A Clamor for Airlift

Dec. 1, 2000

Within the last 14 months, the Air Force reorganized as an “expeditionary” service and the Army adopted an urgent new goal of becoming lighter and more agile, shifting emphasis from heavy armored units transportable mainly by sea to lighter units that can travel by air. Both services–and the Marine Corps as well–are relying on airlift as never before to get to the fight.

It is no secret, though, that the USAF strategic airlift fleet is inadequate to the stated national strategy of being able to win two widely separated Major Theater Wars fought in close succession. Hardware problems have forced the airlift fleet below stated minimum operating levels. At the same time, airlift will likely be called on more and more frequently as forces shrink and must rely on mobility to cover the same ground.

“It is clear to me,” warns Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters, “that expeditionary operations, as planned by the Air Force and now as planned by our sister services, are going to require more strategic airlift. Today, we cannot meet the wartime requirements we already have without accepting risk–and we never could-and our future requirements are growing. We just don’t know how much yet.”

Peters added, “Unfortunately, we do not have an executable plan to meet those growing needs.”

Airlift is the key “enabler” of Air Force and Army operations as envisioned under their new deployment philosophies. Given its critical role, airlift’s status–how much there is, who pays for it, and who has priority to use it–will likely be one of the flash points of the military debate in the coming months.

Already, the airlift shortfall is identified as one of the unfunded priorities of the Air Force. The USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, told Congress in September that the Air Force over the next decade will need to boost its budget by some $30 billion to keep ahead of the maintenance costs associated with its aging aircraft, including airlifters.

“A Big Number”

“It is a big number, this cost,” Ryan told Air Force Magazine. “We have to figure out when it stops making sense to fix some of these old airplanes and it would just be cheaper to buy a new one.”

Sometime after the new Administration has settled into office, the Pentagon will conduct an updated Quadrennial Defense Review that re-evaluates the world situation and the posture of US forces. The QDR will drive the Defense Planning Guidance, which instructs the services on what their spending priorities should be.

Helping to illuminate the airlift issue will be a new and thoroughgoing report on mobility needs and capabilities called Mobility Requirements Study–2005. It has been prepared by the Joint Staff in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It looks at the whole capability of US forces to move around the world, whether by truck, rail, sea, or air. The requirement for airlift is stated in terms of how much cargo can be moved per day.

For years, the US had an airlift requirement of 66 million ton miles per day, the term ton mile denoting the amount of airlift capability required to move one ton a distance of one nautical mile. That was an interim airlift goal; the real requirement was far higher but considered unattainable.

After it entered office in early 1993, the Clinton Administration conducted its own Mobility Requirements Study. That study, which was completed in 1994, lowered the requirement to 49.7 million ton miles per day, where it has remained ever since. Of that amount, the Air Force is expected to provide 29.2 million ton miles per day with military airlifters; the balance comes from commercial carriers through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

The good news is that the CRAF program is fully subscribed, with participants at desired levels in all categories. It is widely expected, though, that the MRS-05–a new blueprint for the military airlift capability desired by 2005–will specify a higher benchmark for organic airlift capacity.

Air Mobility Command has been unable to fulfill the stated requirement of 49.7 million ton miles per day, mostly because of hardware problems stemming from spare parts shortages and the obsolescence of key systems, particularly on the C-5 Galaxy heavy lifter.

The Army’s new emphasis on faster deployment is another factor weighing heavily on the MRS-05. Stung by its sluggish deployment–and subsequent nonparticipation–in the 1999 Balkans conflict and the enormous amount of airlift necessary to deploy Task Force Hawk to Albania, the Army has decided that it needs to “transform” itself into a quick-moving power.

Shinseki’s Vision

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki has stated a goal of being able to deploy, anywhere in the world, a brigade within four days, a division in five days, and five divisions within 30 days.

Shinseki unveiled the new strategy last fall at the annual meeting of the Association of the US Army. The strategy states, “Heavy forces must be more strategically deployable and more agile, with a smaller logistical footprint, and light forces must be more lethal, survivable, and tactically mobile. Achieving this paradigm will require innovative thinking about structure, modernization efforts, and spending.”

Shinseki later said he expected the Army to become an all-wheeled–that is, nontracked–force by 2010, a prediction that raised howls of protests from Army traditionalists who believe that armored invincibility on the battlefield should never be traded for speed of deployment.

One of the programs Shinseki has targeted as a standard-bearer of the new philosophy is the Crusader howitzer. The Crusader and its resupply vehicle were both expected to weigh in at about 50 tons apiece, meaning that only one part of the two-vehicle, 100-ton system could be transported in a C-5 Galaxy at a time. The Crusader design has been slimmed down to a combined weight of about 80 tons, and Shinseki has further declared that the Army will not buy any field equipment that won’t fit in either a C-130 tactical transport or in the back door of a C-17 strategic airlifter.

The Army’s goals, however, have not won acclaim from the other services. An Air Force official involved with preparing for the QDR scoffed that “changing a 100-ton Crusader to an 80-ton Crusader is hardly a ‘transformation strategy.’ ” Whether the Army’s new direction will take root will depend on the outcome of the QDR, and especially the MRS-05.

That there will be high friction over the apportionment of airlift is already becoming evident. Various interest groups have begun circulating position papers in preparation for the QDR. In July, John Kreul, a defense analyst with the Institute of Land Warfare, released a paper titled “Son of QDR: Prospects for the Army.” He complained that the Army is being unfairly labeled as “too slow and heavy to be relevant.” Kreul countercharged that USAF shortchanges mobility and, in any event, hogs all the available airlift when a crisis erupts.

“In fact,” Kreul asserted, “the Air Force currently consumes about 70 percent of that scarce capacity in the first 10 days of a crisis-response deployment.”

Not Excessive

Actually, it’s not remotely accurate to say that USAF consumes an excessive or disproportionate share of the nation’s airlift, if the experience in the Balkans is any guide.

Deployment of the Army’s smallish Task Force Hawk from one part of Europe to another required 542 C-17 airlift missions. In sharp contrast, the deployment of an F-22 squadron, which would have a tremendous amount of firepower, would require only about six C-17 missions. It is true that Task Force Hawk deployed to a bare Albanian base; if an F-22 squadron did the same, it would need extra support and hence more airlift to bring it in. However, the longer range of fixed wing aircraft allows the US the flexibility to deploy to better-equipped areas (such as Aviano AB, Italy), obviating the need to bring in support.

For many other types of Army units, the story is much the same. It takes 98 C-17 missions to move a Patriot air defense battalion overseas. It will take 98 C-17 missions to move a Theater High Altitude Air Defense battalion.

Meanwhile, Ryan reports that USAF’s embrace of new deployment concepts has allowed AMC to reduce by 22 percent the number of airlifter sorties required to deploy an Aerospace Expeditionary Force, the basic unit of USAF combat power.

The Air Force and Army are also not the only customers for airlift, and those other users also have to wait in line when a crisis erupts.

Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Terrence R. Dake told reporters in Washington in August that he hopes his service gets weighed along with the others in a balanced fashion when the QDR assesses airlift needs.

The enthusiasm for expeditionary forces is “the right thing to do for the nation,” Dake said, and getting those expeditionary forces out will have to be a balancing act between “expeditionary [forces] and that which is heavy-hitting combat power [i.e., the Army], and all the things you bring in between.”

Dake maintained that he doesn’t see the new Army and Air Force emphasis on expeditionary structure as “a threat” to Marine Corps interests, but he thinks the QDR should take a hard look at “what … exists that is already shaped to be expeditionary.”

There is “a finite amount of lift,” he noted, and all the various forces that must be brought to bear in the early part of a conflict “have to be managed inside the lifts.” In each scenario, the theater commander will have to put priorities on airlift for the kinds of forces he thinks are most crucial at the outset, Dake said.

“We’ve always felt that early entry capability was something the Marine Corps offered, and certainly a forcible entry from the seas is our forte.” The Marines, he said, are an enabler for follow-on forces into a theater and deserve their share of airlift, too.

The General Accounting Office, in a study of airlift capabilities it completed in June for the late Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, who was then chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness, found that the Air Force is short about a third of the organic airlift necessary to meet national strategy requirements.

Can’t Do Two

The Defense Department, the GAO wrote, “does not have sufficient airlift and aerial refueling capability to meet the estimated two Major Theater War requirements.”

“In total,” the GAO continued, “we estimate DoD is short (1) over 29 percent of the needed military airlift capability and (2) nearly 19 percent of the needed refueling aircraft.” The GAO said this didn’t necessarily mean the US couldn’t win in the postulated two Major Theater War scenario. However, “the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimates that due to airlift shortfalls, military forces would arrive later than originally planned, thereby increasing the risk that war plans would not be executed in a timely manner and possibly increasing casualties.”

Air Force officials said that the two Major Theater War scenario depends on rapid deployment of certain hardware in the first month of operations, and that about three-fourths of this hardware “falls into the oversize or outsize category,” meaning that it cannot fit on civilian freighters and must be carried by either the C-5 or C-17.

The GAO noted that Air Force officials said the shortfalls are due “primarily to the age of the aircraft and spare parts shortages.”

Airlift shortfalls among older airplanes like the KC-135 tanker and C-5 Galaxy have cropped up “because of the increasing number of aircraft that need depot maintenance,” the GAO asserted.

“More aircraft [are] in depot for longer periods than planned (which is factored into mission capable rate),” the GAO said.

One AMC official noted that older airplanes like the KC-135 may have “thousands and thousands of hours left on the airframe,” and airframe life as measured in flying hours is a key component of assessing an aircraft’s physical age. However, the official said, “When you bring a 40-year-old airplane into depot, … no matter how well it’s been taken care of … you will find things like corrosion that can … threaten the continued viability of that airframe.”

The flow rate at which aircraft are expected back from depot maintenance is disrupted because of unexpected problems found during the inspection process and which must be repaired before the aircraft can be returned to service, a retired general explained.

“It’s like when you take your old car in for maintenance,” he said. “They always find something else wrong with it.”

The Aging Aircraft Program Office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, is working on ways to detect structural fatigue and corrosion problems on the KC-135 long before they might appear in the aircraft, since AMC has stated its intention to keep the type well into the 2020s and beyond.

An AMC spokesman, however, said the command had not noticed any “unusual” recent problems with corrosion on the KC-135 and that mission capable rates for the type are even running slightly above the requirement. In August, the spokesman reported, mission capable rates for the KC-135 were running at 86 percent, vs. a “desired” level of 85 percent.

The GAO said that AMC reported its number of tankers-359, including 317 KC-135s and 42 KC-10s-is “acceptable, assuming the aircraft can be shifted between the two nearly simultaneous wars.”

“Technical Surprises”

However, Peters worries about the tanker fleet, noting, “We have no significant replacement programs on the books for our aging tankers.” He went on: “It is not that we aren’t going to have the tankers immediately, but what we are seeing on the KC-135 fleet are what appears to be an increasing mission incapable rate due to technical surprises. … These are the kinds of problems which can put a whole fleet down or 200 aircraft down overnight for a period of time and those are the kinds of worries we have.”

There is no question, however, that the chief culprit behind the airlift shortfall is the C-5 Galaxy, which in August turned in a mission capable rate of 63.3 percent vs. a requirement of 75 percent. Broken C-5s consistently gum up the train of worldwide AMC aircraft movements which take place 24 hours a day, AMC officials reported.

US Transportation Command and AMC chief Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr. calls the C-5 “the bad actor” when it comes to dragging down airlift availability rates.

A series of fixes to the C-5 are already under way, although a complete program to bring the type up to AMC’s standards in departure reliability will have to await the results of MRS-05.

“We have worked these contracts very carefully … so we don’t get ahead” of the mobility study, one AMC official noted.

The C-5 upgrades already under way involve a series of fixes to the aircraft’s engines, avionics, landing gear, electrical system, flight controls, hydraulics, and fuel system. While most of the improvements raise mission capability rates less than 1 percent, collectively, they will increase the C-5’s mission capable rate by 11 percent, raising it to just about the desired mission capable rate of 75 percent, according to AMC program officials.

Moreover, the fixes are expected to save AMC about $510 million per year in operating and support costs, meaning they will pay for themselves in a few years.

The biggest needed improvement to the C-5, though, is new engines. Lockheed Martin is conducting a program to develop an upgrade that would refit the C-5B fleet with the General Electric CF6-80 engine. The company, acting as the Air Force’s agent, selected the commercial, off-the-shelf engine, which is used on most civilian and military widebodies around the world, in June. The re-engining of the C-5 fleet in total would raise the type’s mission capability rates into the 90 percent-plus range and add significantly to the number of ton miles per day that AMC could move.

In addition, the new engines would be warranted to remain on the wing for more than 10,000 hours. The current engines need to be taken off the wing for inspections and maintenance at 1,500 hours.

New Flight Rules

The C-5 engine improvement is also necessary for the C-5 to operate under new international flight rules. With the existing engines, the C-5 cannot climb fast enough with even a half load of fuel to the entry-point-to-track altitudes and corridors now mandated in Europe.

“Up until now, we’ve been able to ask for waivers,” for extra time to climb to the most efficient air corridors, an AMC official reported. After Jan. 1, 2001, however, “we’ve been told no more waivers will be granted.” That means the C-5 will have to fly at less efficient routes that require more flying time and consume more fuel. Moreover, it will require more tankers since the type will often have to take off with less than a full load of fuel to expeditiously reach even the less-desirable tracks.

The C-5 re-engining would be tried first with the C-5B fleet, which is younger than the C-5A fleet and would clearly pay back the investment over the airframe life. Expansion to the C-5A fleet might be used as an incentive to Lockheed Martin for quality performance on the first batch.

“We expect this to be a large success, like the KC-135R [re-engining program],” an AMC program official asserted.

The C-5 re-engining is among the projects that will be presented in its Analysis of Alternatives to meet the airlift capability requirements set by the MRS-05. The AOA will present ways it can meet the updated ton miles per day requirements and the cost associated with each one. The C-5 re-engining would have to be weighed against other alternatives or sets of alternatives, such as further buys of the C-17 airlifter, greater crew ratios on tanker aircraft, and assorted smaller initiatives that can raise the throughput of the airlifter fleet.

Even if the full C-5 re-engining were to go ahead, fabrication of a test aircraft, testing the aircraft, and creating a production capability could not be accomplished quickly. Only a few airplanes could be all the way through the re-engining and available for service in 2005. Air Mobility Command officials said the most efficient re-engining schedule would make the change while the C-5 was in depot maintenance; about 12 per year would get the new power plants over five years. Since about 19 to 22 C-5s currently go through depot each year now, there would not be any interim effect on the fleet’s capability.

The C-17 multiyear contract, signed in 1996 and hailed as one of the keys to getting the program back on track, is about to enter its final phase. Boeing, which builds the C-17, will need to begin building long-lead castings next year if any C-17s beyond the original 120 for the Air Force are to be bought without a break in the production line. The forgings and castings involved require three years of lead time.

Out of Cash

Boeing had offered the Air Force a follow-on multiyear buy of an additional 60 airplanes, at 15 per year, which would have driven the price per aircraft down to $149 million each–including larger fuel tanks-but the Air Force, short of funds, was obliged to allow the offer to expire at the end of 1999.

“Like everyone else, we are waiting for the MRS-05 to see what the new requirement is,” a Boeing spokesman said. Boeing may make a new multiyear offer, but obtaining an advantageous price will largely depend on whether the Air Force can avoid a break in the production line.

Even though the Air Force has stated a requirement to replace special operations C-141s with 15 C-17s beyond the originally specified 120, as yet no funds have been put in the budget to accommodate them. The Fiscal 2002 budget so far has long-lead funding in it for only five airplanes.

In the Fiscal 2001 budget, the Air Force deleted three C-17s, postponing them for several years. The production line was unaffected, though, because the UK had ordered four C-17s to lease from Boeing, and the British aircraft “simply took the place of some American aircraft on the assembly line,” the Boeing spokesman said. Though the Air Force will provide training and support to the UK for the C-17s, an AMC spokesman said no effect on the US Air Force is expected as a result of the UK C-17 lease.

While one of the options in AMC’s Analysis of Alternatives would likely include replacement of some or all of the C-5s with C-17s, such an option would not be the service’s preferred choice. As Robertson told the House Armed Services Committee in the fall of 1999, “It is not good business to put all your eggs in one basket. … I would never recommend going down to just one airlifter-as long as we can afford it.”

The GAO determined that the KC-10 continues to reliably turn in a performance slightly better than required, averaging a mission capable rate of 88 percent vs. a requirement of 85 percent. Used in both the airlift and tanker roles, the KC-10 slightly offsets the shortages among other aircraft in AMC’s fleet.

The Analysis of Alternatives is also reported to include an option that would extend the life of a small number of C-141Bs, which were slated to leave the inventory completely by 2006. While costs would increase from maintaining an entire support system for just a few airplanes, more T-tails would be retained, adding flexibility to the fleet and more aircraft to cover missions.

The C-17 is replacing the C-141 on nearly a one-for-two basis, meaning that, although the tonnage that can be moved with the larger airplane is roughly the same, there are fewer individual aircraft to spread around the globe.

Robertson, addressing the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee in October of last year, said, “Even though tonnage capabilities remain close to the same, we lose tremendous flexibility with so many fewer tails.” The 135 C-17s “can only be in half as many places as 270 C-141s.”

Another approach to fixing-at least in the short term-the mission capable rate of the airlift fleet is simply to continue fully funding the spare parts line items in the Air Force budget. The service has added money back into spares after cutting its spending several times in the 1990s, but a senior service official admitted that “we put the money in, and we take it back out for something else. We have not made a solid enough commitment to spares yet, in my opinion.”

Air Mobility Command has made operational changes to further squeeze missions and productivity from its airlifter fleet. At the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB, Ill., AMC has developed a computerized system that gives on-demand visibility into where its airplanes are, what they’re carrying, who’s on the crew, where they’re headed next, and when they should arrive. A flight manager who overseas as many as 10 aircraft keeps tabs on the airplanes and stays in touch with the crews, helping them with field diversions or other problems that may arise during their missions. The system has streamlined repair of broken airplanes and rerouting of crucial items by other aircraft, command officials reported.

Ryan told members of the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C., last June that the MRS-05 is being examined by the Joint Chiefs especially for “how much higher we need to go [in millions of ton miles per day] to reduce risk.”

However, he put the potential cost of the MRS-05 recommendations in perspective. As a rule of thumb, Ryan said, for every million ton miles per day of increased airlift, you have to increase by about seven C-17s the size of the airlift fleet.

Ryan continued that he does not feel the MRS-05 will be the last word on the airlift situation.

“The demand for lift is an issue that will always be there,” he said. “We will never have enough lift, ever, to do two simultaneous Major Theater Wars. We can’t afford to go there.”