Defense Media Network

C-130, C-5, C-17 Airlifters Prompt Washington Debate

The U.S. Air Force’s best-known cargo haulers are at the center of Washington deliberations over the future of the airlift fleet.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wants to kill the behind-schedule, over-budget Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) for the C-130H Hercules tactical airlifter and replace it with a less expensive update.

On the other hand, some Air Force leaders – plus some in Congress – want to save an AMP program for that aging giant, the C-5 Galaxy, which is the largest transport aircraft in the West. Part of the C-5 fleet is also up for re-engining.

Other airmen and others in Congress want the C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter to remain in production. The C-17 is newer and more reliable that the C-5, but has shorter range. The Pentagon has said for several years that it doesn’t need more.

Speaking to reporters about the AMP for the C-130H, Schwartz said: “The bottom line is, we can’t afford it.”

It was a surprise when Boeing won the AMP contract in June 2001, defeating the builder of the C-130, Lockheed Martin. Boeing made the maiden flight of the first C-130H AMP developmental aircraft at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex., on Sept. 19, 2006. With two testbeds flying, the company began low-rate initial production (LRIP) in 2009 and delivered its first C-130H AMP avionics simulator to Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., the Air Force’s Hercules training base, on Sept. 18 of that year.

Intended as a retrofit for 221 C-130Hs, many of which have cockpits that differ from the others, AMP has been experienced cost overruns and delays. A 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the cost of the program increased $ 700 million while slashing the number of aircraft serviced by the program roughly in half. This doubled the cost per aircraft, the GAO said.

Instead of AMP, Schwartz wants a modest upgrade that will make aging C-130Hs eligible to fly on international air routes. Schwartz acknowledged that he might be overruled, but at the end of 2009 many observers in Washington doubted the C-130H AMP would survive.

The fate of the C-5 Galaxy is unlikely to be decided in the short term. The Air Force has 111 aircraft (59 C-5A, 47 C-5B, 2 C-5C, 3 C-5M). In 2008, as an economy move, the USAF scrapped plans to re-engine its C-5As, which are 15 years older than its C-5Bs, but at press time but both A and B models were still scheduled for their own Avionics Modernization Program (AMP). In addition, only C-5B models will now replace antiquated 41,000-lb thrust General Electric TF39-GE-1C turbofan engines with new, 67,000-lb thrust General Electric CF6-80C2 engines. A modernized Galaxy transport is given the designation C-5M Super Galaxy.

The C-5 is the only aircraft that can carry some cargoes. Some in Congress, however, insist that most C-5s ought to be retired and that C-5 funding should be diverted to building more C-17s, whether the Pentagon requests them or not.

Total C-17 orders as of late 2009 covered 206 aircraft, including 189 for the USAF and others for Great Britain, Australia Canada, NATO and the United Arab Emirates. Boeing said that if the U.S. did not order more C-17s, the production line would shut down in July 2011. When this story went to press, Congress was poised to appropriate funds for 10 more Air Force Globemasters in fiscal year 2010.

The C-5 versus C-17 debate has raged for years. It did not prevent a C-5M Super Galaxy from a Sept. 13 flight-record effort: Carrying a payload of 176,610 pounds, the C-5M named “The Spirit of Normandy” (re-engined former C-5B 86-0013, c/n 500-0099) took off from Dover Air Force Base, Del., and climbed to 41,188 feet in 23 minutes and 53 seconds, a new world record for aircraft weighing 551,155 to 661,386 pounds. In reaching that altitude so quickly and flying horizontally when it got there, the C-5M broke seven other records and set first-time standards in 33 categories that had not been documented previously. Pilot on the flight was Lt. Col. Scott Erickson, the Air Force reservist in charge of C-5M training at Dover. The flight lasted 90 minutes; details are being filed with the U.S. component of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the arbiter of U.S. records.

Dover has all three current C-5Ms, which are being used to demonstrate the upgrade for C-5B models, which includes the new engines. Dover also operates the C-17, giving airmen a chance to compare the two types side-by-side. Within the ranks opinions are divided over modernizing C-5s, buying more C-17s, or some combination of both.

Observers in Washington do not believe the record flight will influence policy decisions about the future airlift fleet. While few in Washington believe the C-130H AMP program can be saved, the C-5 versus C-17 debate appears to be an ongoing annual event.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...