C-17 Program, Under Threat, Gets a Lift from the US Senate
In early November, Bloomberg and other news services were reporting that a recent draft of the Defense Department’s Mobility Capabilities Study recommended ending purchases of C-17 Globemaster IIIs beyond the 180 currently budgeted. This is 40 planes less than the Air Force’s stated requirements of 220 aircraft, and DID has also noted that the existing fleet is wearing out prematurely due to its accumulation of flying hours over Kosovo, in international humanitarian missions, and during the War on Terror. Without additional orders, however, Aviation Week reported an estimated shutdown of Boeing’s C-17 production line in 2008.
While there is admittedly an element of contractor influence games here, if the production contract ends and no further orders are expected, options tend to dwindle somewhat. Late last week, however, the US Senate approved a measure that would keep the C-17 production line open.
An amendment to the Senate’s FY 2006 defense authorization bill H.R. 2863 sponsored by Sens. Jim Talent [R-MO] and Joe Lieberman [D-CT] passed 89-8, authorizing the US Air Force to purchase up to 42 new C-17s.
According t Sen. Talent’s office, the Talent-Lieberman amendment also includes two additional provisions.
One urges the Secretary of the Air Force to keep production lines open by sustaining at least a minimum production of C-17s until further assessment of airlift needs are completed. The lack of binding language and the presence of the 42 aircraft authorization makes this provision seem somewhat redundant; it appears to have been inserted mostly to make the Senate’s intent clearer. Meanwhile, DID might suggest a Congressional Budget Office report worth early consideration for that assessment; the Pentagon’s Mobility Capabilities Study is also due before the end of 2005.
The last provision requires the Secretary of Defense to certify the need for additional C-17s by assessing the additional inter-theater airlift requirements generated by 7 factors “not fully considered in the [current study], including: the Army’s shift to brigade combat teams, its goal of deploying a brigade anywhere in the world in 4 to 7 days and a division anywhere in the world in ten, our increased involvement in international humanitarian relief missions and the deployment back to the U.S. of forces as part of the Global Posture Review.”
With the Pentagon noting growing current operational/ financial issues due to the continuing lateness of a FY 2006 appropriations bill, there is pressure to finalize the US Senate’s defense authorization bill this week, then move it into reconciliation with the House of Congress and hammer out an agreement. Senate lawmakers will press for inclusion of the C-17 related Talent-Lieberman amendment during that reconciliation process.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, VA, summed up the situation before the amendment in a quote to Bloomberg:
“Without additional C-17s, it will be very hard for the Air Force to meet its obligations to the rest of the nation’s military… The Air Force doesn’t want to stop production because it isn’t very happy with its existing aircraft [numbers] and it thinks it will need more C-17s, but it can’t afford to keep producing them.”
Chooses not to keep producing them would be more accurate, of course. C-17 costs currently sit at approximately $160-180 million per plane, less than the cost of a new 747 airliner but more than competitors such as Russia’s stretched IL-76MF Candid. With many armored vehicles and other supplies unable to fit easily into the C-130 Hercules transports and/or travel the required distances, the C-17’s short field landing performance has turned it into a direct-delivery tactical transport as well as a strategic inter-theater lift aircraft. The C-17 has delivered 70% of the cargo airlifted into Iraq, for instance.
Most C-17 construction takes place in California, but several components are assembled at Boeing’s St. Louis-based defense unit. A release from Sen. Talent [R-MO] estimates that keeping the production lines open preserves an estimated 1,800 Missouri jobs, approximately half of which are in the St. Louis area, and generates $776 million worth of economic activity in Missouri. The benefits to co-sponsor Sen. Lieberman’s home state of Connecticut are less obvious to DID.
Meanwhile, The Project On Government Oversight talked to Washington state-based KOMO TV and called the amendment:
“…just another gift to a defense contractor, the latest attempt by Congress to force the military to purchase weapons it doesn’t even need,” said Eric Miller. “Congress is looking out for the defense industry but not the needs of our military.”
A press release to this effect has also been issued. POGO might have been well served by contacting the US Army for comment beforehand, and by looking more deeply into the patterns of priorities, influence, and public negotiation strategies within the USAF, before offering that characterization.
- Trent Telenko’s January 2005 opinion piece at Winds of Change.NET: “Afghanistan: A Bad War for the Fighter Pilot Generals“