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February 6, 2008— One of the lingering questions in Defense Department circles is the amount of strategic airlift capability—in particular, the number of C-17s—that the Air Force will need to support the increased size of the Army and Marine Corps. However, the Bush Administration has decided to punt on the issue and leave it to the next Administration.

DOD’s newly issued $515.4 billion budget request to Congress contains no money to buy any C-17s beyond the 190-aircraft program of record. Nor does it include funds to terminate the aircraft’s production line.

The question of the C-17 is made all the more relevant in light of the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program. The latter remains under a Nunn-McCurdy breach for cost overruns that USAF publicized in September 2007. The program is awaiting recertification to the Congress that it merits continuation in spite of the challenges. Depending on OSD’s final determination, the scope of the USAF program may change.

That decision will have play in whether the Air Force decides to push for additional C-17s, Air Force officials suggested on Feb. 4 while discussing the service’s Fiscal 2009 spending proposal. As it now stands, USAF intends to upgrade the avionics and install the new engines and additional RERP upgrades on all 111 C-5s in the fleet.

For 2009, the Air Force has requested $708 million for the C-5s. This includes $583 million for procurement activities related to the Avionics Modernization Program and RERP, and about $125 million in research, development, test, and evaluation funding. The Air Force is purchasing three RERP kits in Fiscal 2009 with those funds and is investing in advanced procurement of nine kits in Fiscal 2010, the Air Force budget experts said. For the AMP program, 10 kits are budgeted in Fiscal 2009, and there is advanced procurement funding for 12 kits the following year.

If all C-5s get the AMP and RERP modifications, then the Air Force’s total strategic airlift fleet adds up to 301 aircraft. This number, the USAF leadership has said, is within range of the requirement established in DOD’s most recently completed mobility study. That document called for a range between 292 and 383 strategic airlifters. Following that study, Congress mandated that USAF maintain a minimum of 299 strategic airlifters.

But the mobility study was completed before OSD announced that it would be increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 65,000 and 27,000, respectively, by 2012. These additional ground forces, along with the grinding tempo of mobility operations in the Afghanistan and Iraq, and emerging missions such as US Africa Command are raising a lot of eyebrows on what kinds of organic airlift the US really needs.

“The way I like to look at this is sort of in a triangle,” Maj. Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters on Feb. 4. At the top is the C-5 RERP program, which remains a question mark, he said. At the other corner is the Army and Marine Corps expansion, and in the last corner are the expanding missions, such as AFRICOM, Spencer said. Budget planners “don’t know how that is going to play out,” he added, emphasizing that, at the moment, USAF is trying to settle on what the real requirement for C-17 is. “I think that will play out here over time,” he said.

The C-17 program has limped along for years based on last-minute Congressional add-ons and Boeing’s aggressive lobbying. In December, Boeing officials stated publicly they believe that an additional 10 C-17s would be slipped into the Fiscal 2008 Global War on Terror supplemental spending request.

Without any new orders, the line is due to begin shutting down soon since long-lead supplies for new airframes need to be purchased. However, much as it has done with the F-22, the Fiscal 2009 budget submission does not include funds from the Pentagon to close the doors on the C-17 line, according to Pentagon Comptroller Tina Jonas.

“We looked at that and we feel that the shutdown costs ought to be ... included in a future budget,” Jonas explained on Feb. 4 while discussing the budget proposal with reporters. For Fiscal 2009, about $935 million has been allotted in the C-17 program for support equipment, training, retrofits to existing airframes, and the installation of large aircraft infrared countermeasure systems, according to DOD budget documents.

Despite the plan to increase the ground component, some DOD leaders think that airlift requirements won’t be significantly altered. During Mondays’ budget presentation, Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, the Joint Staff’s director of force structure, resources, and assessment, went against the grain of everything that we have heard USAF officials and even Army officials say on this issue. Stanley said that the airlift requirement won’t necessarily change in the years ahead.

“Just because we grew the size of the ground forces doesn't mean that our predictions about the percentage of those forces that need to be rapidly deployed, like the strategic airlift, has changed,” he said. “It's not directly related, but the department is going to be updating those mobility capability studies.”

The Army, for its part, says it remains in consultation with the Air Force on airlift requirements. “One of the things we always emphasize is we’re supportive of the lift required to move these formations from one place to another,” Lt. Gen. David Melcher, the Army’s military deputy for budget, told reporters on Feb. 4.

Army officials have “always been supporters” of funding for the C-17 program and other airlift sustainment and refurbishing programs, he said, while sounding a note of concern about impending requirements. “The Air Force did their own estimates about what would be needed in order to accommodate a bigger Army, and I can’t tell you that all the funding is there to support it,” Melcher said.