Airlift Reality Check

Dec. 1, 1999

In Operation Allied Force, Air Mobility Command did a masterful job, delivering everything US and NATO officials asked, and more. USAF’s airlift and aerial tanker fleets logged 7,600 sorties during the deployment and redeployment of NATO’s forces, transporting 32,000 passengers and 52,645 tons of equipment. The mobility forces also carried out a major humanitarian relief operation, frequently in the most primitive conditions.

Yet the Balkan air action, for all its successes, also underlined an unpleasant truth: The Air Force simply doesn’t have enough airlift to support US forces should they be called on to fight and win two Major Theater Wars in close succession-the benchmark of national strategy. Experts preparing a new Pentagon airlift analysis planned to state this fact plainly, for the record, and to establish a firm requirement for more airlifters.

Some new aircraft already are on the way. The Air Force earlier this decade programmed a C-17 fleet of 120 aircraft. That plan, however, has been overtaken by events. The forthcoming USAF budget plan for 2000-05 contains full funding for 14 additional C-17s plus an unfunded requirement for a 15th.

Allied Force and its aftermath laid bare some critical mobility problems for AMC. One is the vulnerability of transports to shoulder-fired missiles. Another is the inadequate crew ratio in tankers. Yet another is the difficulty of maintaining the C-5 Galaxy fleet. In USAF’s post-conflict reconstitution effort, the C-5 is demonstrating record-low mission capability. Some are demanding improvements or even replacement of the C-5s.

Insufficient Force Structure

Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., the AMC commander who also serves as commander in chief of US Transportation Command, discussed some of these problems in a recent interview with Air Force Magazine.

Robertson noted that, at the height of the Balkan War, officials conducted an investigation of whether USAF’s airlifters could handle the task of swinging critical elements of the fighting force engaged in one MTW to a distant second MTW, as well as move US-based forces to the second hot spot within required timelines. It couldn’t. Robertson said, “We figured it would take us … eight days longer to swing the force to a second MTW … than we had previously planned.” This finding, the general noted, caused “a bit of a gulp.”

Current US national security strategy calls for American forces to be able to fight and win two near-simultaneous MTWs in widely separated parts of the world. Robertson declined to quantify the interval between the two MTWs–the exact figure is classified–but agreed that it’s “something like” the figure of 45 days that has been widely published here and elsewhere. The emergence of the eight-day lag means that only 85 percent of the US force redeployment would be completed by Day 45.

Analysts determined that the airlift deficiency was caused by the operational posture of the airlift force in Europe during Allied Force. Specifically, the fleet of C-17 airlifters was heavily committed to intratheater work, transporting to Albania the US Army’s Task Force Hawk–helicopter gunships, tanks, artillery, air-defense missile batteries–rather than providing long-range, intertheater airlift, as principally intended.

The heavy use of the C-17 as an intratheater airlifter in Europe “robbed all the other [Commanders in Chief] of their day-to-day exercise and sustainment capabilities while Kosovo was going on,” Robertson noted. The operation “raised their interest level” in the amount of airlifters available, he added, noting that the requirements of the CINCs are a primary driver of the new mobility requirements review.

In recent Congressional hearings, Robertson was asked to spell out how well AMC could carry out the two-MTW requirement. He said the risk is “medium for the first, high for the second. That’s unchanged. … To swing to a second is high risk.”

Robertson added that he hasn’t been able to determine in hard numbers just where the medium risk becomes high risk or what is the width of that high band of risk. He and the other CINCs have all said “high is unacceptable,” added Robertson, and he hopes some relief will come from the new Pentagon study.

Long before Allied Force, Pentagon officials commissioned the new Mobility Requirements Study, called MRS-05, to identify airlift forces needed in the Year 2005. The study was carried out by the Joint Staff and the DoD Program Analysis and Evaluation Office. Plans called for its release this month, but the analysts some time ago had telegraphed its principal conclusion: The US doesn’t have enough airlift, and it will have to buy more.

Up a Million

Until now, the US officially had a requirement to supply 49.7 million ton-miles per day of airlift capability, and to be able to supply it day after day. The new study was expected to call for increasing the requirement by at least 1 million ton-miles per day. MRS-05 indirectly takes the Balkan conflict into account in calculating the airlift capability needed.

Robertson was aware that more airlift seemed called for. “Does an increase of a million short tons require an increase in [strategic] lift?” he asked. “They think it does. I think it does.”

Several real-world factors not considered in previous mobility studies were considered in MRS-05. For example, it takes account of the fact that airlifters generally are not at home bases waiting for an operation to be ordered, as previously assumed. Rather, they are at any given time positioned all over the world and would have to reposition themselves to handle a different operation.

The study also considered what would happen to airlift operations if a mobility base took a direct hit from a weapon of mass destruction, putting a significant fraction of the fleet out of action temporarily or permanently.

The presence of chemical or biological weapons, Robertson noted, also “significantly reduces our ability to use commercial airlift and sealift” to support an operation. The concept of commercial air carrying some outsize cargo is being assessed. Finally, more realistic assumptions about the actual reliability and availability of airlift are incorporated into the analysis.

The initial runs of the computer models being used to assess the ability of the force to perform to the strategy indicated a requirement for strategic airlift beyond 135 C-17s already in the Air Force plan. Analysts are now looking at the war to see how much the addition of 15 C-17s would affect the shortage. When we get to 135 C-17s, said Robertson, the Air Force probably still won’t have enough to conduct day-to-day peacetime operations.

The Air Force, though it has come up with the money for those 14 new airlifters, is still unable to get full funding for their spares, simulators, and support gear. Costs total $1 billion for the first 14 airplanes, $180 million for the 15th.

Boeing has made an unsolicited proposal to produce 60 more C-17s, a move that would defer the end of production from 2003 to 2007. Efficiencies gained from spreading overhead cost over more airframes and from a sharp learning curve would reduce the unit price by 15 percent, Boeing claims. The out-the-door cost of a new C-17 would drop from today’s $198 million to $149 million by the time the last C-17 came off the line. The last batch would have increased range due to inclusion of new fuel tanks.

The Air Force has not formally responded to the proposal, but there is still interest, Robertson reported. “That offer … is very attractive.” He added that an additional C-17 buy is in the mix of options as to how to fix shortfalls with the C-5, which is losing ground in the fight to uphold mission capability and on-time departure.

Possible alternatives to buying more C-17s include using more commercial airlift and sealift.

“No Squirming”

When the Kosovo operation erupted, Robertson noted, there was “no squirming” in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet-the group of commercial carriers that agrees to lease aircraft and crews to the government in wartime in exchange for peacetime cargo contracts. They were ready to join the effort, but CRAF was not activated for the conflict. CRAF will be fully subscribed with participants in 2000 and will not have any gaps in aeromedical evacuation, which has long been a problem to fill out.

Robertson warned, though, that policy-makers shouldn’t count too heavily on the commercial sector to pick up slack in airlift capability. “There’s no excess capacity in commercial lift,” he pointed out, noting that the demand for air cargo and delivery services is growing sharply. “We have to be very careful what we promise our customer on a day-to-day basis, as far as commercial augmentation goes, because … we need to get in line with everyone else who wants it.” The situation is “another reason why an organic airlifter is very important in the peacetime equation,” he added.

Air Mobility Command managed the Balkan operation without resorting to a massive call-up of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve-or even adding substantially more flights per day-but by shifting the way it does its business, according to Col. Larry Strube, director of global readiness at AMC’s Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB, Ill.

During a normal day, Strube said, AMC runs about 300 missions to support exercises and sustainment operations worldwide. When the magnitude of Allied Force became evident in February, however, AMC decided to cut into the fenced-off missions reserved for training each day-those dedicated to air refueling and normal continuation and upgrade training, Strube said. The “fence” came down on Feb. 18; that freed up, for operational purposes, about 100 flights per day that would have been used for training.

To avoid building up a maintenance backlog on its aircraft, AMC typically reserves some percentage of each type for necessary maintenance.

With respect to the C-17, Strube said, “We try to schedule 85 percent of the … aircraft on a daily basis. That’s the maximum we’ll schedule.” Though “there were days when we actually went to 100 percent” of the C-17 fleet, he added. “We have at least managed our aircraft so that we weren’t hurting the long-term health of the fleet.” As a result, there was no huge maintenance or depot backlog after Allied Force as there was after Desert Storm, when a substantial portion of the airlift fleet was grounded, pending long-deferred maintenance. After Allied Force, “we did not have any major impacts on our depot schedules,” Strube reported.

Spares at the Ready

Because of departure reliability problems with some types, AMC sent along maintenance crews and spare parts to Stateside bases to meet aircraft when they arrived to pick up equipment for shipment to Europe. Sometimes, if aircraft were available, a spare aircraft would also be sent. The practices prevented many mission aborts.

Just to move Task Force Hawk, an Army contingent of tanks, armored vehicles, troops, and Apache attack helicopters from Ramstein AB, Germany, to Tirana, Albania, took 542 C-17 missions involving 24,000 short tons of cargo. The airlift took 30 days, at about 20 missions a day.

Strube said that part of the speed with which the airlift was accomplished was due to the Air Force having converted Tirana from a daylight-only airfield into a 24-hour-a-day air base by deploying a portable microwave landing system there.

Also, the C-17’s head-up display and other high-tech gear made the Tirana airlift go more swiftly, Strube said. “The fact that the Air Force spent the money for some high-tech, cosmic systems [on the C-17],” said Strube, “gave us a nighttime precision capability” in very tight spaces in high terrain.

Many criticized the long delay in deploying the Army unit, but many of the missions were limited by the extreme weight of Army gear. The M-1 tank, for example, is so heavy that a C-17 can only airlift one at a time. Allied Force marked the first time the M-1 has been moved by air during hostilities.

In mid-October, the Army announced it would restructure itself to be lighter and more deployable. The move was driven by the fact that the Army “sat out” Allied Force, having been too heavy to get to the action in a timely fashion. In particular, the Army wants to develop a new tank with the capability of the M-1 but at half its weight or less.

“The Army’s trying to get lean and lethal,” Strube said. “Obviously, if you’re … light, you get more there in a hurry. In this case, the C-17 was the perfect airplane to do this and performed extremely well.”

Robertson said, “It did everything … we asked … with a 97 percent reliability rate.” In moving Task Force Hawk from Germany to Albania, the C-17 was able to land, unload, and take off again in an average of 40 minutes and do it on an austere airfield with lots of small debris posing a great foreign object damage threat.

The capability of the C-17 was “the reason we got Task Force Hawk into Tirana as fast as we did,” he said. The 30-day transit period did not seem fast to some critics, but without the C-17, the airlift would have been impossible, Robertson said.

“You cannot get into the Third World nowadays, with these kinds of taxiways and runways, without this kind of capability [found in the C-17],” said Robertson. “The C-5 couldn’t do it. The C-141s are going away. The C-130s aren’t big enough. So that’s a success story for the C-17,” he asserted.

During the operation, AMC lost about 2,500 sorties that would have been used for training, Strube said. While some of those training sorties-notably in air refueling-were more than made up by real-world experience, many more, such as upgrade and aircraft commander qualifications, had to be made up later.

After Kosovo, all of AMC reduced its scheduling by roughly 10 percent to get maintenance backlogs caught up as well as to get personnel through missed training sessions. The AMC norm of 300 missions per day was changed; it dropped to about 240 per day, Strube said. Plans called for AMC to be caught up and back to pre-Kosovo scheduling by late November.

Galaxy Woes

The C-5 mission capable rate during the reconstitution period was “down to 56 percent,” Robertson reported. It is a figure, he said, that “waters my eyes.” Not counting the post-Kosovo downtime, he said, “We’ve been using 61 percent as a recent average,” which is still markedly below the goal of 75 percent.

Re-engining the entire C-5 fleet to raise mission capable rates and departure reliability to manageable levels would be an expensive proposition. The Pentagon has undertaken an analysis of alternatives to see what mix of repairs, updates, and new airplanes offers the most capability at the lowest cost.

Robertson suggested applying a pass-fail test to a C-5 upgrade “just like we did on the C-17” earlier this decade, when that aircraft had to pass a reliability, availability, and maintainability assessment to win approval for a multiyear contract. In this concept, he said a squadron’s worth of 10-year-old C-5Bs would get new engines and other improvements to determine if the upgrade would deliver a worthwhile payback in performance. If it did, a larger-scale refit could be considered.

A huge percentage of AMC’s tanker assets-95 percent of regular aircraft and crews and 65 percent of Guard and Reserve tanking capability-was tagged to Operation Allied Force.

With 294 crews and 160 tanker aircraft involved, Allied Force was “the most tanker-intensive operation we’ve had since Desert Shield and Desert Storm-maybe even bigger than that,” Robertson said. Had the order come down to implement an even larger deployment of forces to the theater-something Robertson said was imminent when Slobodan Milosevic accepted NATO’s terms-virtually all of AMC’s tanker assets would have been used, with nearly all Guard and Reserve capability called up.

AMC deliberately tried not to touch tankers at Pacific bases to have them available if a second MTW erupted in Korea, Robertson noted, but even tanker units at Kadena AB, Japan, and Eielson AFB, Alaska, wound up contributing either crews or airplanes.

In fact, AMC had a tighter supply of aircrews than aircraft. The AMC aircrew-to-tanker ratio is normally 1.35 active and 1.27 Guard and Reserve, but NATO commander US Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark insisted on an in-theater ratio of 1.8, “and so we flat ran out of aircrews,” Robertson said.

A ratio of 1.56 had been proposed as the new tanker manning level even before Allied Force broke out. Now, “we think our tanker [crew] requirement is valid … as a result of Kosovo,” he added.

C-17s for the Theater

Part and parcel of the MRS-05 study will be another analysis of intratheater lift, Robertson noted, and the C-17 may be more formally designated in this kind of mission.

There were some lessons learned in Kosovo that did not suggest buying more equipment, Robertson observed. The operation underscored that planning staffs in overseas headquarters have become “pretty lean … on tanker expertise,” due to the pilot drawdown and staff manpower cuts.

The Allied Force Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza, Italy, initially demanded more tankers than were needed at the time. AMC drafted planners and a “tanker colonel” to go to the CAOC to help the commander “work mobility issues and … requirements,” said Robertson. It was a good lesson, he added.

Another one was putting 12 C-17s under the direct command and control of the CAOC, for missions like airlifting Task Force Hawk. The temporary change in ownership was a “tremendous success story,” said Robertson, because it improved the speed at which orders could be transmitted and airplanes moved where they needed to be.

“It’s something we’re going to have to go back and write into the doctrine, as to how that’s done,” Robertson said.

However, one lesson does require a substantial infusion of funding which simply isn’t available for the foreseeable future. That lesson was the lack of self-defense mechanisms on airlifters operating in or near the combat zone.

“Every day … there was a lot of talk about airdropping relief supplies to the [ethnic Albanian] refugees who were still in-country” but who had fled their homes in Kosovo, Robertson explained. “We were facing a real dilemma because the threat environment would not allow us to do that. There is no protection for our strat airlifters against [infrared surface-to-air missiles],” particularly those of the shoulder-fired variety, he said.

The problem is being worked, Robertson said, but the solutions are “not cheap.” To outfit the entire airlift fleet, including C-130s, with such self-defense mechanisms would cost over $6 billion, he said. AMC is looking at what’s the right number of airplanes to equip.

“We’re trying to figure a way … to find a number that’s in the hundreds of millions, rather than billions, and stretch it out,” he noted. “There aren’t a lot of solutions to the problem.” The requirement for self-defense has just been stated, and the Air Force labs and Electronic Systems Center are working on possible answers.

The big lesson is that such systems “will certainly help us operate in areas where we’re going to be increasingly restricted from operating,” said Robertson.

In the Kosovo operation, newly modified Pacer CRAG KC-135s, which are fitted with new avionics, were not allowed to operate in the European theater without restrictions imposed by the host countries. The airplanes operate traffic collision avoidance systems, weather radar, station-keeping equipment, and other new avionics that NATO nations were worried would interfere with civilian radio-frequency functions.

“We finally got a waiver for single-ship operations” but not the standard formation flights, Robertson noted. He had hoped that the single-ship operations would demonstrate that Pacer CRAG wouldn’t have an impact on civilian functions. Worldwide, however, nations are “jealously guarding … the frequency spectrum,” said the general. “They want ironclad assurances we won’t interfere” with anything else in the frequency spectra involved.

Europeans were expected to approve Pacer CRAG for unrestricted operations, but Robertson said, “Our acquisition processes are moving faster than our ability to get host nation approval.”