Total Force participation and reduces turbulence, which has been a hammer on active retention, Robertson noted.

A Welcome Change

The EAF concept “is a good thing for AMC. … It is an idea whose time was probably a year ago; we should have thought of it sooner,” he said.

The timing of the EAF coincides with the launch of a new Mobility Requirements Study. Known as the MRS-Bottom Up Review Update, or MRS­BURU, this study will kick off this fall and is a follow-on to the one done for the 1996­97 Quadrennial Defense Review. It will set the stage for the next QDR’s discussions on lift requirements. The MRS-2005 begins with a fresh set of assumptions.

The new study, being undertaken by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff, drops the notion that mobility forces will begin from a standing start in the next war, garrisoned in the continental US. Instead, it is now assumed that mobility forces will be deployed around the world–as they commonly are–when the next war starts.

The MRS­BURU also only set requirements for supporting two nearly simultaneous Major Theater Wars that would begin roughly 45 days apart. It did not include other missions that might be required, such as strategic brigade airdrop, special operations, and nuclear war operations. In a synopsis of the new assumptions, USTRANSCOM noted that “a one-MTW in combination with any of these [additional missions] could be a driving factor in force structure decisions. The MRS-BURU only looked at a two-MTW scenario without any other [National Command Authority]-type missions.”

Moreover, the study will consider the force in light of a tightened time interval between the two MTWs–the period having dropped from 45 days to 30 days. This has implications for the call-up of Guardsmen, Reserves, and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and decision times for activating them. The Joint Staff now considers the previous 45-day interval “very optimistic,” according to USTRANSCOM.

While the MRS-BURU assumed that “all allied nations would support mobility operations,” it didn’t consider that an ally might either contribute some lift capability of its own or deny host nation support, especially if it is under threat of weapons of mass destruction. The MRS-2005 will weigh these possibilities.

The concept of “fort-to-foxhole” operations will underlie the MRS­2005, and counted in it will be constraints at CONUS bases, the en route system, and the processing capacity at receiving ports overseas. The MRS-BURU focused only on strategic lift, port-to-port, and some en route capacity.

One program that will be strongly affected by this reconsideration of airlift assumptions is USAF’s C-17 Globemaster III transport. More than 40 C-17s have already been delivered and more are coming at the rate of about one per month. So far, except for small growing pains normally associated with introducing a new system, the C-17 has performed admirably, and within five years, all of the planned 120 aircraft should be in service. The addition of the special operations element on MRS-2005, however, could raise the requirement to 135 C-17s.

Roots of the Requirement

When AMC set the C-17 requirement at 120 aircraft, it neglected to consider the need to replace a squadron of C-141s performing a special operations role, Robertson noted. After TRANSCOM and AMC conferred on the issue, officials determined that the Air Force needed “about 15 C-17s” to fulfill the special ops requirement, which is over and above the 120 needed for strategic mobility.

The 120 C-17 fleet “only provides you the capability to meet, with moderate risk, the requirement for two [Major Theater Wars],” Robertson explained. “If we pull 15, or whatever the requirement is, for special operations, you reduce that airlift capability” for the warfighting commanders in chief.

There may be alternatives to buying C-17s and no decisions have been made, Robertson said, because there is “plenty of time” to decide the issue before the Globemaster III line starts to shut down.

The C-141 will depart from Regular service in 2003 and will be out of the Total Force inventory in 2006. Last to go will be the SOF aircraft. Robertson said he is not worried about the availability of spare parts or USAF’s “sense of ownership” on the Starlifter for the years when it is a Guard and Reserve airplane exclusively.

“Because we paid attention and thought about it and built the contingency plans and got all the right players involved before it became a problem, it has turned out not to be one,” Robertson asserted. While it is true the flow of new-production spare parts will slow down once the C-141 leaves the Regular force, the C-17s that have already retired and will be in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., will be available for parts, he noted.

“We will … take care of the reserves” when they take over the C-141, he said. “The system will continue to repopulate the parts. … Bases will continue to train for the C-141. … We’ll continue to do just what we’re doing today.”

The only major unresolved airlift hardware issue concerns what to do about the C-5 Galaxy.

“The C-5 has the lowest [mission capable] rate, the lowest departure reliability, the highest cost per flying hour, the highest maintenance per flying hour,” Robertson noted. “We need to do something about that.”

Replacing the C-5 with a new airplane is considered extravagant, since the type still has perhaps 15 years of service life remaining without a structural improvement. Evidently, an upgrade is the most cost-effective option, but AMC is looking at all alternatives.

“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty” that an upgrade will be the option chosen, said Robertson, “but it makes sense.” While a solution is needed as soon as possible, Robertson said he’s aware that the “pot” of projects demanding money “is about full.” It will be five years before a comprehensive upgrade could begin in earnest.

Billions to Fix

The most pressing need is to replace the C-5’s engines. Waiting in the wings is state-of-the-art equipment that would be vastly more reliable and fuel efficient and which could in one step resolve most of its departure-rate woes. That and a raft of other enhancements would increase the C-5’s departure reliability from 70 percent to 95 percent with a 75 percent mission capable rate. Two separate studies conducted by Lockheed Martin and the Institute for Defense Analyses determined that such a program would cost nearly $5 billion. Currently, the Air Force does not have that kind of money to spare.

The Air Force wants to make a start, at least, toward addressing the C-5 problem. According to Robertson, it currently has under way a modification program to replace the engines’ high-pressure turbines. It costs $250,000 per engine to carry out the program, a manageable expenditure that will increase the amount of “time on wing” for each engine from 1,200 hours to as much as 3,000 hours, Robertson said. This increased interval between engine overhauls will help with reliability, but it “certainly is not where we need to be,” when modern airliner engines average 8,000-10,000 hours between overhauls.

“It’s obviously an interim fix,” he said. The good news is that the engine fix “will pay for itself” in just a few years through avoidance of the cost of so many engine change outs.

In addition to GATM-required avionics in the C-5’s cockpit, there will be additional navigational, communications, and safety changes to the C-5, collectively priced at about $900 million. It is “working its way through the contracting process now,” said Robertson.

The comprehensive upgrade, if it comes, will include many costly improvements. Besides the re-engining, the program would feature installation of a glass cockpit, new hydraulics, new landing gear, and structural improvements to the wing–“the same sorts of things we did with the KC-135,” Robertson added. Until such an overall refurbishing is under way, “the C-5 is a worry,” he said, especially since, during the transition from C-141 to C-17, it will be “the backbone of air mobility.”

The KC-135 update, coupled with an aggressive program to “turn back the clock” on the aging Stratotankers, is yielding excellent results, Robertson said. Corrosion is the major headache with the KC-135, but “if you talk to the experts, and take their word for it, they’ve turned the corner on that,” Robertson claimed.

Under a program called Coral Reach, massive amounts of data have been collected about how–and specifically where–KC-135s will experience the most corrosion. Robertson noted that, at Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, Tinker AFB, Okla., officials “have pretty good confidence … that they can predict where the problems are going to be the next time the aircraft comes in for depot maintenance.”

Each visit to depot maintenance is getting shorter as corrosion problems are found, sanded off or patched, and then sealed with an anti-corrosive agent. “They are better able to prepare for, take apart, repair, and send back out” a KC-135 “in less time,” Robertson said.

Still Spry

The KC-135, upgraded with GATM­compliant avionics and other improvements through the PACER CRAG program, should remain in service “farther out than we can predict,” Robertson added. Though it is chronologically an old airplane, the KC-135 spent many of the Cold War years simply sitting alert to refuel nuclear-armed bombers. In that role, it did not rack up flying hours at a great rate. The aircraft’s structure is still fairly young.

“It’s going to be around awhile, and it’s going to need to be, because we have a tremendous need for it,” Robertson observed.

AMC has looked at replacing the tanker fleet. Boeing has tabled a proposal for a 767-derived tanker; a similar derivative of the C-17 has been discussed. However, said Robertson, “all the evidence indicates … it is not a higher priority than some of the other things that are more troublesome.”

GATM regulations have already gone into effect in some places, and AMC is hard hit because its mandate is to be able to go anywhere at any time. Some airlines which operate only in a given area do not need to comply with all GATM rules, just the ones that govern their region. Rules for altitudes and aircraft separation differ from ocean to ocean and continent to continent.

Robertson noted that the KC-10 is not an airplane that gets much public mention. He said that the airplane has no glaring mechanical or structural problems, is only about 10 years old on average, and is a “stalwart performer” with regard to mission capable rates and departure reliability as both a tanker and an airlifter.

There is some “serious” commercial interest in the C-17 as both a cargo carrier and even as a tanker, Robertson said. Some airlines are contemplating the use of commercial tankers to refuel airplanes on especially long routes-a move which would save the considerable time and expense of en route airport landings and refuelings.

Air Mobility Command would welcome commercial sales of the C-17 in both roles, and it is watching commercial developments closely “to see how they might fit in with CRAF.”

CRAF Comes Back

Under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, commercial carriers agree to be on call for national emergencies, ready to carry troops or materiel to a far-off contingency. In exchange, they are not only paid for their services but are compensated in other ways-for example, by getting preferential treatment in the award of contracts for package delivery, government passenger travel, charters, and cooperative use of military air facilities.

Airline participation in CRAF has been “very good” for the last four years, Robertson said. Participation fell in the period immediately following the Gulf War, which saw the first major call-up of CRAF assets. Carriers became worried about insurance on their aircraft, safety of their pilots, and loss of market share to nonparticipating rivals for duration of the conflict.

Retired Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, then head of USTRANSCOM (later Air Force Chief of Staff) established preferential policies that brought CRAF participants back. Today, most CRAF categories are full or even oversubscribed.

“We’ve met every requirement [in CRAF] except for aeromedical evacuation,” Robertson noted. In that category, he continued, “we’re five airplanes short,” but the requirement is being reconsidered and alternatives are under study, so he is not worried, especially since the requirement is in Stage III, the last stage of CRAF to be called up.

The program is well above required capacity elsewhere in Stage III. In wide-body equivalents, the requirement is 136 airplanes and participation exceeds 170. Likewise, in cargo, the Stage III requirement is 120 airplanes, and the actual capacity is more than 175.

Given that the program yields a huge chunk of national airlift capacity during wartime, said Robertson, “CRAF is good for the Air Force, DoD, and our industrial partners, and we’re going to try to keep it that way for all of them,” Robertson said.