Having sent Congress a budget plan to reduce the airlift fleet some 20 percent, the Air Force and the Pentagon are now gearing up for a study to ensure mobility force levels are adequate to meet new national strategy requirements while leaving enough to deal with pop-up contingencies.
C-17 refuels over Lake Havasu, Ariz. There will be 223 Globemaster IIIs in the new, smaller strategic fleet.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, USAF Chief of Staff, acknowledged that mobility studies typically take years, and the airlift cuts in the Fiscal 2013 budget were determined after only a few months of analysis. However, he said, planned reductions in the size of the ground-based military branches, as well as the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, made the reductions fairly obvious.
"We’re pretty dramatically cutting the ground forces that depend on the mobility," Schwartz told defense reporters in late February. Nevertheless, he said, there will still be slightly more airlift capacity than the Air Force thinks it will need in the coming years.
The last big lift analysis—the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2016—set a benchmark requirement for 32.7 million ton miles per day, Schwartz said. However, "the analysis that we have done," based on the needs of the new national strategy and the reduction in force of tens of thousands of Army and Marine Corps ground troops, suggests "the force size that flows from that is about 29.4 million ton miles per day. Our actual capability, based on 275 big airplanes and 318 small lift airplanes is about 30.4 to 30.6" MTM/D. While he said there’s "some ambiguity there," the actual capacity should be "slightly more than what we understand the demand signal to be, which is the right place to be."
Schwartz waved off the notion that a new mobility study would be a mere justification for numbers already set down in the budget. "There will be another MCRS," he said. However, USAF will suggest it be more comprehensive by counting factors not included in previous studies.
"In addition to assessing lift," he said, USAF wants the new evaluation to also look at "air refueling, … intratheater requirements, … mission-critical, time-sensitive delivery to maneuver forces," and pre-positioned equipment.
For now, the Air Force leadership is comfortable it has a level of capability "suited to the force structure the strategy envisions." Even so, USAF wants the new mobility study to "get started right away and that it not take two years to complete," Schwartz said. While the Air Force typically provides data and other input to such studies, the new MCRS will be conducted by US Transportation Command and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop.
Johns said the new MCRS will give him "the final level of confidence that we got this right."
The Air Force has proposed reductions in both its strategic and tactical airlifter fleets that emphasize flexibility and multirole capability while eliminating niche capabilities the service says it can’t afford.
The strategic fleet, which was to have numbered more than 300 airframes, will now be set at 275. It will comprise 223 C-17s and 52 C-5Ms.
The C-17s—not all delivered yet—will be standardized to the Block 18 configuration, said Johns. That means the entire fleet will have extended-range fuel tanks and cockpit enhancements not included on early models that began to be delivered in the 1990s. This block "defined" the C-17A configuration, Johns said in an interview.
"With that capability on the C-17A model, and the 223 numbers, I’m good to go as far as meeting the need," he said.
Johns said the C-5M represents an "investment in aircraft availability" because the giant airlifter was not very reliable before the upgrade—but is now turning in markedly better performance, both in capacity and on-time takeoffs.
C-17s have been flying well beyond their planned allotment of annual flying hours. Now that there are a small handful of upgraded C-5Ms available, Johns said he has been trying to offload some of the C-17’s burden onto the C-5.
"We didn’t use it as much as we could have in the last 10 years," he said of the Galaxy, "so we have really put it on the road."
The accelerated experience, he said, has built a new book on C-5 operations, rewriting what can be expected of the aircraft. Because it is so much more dependable, and can go farther and to more places than it could before, crews at Dover AFB, Del., have been "pushing" the C-5M to be tried in new and more aggressive ways, Johns reported.
The last C-17 will join the Air Force inventory in about 2014. The exact timing isn’t certain because USAF has been allowing foreign customers to cut in ahead of it on the production line, due to their funding situations, Johns said. Taking later deliveries also allows USAF to keep the C-17 line open just a bit longer, thus preserving options for continued production if circumstances change—a nod to the "reversibility" aspect of the new national strategy.
Get Back in Line
To get all the C-17s up to a common configuration, it will be necessary to have about nine of them in depot at any given time, Johns said. The approach to updating AMC’s aircraft with common configurations represents a sea change in thinking, he noted.
"We’ve walked away from doing ‘spiral development,’ " said Johns, referring to the scheme in which aircraft were incrementally upgraded with small improvements. "We’re back to doing P3I," or preplanned product improvements, in which a whole fleet receives a common menu of upgrades, such as avionics and self-protection countermeasures. The spiral method created a sustainment headache, and common configurations make it easier for him to calculate capacity across AMC’s entire enterprise, without having to go into a variety of special cases.
"We’ve got the money" programmed into the budget "to get the whole fleet to a common configuration," Johns explained. However, due to capacity, it will take until about 2021 to get the C-17 fleet standardized, he noted.
Whether the Air Force will do a service life extension program on the C-17 is still to be determined.
"We actually started looking at that, and that’s an important conversation to have," but there’s no money except for "the studies and trying to frame it out." A C-17 SLEP would be expensive, especially if it included new engines.
The decision whether to SLEP the C-17 will be key to whether AMC begins pursuing a C-X that might potentially replace both the C-17 and C-5, Johns said; the latter will phase out of the inventory around 2040. The last C-5M will emerge from Lockheed Martin’s conversion facility in Marietta, Ga., around 2017, Johns said.
Several other considerations affect the timing and need for a potential C-X, Johns noted. One is if industry will be able to build what he called "one-offs." Can a contractor efficiently produce one or two airlifters such as the C-17 or C-130J without a major order requiring a years-long production line? The second question is whether there could be a major modification of the C-17 akin to the "stretching" of the C-141A Starlifter into the C-141B. Yet another question concerns preserving C-17 tooling when the line eventually closes, he said, in case the nation wants the line restarted later, as happened with the C-5.
There also will be a foreign platform available for consideration, Johns said: the Airbus A400 airlifter, which is sized between the C-17 and the tactical C-130.
Complicating the forecast is a new generation of lighter-than-air technology now being pursued by a number of companies.
"I have [an] interest in hybrid airships," Johns said, because they represent a capability that could be used in a "semipermissable environment" that would be "about one-third the cost of fixed-wing [at] … about one-third the speed." Such aircraft would also be "three times the cost of surface," but "three times as fast." So "there may be a huge niche—logistically, operationally—with this hybrid airship construct."
Other kinds of vertical lift—helicopters and tilt-rotors—may also be required if operators demand that capability, but Johns noted, "the minute you go powered" in a vertical lift aircraft, "you just drive a huge bill, and that’s just the nature of physics."
There is a Joint Future Theater Lift program for replacing the Army’s CH-47, and Johns said he wants to investigate alternative approaches. One option is to do more with the Joint Precision Airdrop System, by which cargo dropped by parachute can be steered with great precision to the area where it is needed. (See box, p. 50.)
Putting a JPADS load "within 25 meters" of a drop target is "a lot cheaper" than a whole new aircraft program, he said. The JPADS has been working well in Afghanistan, and Johns said some loads have been dropped directly inside forward operating bases.
Johns is reluctant to discuss which way he thinks the C-X ought to go. Given the emergence of the airship possibility, a new generation of engines, and other considerations, "I don’t want to get boxed into" a choice that may not be the right one in just a few years.
Let’s Get Small
The previous fleet of some 380 C-130s will now be reduced to 318.
Perhaps most controversial of the mobility choices made in the Fiscal 2013 budget was eliminating the C-27J Spartan from USAF’s fleet. The small airlifter was meant to fill the role of operating from small landing strips both domestically and abroad and was specifically tasked with supporting Army units at small airfields where larger aircraft can’t go. The Air National Guard was slated to operate all the Spartans, but USAF decided it couldn’t afford to complete the planned buy of 38 aircraft and fully develop a logistics tail for them.
Schwartz told reporters in February that a CAPE analysis comparing the 25-year life-cycle costs of the C-27J, C-130J, and C-130H told the whole story.
"If I recall the numbers correctly, it was $308 million-an-airplane life-cycle cost for the C-27J; it was $209 [million] for the J model C-130; and it was $185 million for the H," Schwartz reported.
"The C-27J is not a cheap airplane," he continued. "It’s a fine machine and I wish we could have kept it. It was the last thing that went. But the bottom line is that the C-130 or airdrop can perform the time-critical, mission-sensitive missions we are obliged to provide for the Army."
Johns agreed that the C-27J is a good aircraft but is simply not as "versatile" as the C-130, and AMC can’t keep it if the command must reduce the types of airframes it flies.
"It’s not about the money," Johns added, but the need to field only those aircraft capable of doing as much as possible. He said USAF is already operating the C-130 as the Army’s on-call support aircraft in two locations and is meeting all its requirements.
"If I lose C-130s at the expense of C-27s, I lose capability and capacity to meet the plans across the spectrum."
AMC’s No. 1 acquisition priority—and that of the Air Force—is the KC-X tanker. Johns said he planned to attend the preliminary design review for the aircraft in April because he believes industry and the Air Force need to partner at all phases of the program, and operators must be included at every level to ensure the delivered product meets the need.
"We have a great partnership with Boeing, a very transparent system, [and] we are putting great rigor into the system," Johns asserted. "There will be no requirements change. This aircraft, when it comes off the line, will go into combat if I need it to."
A question so far unanswered is how the Air Force will address the issue of replacing Air Force One, the President’s airplane. Johns said he’s not yet ready to launch a new program.
"I have a plan lined up so we can first and foremost sustain the VC-25A," he said, calling it one of his two "no fail" missions, the other being nuclear airlift. After a sustainment program is fleshed out, "we’ll look at bringing the PAR [Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization] on."
The KC-10 also will have to last until 2040, and Johns said the 59 aircraft in that fleet will need to be upgraded to keep them relevant for the remainder of their service lives.
"Right now I’m spending a lot of time ensuring that it stays as ready as it needs to," Johns noted. The Extender can do "huge things" and will be essential for the next 28 years or so. The KC-10 will need additional gear to make it compliant with international navigation norms and also needs investment to solve some "vanishing vendor" issues.
The critical role played by commercial carriers does not get much scrutiny.
"Ninety percent of the passenger movements and 37 percent of the cargo goes by commercial conveyance," Johns pointed out. Participants in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet—commercial carriers that have volunteered their aircraft to be "drafted" in a national emergency—get first dibs on the day-to-day contracts for airlift, and the value of those contracts is running "about $2.6 billion this year."
However, with operations in Iraq over and operations in Afghanistan soon to be winding down, Johns expects the value of the commercial contracts to decline. Before 9/11, the commercial bill was around $500 million annually.
"I expect the number to come down—way down—by about ," he said. "The problem is, how do we glide this to a safe landing, and how do we do it in the most transparent way we can, so I [can] allow commercial industry to stay ahead of it?" He said AMC is studying how it can soften the blow of rapidly declining commercial contracts.
Johns said AMC must fly its organic fleet only as much as needed. That means doing the minimum flights necessary to "grow" aircrews with training and proficiency flights and check rides, but "above that, I know I’m just burning through" aircraft service life and "keeping my crews away from their families more than they need to be." However, AMC cannot fly aircraft half-empty, as "I then have to write a check to TRANSCOM because I’m driving inefficiencies."
So anything above the minimums required for training or transport of gear that can’t fly any other way, "I’ll give that to ... commercial," Johns said, adding that he meets with the commercial carriers quarterly to discuss AMC’s needs and to fill them in on the command’s forecasts for future business.
One of the biggest worries for Johns is the operating tempo for his personnel—specifically, the deployment-to-dwell ratios.
"I’d like to have the Active Duty at a one-to-two; someday at a one-to-three," he said, but "right now, the Active Duty is down to one-to-1.4. I had the [KC-135s] at one-to-.85 dwell-to-deploy, so they were gone more than they were home. And the KC-10s were the same way, one-to-one." That’s a principal reason the Air Force’s plan for 2013 is drawing down a proportionally larger set of force structure from the Guard and Reserve than from the Active Duty—the Active units are deploying too much.
Johns said he fears that when the economy improves, perhaps as early as 2014, AMC may see an exodus of people who are simply tired of running full-out with no breaks in sight.
Supplies on Target
Much has been done to make the Joint Precision Airdrop System more accurate and less costly. JPADS marries GPS guidance to a parachute load and steers the parachute to a precision landing at precise coordinates.
The parachutes in the system are now disposable, and GPS units less heavy, so there is less for the Army to collect and haul back for reuse, said Air Mobility Command’s Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr.
The JPADS units make it possible to hit a drop zone only a few dozen yards long or less, instead of the mile-long drop zone that must be secured for regular airdrop. The mission is now called Airborne Direct Support.
"It’s going to be increasingly high speed, low altitude. We’re doing low speed, low altitude, all to get the footprint down so we can reduce the burden on the Army," Johns reported. "We’re actually dropping inside [forward operating bases] now, because sometimes they can’t get to their DZ," or drop zones.
Air Force Research Lab and other innovators are working to make JPADS even more accurate, but it doesn’t have to be perfect, Johns said.
"I don’t want to put a bundle through somebody’s front window; I just want to put it at their front door."
Variations on the system are also being explored for relief operations such as last year in the Haiti earthquake.
"One pass with the C-17, with airdrop, will feed about 4,000 people for 24 hours," he noted.
One-Third To Be Supported Exclusively by Airdrop
As the US draws down its presence in Afghanistan, the remaining forces there will increasingly depend on airdropped supplies, Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr. said in an interview.
"As you start drawing down, … the leadership has said we need to keep … the shooters, the ones that are engaging, there," Johns observed. Thus, a planned exit of 30,000 troops from Afghanistan this year will draw heavily on logistical personnel who drive trucks and operate convoys—"all the folks who help process, distribute."
The remaining forces will therefore "become more dependent on airdrop because there will be less support structure in place."
He predicted that about a third of the forces in Afghanistan later this year will be supported exclusively by airdropped supplies—everything from food and ammunition pallets to water and fuel bladders.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag