Defense Media Network

No More C-17s for the Air Force?

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 U.S. Air Force‘s hefty C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter – won’t happen this year.

“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.”

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.

C-17 Globemaster III

A C-17 Globemaster III aircraft drops pallets for Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment as it flies over Patrol Base Buji, Afghanistan, on May 17, 2010. The pallets supplied the Marines with water and other essential items. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ralph J. Fabbri

“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 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.

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.

Qatari C-17 Globemaster III

The Qatar Emiri Air Force’s second C-17 Globemaster III takes off from the Boeing final assembly facility in Long Beach, Calif., completing Qatar’s initial order for the airlifter. Boeing photo by Michael Gail

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.


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

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    Boeing is to be commended for its continuing and bold support for C-17, despite the forces arrayed against them, as demonstrated yet again by comments expressed above. As stated in July 17 and June 1, 2010 releases from Global HeavyLift, and every effort is being made by elements within the DoD, in collaboration with several international media outlets, both mainstream and in the blogosphere, to dissuade the Indian government, and the IAF, from continuing their efforts to acquire as many as 22 C-17s with the intent of addressing critical strategic/tactical airlift requirements. The latter being considered a necessary and pragmatic move as the China threat grows.

    It is important to mention also, according to direct knowledge, that the Ministry of Defense UK (MODUK) has allowed for the acquisition of 3 more C-17s (a total of 10) to handle current and projected global force projection/humanitarian requirements, while NATO itself is considering expansion of its multi-nation Strategic Airlift pool to 6 aircraft.

    The key incentive for Lockheed-Martin and Airbus-EADS anti-C17 efforts is upwards of USD200 billion in aircraft sales, inclusive of the tanker deal. We include this for the simple reason that our sources advise us that Lockheed-Martin has become a de facto partner to Airbus, with the aim of replacing the “American face” lost with the pull-out of Northrop-Grumman. This arrangement has existed in varying degrees since 2006 when Airbus advised A-400M customers quite disturbed by the continuing delays and mounting costs (prompting South Africa to cancel last year) that if they acquired C-130Js in the interim, they would buy them back when A-400M became available for delivery.

    One final comment regarding the “wisdom” of retrofitting 32-42 year-old C-5s (which have NEVER performed to specification even when new) relative to what seems the “best of use of defense dollars”. Try this:

    A.) 80,000,000 for one REAMP/RERP C-5 = one still near half century old airlifter which has been notoriously unreliable throughout its service life (current: 56% mission completion rate;i.e., half the time it’s flying, half the the time it’s not) and is all but useless in the operational realities of asymmetric and conventional warfare scenarios existing concomitantly — requiring rapid force projection of men and equipment directly to theater. C-5 requires significant airfield infrastructure, C-17 does not, as proven in Afghanistan, Iraq and multiple humanitarian/disaster missions.

    B.) On the other hand, 60.000.000, when utilized in conjunction with a Congressionally approved Transformational Recapitalization defense platform acquisition process as outlined in the November 2004 issue of Defense AT&L, which allows the USAF to resell first generation C-17A models to the private sector for 140.000.000 (market value of C-17, as assessed by one of the most respected aviation consulting firms, is in the 90-140mil range) begets a new C-17 ordered from Boeing, and by State Department mandate, immediate access to the sold C-17A in times of national emergency, or as needed.

    Result: A 20,000,000 savings (actually more, since it is known that the C-5 retrofit cost stated by Lockheed-Martin, will again prove unreasonably low and rapidly invoking Nunn-McCurdy) and two C-17s; one new and one with at least half its service life remaining, with a combined capacity of 174 tons.

    Shall we talk again about “best use of available defense dollars” and leave out the invoking of President Eisenhower, who was only referring to unreasonable waste in the defense industrial complex, and not actions that would cripple the country’s ability to defend itself against enemies past, present and future… including China?

    Myron D. Stokes
    Managing Member
    Global HeavyLift Holdings, LLC
    Nellis/AFB AAR: Gen. B. McCaffrey
    CAMAA Encyclopedic Narrative:

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    Although the 111th Congress has passed neither a defense authorization bill nor a defense appropriations bill (in a perfect world, both would be in place October 1) and neither now appears likely until a very different 112th Congress convenes on January 3, it appears unlikely that lawmakers will continue requesting C-17 Globemaster III airlifters. In the defense authorization bill that failed in the Senate on September 21, the C-17 did not even survive the mark-up process. It now appears that if it wants to keep open the Long Beach, California plant that makes these planes (and nothing else), the planemaker will have to sell its product overseas. After two decades of failing to do this, it is now making some progress.

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    Robert F. Dorr

    The 105th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, now becomes the final; unit to acquire factory-built, brand-new C-17s. The men and women of the unit at Stewart Field in New York have mixed feelings about saying “so long:” to their old friend, the C-5 Galaxy. The change will reduce the number of jobs in the Guard unit, an always-important consideration. Now that we have passed the middle of fiscal year 2011, the Department of Defense still does not have a budget law enacted and there appear to be no plans in any pending legislation that involve C-17s. It would be nice if Boeing could find a way to sell a few more export examples.