Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

March 15, 2006The Air Force is seeking help from lawmakers to fill what it now perceives as a critical funding gap for the service’s in-demand mission—global air mobility operations. The proof is in the service’s 2007 unfunded priority list.

What Else Was Said on the Hill

The MCS says 180

Handling the current tempo

Hunter on the QDR

Would take a tanker first

There’s time on C-17

Topping wish list

How wrong can you be?

High usage leads to change

How complete could it be?

A little flexibility, please

Beefing up defense

A cost of war

No so fast

Let’s wait till 2008

Another hybrid fan

Air Force and Pentagon officials have told Congress as they make the rounds of 2007 budget hearings that air mobility assets have been at the forefront of the fight since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. In particular, they say, the use of the C-17 strategic airlifter has grown phenomenally. Now, the Air Force needs more than the 180 C-17s called for by the Mobility Capabilities Study, which informed the Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2007 defense budget request.

The MCS found that a fleet of 292 strategic mobility aircraft (112 upgraded C-5s and 180 new C-17s) would be sufficient to fill the nation’s military air mobility requirements. It was the Pentagon view—with Air Force acquiescence—that the buy of C-17 airlifters could be stopped at 180 airframes. It’s a view that has been pilloried on both sides of the Hill. 

A vocal critic of the Pentagon’s QDR process, which he calls a “budget driven exercise,” is Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter also questions the “completeness” of the Mobility Capabilities Study and the Pentagon’s reliance on the MCS to make program budget decisions when the document itself recommends further analysis.

Among Senators questioning both the MCS and 2007 budget decisions is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who maintains the MCS and QDR were “wrong” when they stated 180 C-17s would be enough. Inhofe asks whether the DOD “topline is too low, and we just can’t do all the things we’re supposed to be doing?”

Despite these lawmaker claims, Air Force and Pentagon officials do not now say the MCS was wrong. They simply say they know that the usage rate of the C-17 has gone up to such an extent that they must buy additional aircraft to offset the C-17 fleet’s accelerated depreciation.

The Air Force does view rectifying the situation as critical, evidenced by the service’s 2007 unfunded priority list. Under “National Defense Airlift Fund Capability Upgrades,” the Air Force is requesting $1.6 billion out of a total mobility line of $2.43 billion to procure seven more C-17 airframes.

Lawmakers wanted to know why the Pentagon now wants 187 C-17s and, specifically, why the Air Force decided to approach the issue through an out-of-budget unfunded request.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne explained it this way: The C-17 is “being used at a rate and tempo that exceeds the design that we had amortized. … It looks to us like we might need a hedge bet, if you will, against the operation tempo.”

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, added that the heads of US Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command are citing “wartime utilization rates on the C-17s that are well in excess of what we had programmed historically. … The unfunded priority list [would] recap the wartime use rates.”

Gen. Duncan McNabb, AMC chief, told lawmakers that the sheer versatility of the C-17 strategic airlifter has much to do with the advancing burnout factor. “We are flying the C-17 at an unprecedented rate. … We’re using it in much more of a tactical role, … using it much more like a [C-]130.”
USAF Gen. Norton Schwartz, TRANSCOM boss, would much rather have what’s being called a hybrid tanker—a new aircraft that could serve as both an aerial refueler and a cargo hauler—but “having said that, could we use some additional C-17s? Yes.” Schwartz wants to keep the additional C-17s on the unfunded list because he does not want to “perturb” the Air Force’s funded acquisition program, which, as he says, includes modernization of the C-5 fleet and procurement of a new tanker. That’s why he sees placing an extra C-17 buy on the UPL as “attractive.”

Other elements of the top mobility UPL request also would address the use rate of the C-17. For instance, the Air Force would like to add countermeasures to C-130 and other tactical airlifters to save the “C-17 to go do something else,” said McNabb. Right now, TRANSCOM and AMC often must shift personnel and cargo from tactical airlifters to the C-17, which does have defensive countermeasures.

The Air Force’s 40-year-old KC-135 aerial refueling fleet, of course, is square in the middle of any debate on the state of global air mobility. It was the subject of a special House hearing.