Lexington Institute on “The Dumbest Weapons Decision of the Decade”
With all of the recent C-17 related purchases by NATO, Canada, et. al., a reader drew our attention to a recent piece by military analyst Loren Thompson at the Lexington Institute think-tank in Washington, DC. Pulling no punches, it’s titled “The Dumbest Weapons Decision of the Decade.”
People from other countries often underestimate the role of think tanks in Washington, because there are no comparable players in their own countries. That’s a big mistake. American academia’s growing irrelevance means that the policy agendas and talking points of US political parties are often underpinned by think-tank research and proposals. Lexington isn’t in the top tier with institutions like Brookings, Heritage, AEI (American Enterprise Institute) et. al., but it’s pitching into a combustible environment. The final decision on C-17 procurement will come from Congress, the C-17 already has a lobbying base, and the country is headed for the final stretch of the 2006 mid-term elections; it’s also gearing up for a hotly-contested and security-focused Presidential election in 2008. An excerpt from Thompson’s September 13, 2006 Issue Brief (which sounds like a political address), reads:
“The C-17 Globemaster III is by all accounts the best long-range military transport ever built. It can fly very big loads into very small places, it has a 90% mission-capable rate, it is cheap to operate, and it costs no more than a commercial airliner. The plane is so popular with military users that it is being used at a rate 40% higher than expected. Basically, every C-17 that’s available is in use everyday, delivering supplies to troops in Afghanistan, providing humanitarian relief to refugees, evacuating wounded soldiers from Iraq (which is one reason why the time it takes to get wounded from the war zone to stateside hospitals has declined from ten days in the first Gulf War to three days today).
So of course, policymakers have decided to stop building the plane. They say they have enough C-17’s to meet strategic airlift needs for the foreseeable future. Even though their stated requirement for how much airlift is needed hasn’t changed since a “Mobility Requirements Study” was conducted in 2000. Perhaps you remember what it was like back then. No global war on terror. No shift to expeditionary warfare. No plans to return troops in Europe to the U.S. No big hurricane evacuations. The good old days…
Someday in the not-so-distant future, American soldiers are going to die because the joint force couldn’t get essential supplies into some remote airstrip fast enough. When that day comes, critics will recall the optimistic assumptions that justified killing the nation’s only modern jet airlifter and say, “How could anybody think that 180 C-17’s would be enough to cover the world when the only other long-range airlifter in the fleet was designed in the 1960’s, couldn’t use small airstrips, and had chronic reliability problems?”
Its its defense, the US Air Force believes that re-engining (and often re-wiring) its giant C-5 Galaxy aircraft will significantly improve their readiness rates, while advancing the planned aerial tanker buy will help by ensuring that US transport aircraft can make long flights when needed. Likewise, his “every C-17 that’s available is in use everyday” line reveals a misunderstanding of how the process actually works, and what the current mission rate actually means.
With that said, that current usage rate shows no signs of slowing and it will age the C-17s early, like the C-141 Starlifters before them. With the C-5s facing a finite but indeterminate life cycle of their own due to aging issues, the USAF is making a risky procurement call by shutting down C-17 production. Especially given the legislature’s set-aside of funds for 42 additional aircraft.
Thompson’s analysis fails to discuss the problem in the kind of balanced depth one expects from a think tank, but he makes a number of sharply-worded points, concerning a potential hot-button issue, that’s tied to a lot of jobs around the country. If a number of candidates begin picking up on his talking points in the runup to 2008, the USAF may find that it has made a risky political call as well, receiving extra C-17s “for free” via Congress only as long as one doesn’t count political credibility as a cost.