As government prepares for debate in the fall over the fiscal year 2011 defense budget, some observers believe that a Washington tradition – an annual budget slugfest over the Air Force’s hefty C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter – won’t happen this year.
For the past several years, two successive administrations – both with Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense – have sought to end C-17 production for U.S. forces, arguing that the current “program of record” of 223 Globemasters gives the United States more of the big transports than it needs. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) supports the Obama administration view of the C-17 as expressed by Gates.
“I will continue to strongly recommend that the president veto any legislation that sustains the continuation of the C-17,” Gates told a panel of supporters of the aircraft. “It would be a serious mistake to believe the president would accept these unneeded programs simply because the authorization or appropriations legislation includes other provisions important to him and this administration.”
Supporters of the C-17 have been quietly lobbying to add five more of the big transports to the FY11 defense authorization bill. Last year, ramrodded by the late Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa), lawmakers added 10 U.S. Air Force C-17s to the planned “buy” at a cost of $2.5 billion. Boeing assembles the C-17 at a Long Beach, Calif. facility that manufactures no other product. Supporters of continued C-17 production for U. S. forces say the program supports 30,000 jobs and that loss of the C-17 factory would be a devastating blow to the declining U.S. industrial base. They’ve had their way until now – winning Congressional add-ons that over several years paid for 43 C-17s that the last two administrations said they didn’t want and the Air Force said it didn’t need.
The most vocal C-17 advocate has been Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash), disparaged by critics as “the Senator from Boeing,” which manufactures other aircraft near Dicks’ district. But after he replaced Murtha as chairman of the House of Representatives’ Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Dicks surprised almost everyone in Washington by appearing to back away from the C-17.
Dicks is crafting an FY11 spending bill that won’t include any of the big cargo lifters. Supporters say Boeing needs an order for five more U.S. planes to bridge the gap until it can begin production in 2014 of ten Globemasters for India. Although it initially faced difficulty selling the aircraft to international customers and has yet to succeed with a civilian version, Boeing has sold a handful of C-17s to users overseas – three to a joint NATO force based at Papa Air Base, Hungary; six for Britain; four for Australia; four for Canada; and two for Qatar. An order from the United Arab Emirates for six C-17s was signed in January 2010. The order from India is expected to lead to possibly as many as 20 additional purchases by that country and may encourage purchases by other international operators.
The C-17 is powered by four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines, each rated at 40,440 pounds thrust, has a wingspan of almost 170 feet, and can haul a typical 150,000-lb cargo over a distance of 1,900 miles. It is viewed as a competitor to the older C-5 Galaxy, which has greater payload and range but suffers from reliability issues. The Air Force appears to have finalized its decision to modernize all 49 of its C-5B Galaxy transports but only some of its 73 C-5A models. Diehard advocates for “Fred” – the polite version of the troops’ nickname for the C-5 is “fantastic ridiculous economic disaster” – say the C-17 can’t complete on long, trans-oceanic routes. The argument that U. S. Air Force purchases are needed to keep the Long Beach plant alive is less effective now that a trickle of foreign purchases is beginning.