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C-17 Production Line Out of Time

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Reinforcements coming?(click to view full) In 2006 it appeared that recent purchases by Australia, Canada, Britain, and possibly others would not be enough to sustain C-17 production much beyond 2008, when the end of US orders was scheduled to close the line. The line ended up lasting rather longer than that, thanks to a combination […]

Reinforcements coming?
(click to view full)

In 2006 it appeared that recent purchases by Australia, Canada, Britain, and possibly others would not be enough to sustain C-17 production much beyond 2008, when the end of US orders was scheduled to close the line. The line ended up lasting rather longer than that, thanks to a combination of American orders that brought the plane close to its original production targets, and expended interest abroad.

In September 2013, however, Boeing confirmed that they were closing the C-17 production line. The final date is now mid-2015. After that, Airbus’ A400M and Russia’s IL-476 will compete as the only in-production intratheater military transports on the market.

The Long Goodbye



C-17 Globemaster III
(click to view full)

In August 2006, Boeing issued an announcement that it would no longer ‘protect’ 22 C-17s, meaning they’d stop paying partners to produce parts if they weren’t destined for a committed plane order. A September 2006 success by Sen. Jim Talent [R-MO] added more aircraft and extended the production line, and there were also a few international orders. With no further planes requested by the USAF in the FY 2008 budget, however, and international interest seemingly exhausted, Boeing has issued a similar announcement just 7 months later, only to retract it in June 2007 after the House Armed Services Committee submitted an FY 2008 budget with 10 more planes.

The game of chicken continued, even as the C-5’s modernization program’s success remains uncertain, and C-17s were wearing out faster due to higher usage. America’s final orders were placed in FY 2012. Additional foreign orders from the Middle East and India also helped, and customers like Australia and Britain added planes of their own.

Boeing and Airbus’ high-end civilian jetliners like the 747, 777, 787, A380, etc. usually cost more, but a similarly-sized C-17 isn’t cheap at $200 million or so. That limited the C-17’s potential export market size, even as production lines demand a certain order minimum to make sense. Those lines will now intersect in mid-2015, when the C-17 finally goes out of production.

More specifics can be found in the “Early Maneuvering” section, and in the “Developments and Updates” links.

Early Maneuvering

An August 2006 Flight International article added further punch by noting that Boeing had committed $100 million to protect deliveries of 22 more C-17s: 7 in 2007 (to add to the USA’s last 8 aircraft) and 15 in 2008. With orders for only 12 non-US aircraft identified, however, Boeing gave the US Air Force until August 18th to commit to additional C-17s or the firm will only ‘protect’ 12 aircraft. This means they would stop paying suppliers to produce parts for the other 10.

Which is what happened on Aug 18/06.

In exchange for putting its money on the line, Boeing had wanted an indication that the USAF will program money for more C-17s into its five-year budget beginning in 2008, with long-lead money to be provided in 2007. That obviously didn’t happen. Hence their August 18, 2006 notice to suppliers:

“For over a year, Boeing spent its own money protecting the C-17 supplier base. This investment was intended to keep the production line viable while the U.S. Government and Boeing pursued international orders, and to allow time for the U.S. Government to update its post-9/11 mobility requirements, if they chose to do so. During that time Boeing received international orders and commitments for more than a dozen of the advanced air lifters. Congress has added funding for up to three more as part of its recent 2007 budget deliberations. However, when the orders are totaled, there are not enough to sustain continued production beyond mid-2009.”

The move lowers Boeing’s costs. If the shut-down is completed, restarting and re-staffing supplier production lines would sharply raise the USAF’s costs for any additional orders, and would extend delivery times if they decide later on that more aircraft are needed due to the C-17 fleet’s heavy usage and the planes’ accelerated rate of wear.

Boeing’s Aug 17/06 release added:

“This action will ultimately affect the 5,500 Boeing jobs in California, Missouri, Georgia, and Arizona, directly tied to the C-17, and the program’s nationwide supplier workforce that totals more than 25,000 people. Nearly 700 companies in 42 states provide parts and services that go into each C-17.”

DID’s coverage of a recent US Commerce Department report sheds some light on just how much that could cost (itemized, but it adds up to up to $4.8 billion once the line shuts down fully). Meanwhile, local groups continued to lobby hard and look for ways to cut costs, even as Washington think-tanks are savaged the decision as “The Dumbest Weapons Decision of the Decade.”

There had been some speculation that the Pentagon’s C-17 cuts were a cosmetic exercise, sure to be canceled out by Congress. Bills like Lieberman-Talent offered some hope for the Long Beach, CA facility and its suppliers – a hope fulfilled by the addition of 10 US C-17s to the order books in a $2 billion plus-up. Back in August 2006, DID had written that:

“…there is at least another year before decisions are made that could result in a full line closure. Still, the effects of the Pentagon’s decision on the C-17 program may well turn out to be anything but cosmetic.”

Despite additional orders from the USA (10), NATO (4), Canada (4), Australia (4), and Britain (1), the Boeing C-17 production line is set to expire in FY 2009. The USA’s FY 2008 budget request is $653.5 million, and in the words of a Pentagon document “provides for the removing and shipping of C-17 production tooling/ equipment to off-site storage.”

While Congress will eventually have its own say, Boeing reacted with a March 2, 2007 release that put the C-17 production line back into preparation for shutdown, touting 7,000 jobs attached to C-17 production this time:

“Based on the 34-month lead time necessary to build a C-17, Boeing needed a commitment now to avoid a break in production. The Department of Defense did not request funding for new C-17s in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget, released in early February. Consequently, maintaining the C-17 supply base and production line at current production rates will require funding for up to 16 C-17s when Congress finalizes the FY2008 budget.

Last year, Boeing accepted significant risk and used company resources to fund the supply base and production line for 22 aircraft until mid-August. Boeing took this risk because of significant international customer interest and the Air Force’s designation of additional C-17s as the number one priority on its FY2007 Unfunded Priorities List (UPL). This year, the Department of Defense has not requested funding for new C-17s in the FY2008 defense budget, new international interest is significantly less than it was a year ago and the Air Force has identified only two C-17s on its FY2008 UPL.”

The ball is now in Congress’ court. Adding 14 planes to the budget at a likely cost of $3 billion, however, represents a very substantial leap. With the KC-X aerial tanker RFP underway as the USAF’s top priority, and the effort to re-wire, revamp and re-engine the giant C-5 Galaxys underway, the C-17 is flying into a more competitive procurement environment for FY 2008.

Developments and Updates

* DID – C-17 Post-Production: The Long Goodbye. Close-out funding to store the production equipment, data, etc. when the line shuts.

* DID – C-17s for India. Initial deal for 10, may grow to 16-18.

* DID – UAE Buys C-17s, Seeks C-130Js. 10 American FY10 C-17s + 1 extra UK in December 2010 + 6 UAE in January 2010 = production line work until September 2012.

* DID – Last of the Globemasters: The USAF’s Final Orders. The last order was placed in FY 2012. After that, keeping the production line open will depend on exports.

* DID – 15 17s in 09, 8 in 10 = 213. FY 2009-2010 USAF orders.

* Boeing (April 7/14) – Boeing Updates Timing of C-17 Production Line Closure. Moved up to mid-2015, from late 2015 as planned in September 2013. Will create inventory–related charges of approximately $50 million.

* Flight International (June 15/11) – Boeing confirms India has signed C-17 deal. “The future of C-17 production now depends on whether Boeing can scrape at least 30 additional aircraft orders within the next five years. At that point, the US Air Force may consider alternatives to inducting about 30 more Lockheed Martin C-5As into a reliability enhancement and re-engining programme.”

* Boeing (Jan 20/11) – Boeing C-17 Program Enters 2nd phase of Production Rate and Work Force Reductions. 1,100 employees cut, 900 in Long Beach, CA, as production heads to 10/year.

* Flight International (July 14/10) – US Senators raise alarms over more C-17 add-ons. No planes added yet, though.

* Los Angeles Times (Oct 1/09) – In bipartisan vote, Senate protects funding for Boeing C-17 cargo planes. McCain’s amendment to strip the Senate’s proposed $2.5 billion in additional funding for 10 more planes, on top of the $2.2 billion for 8 C-17s already in the Pentagon’s FY 2010 budget, is defeated 64-34. The FY 2010 House bill adds just 3 more planes for $674 million, and the 2 must be reconciled in committee. The margin of this vote strengthens the Senate’s position.

* OC180 News (Aug 10/09) – Round 7 in the Fight for the Boeing C-17 Production Line and Its 5,000 Long Beach Jobs–a Continuing Monday Morning series

* Long Beach Gazette Newspapers (July 2/08) – Congress, President Extend C-17 Program. This 15 plane order will keep the production line open until about August 2010.

* DID (May 8/08) – C-17A, F-22A May Get Reprieves from Congress

* UK MoD (July 26/07) – Browne: Purchase of extra C-17 will ‘significantly boost’ UK military operations. UK orders a 6th C-17.

* Flight International (June 21/07) – Door re-opens for C-17 assembly line. Boeing has reversed plans to shutdown of the C-17 strategic transport aircraft assembly line and will invest its own money to keep the line open, on the strength of the US House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee adding a recommendation for 10 more aircraft.

* Boeing (March 2/07) – Boeing Announces C-17 Line May End in mid-2009; Stops Procurement of Long-lead Parts

* DID (Dec 19/07) – USAF: $2B for 10 More C-17s

* DID (Dec 16/07) – SALIS’ Sibling: NATO’s C-17 Pool Inaugurates In-House Heavy Lift. NATO buys 4 C-17s, with US help.

* DID (Sept 27/06) – C-17 Adds Orders on Talent, Not Luck. That’s Sen. Jim Talent [R-MO], who helped to raise the US production cap to 191 aircraft from 180. Will there be more in future years? If not, the end of C-17 production moves to the roughly the end of 2009.

* DID (Sept 19/07) – Lexington Institute on “The Dumbest Weapons Decision of the Decade”

* DID (Aug 8/06) – Britain to Buy 4 Leased C-17s, Add a 5th. See esp. the sub-section “Addendum: The Great C-17 Buying Push,” which notes that A400M delays could open an opportunity for more British sales… IF the production line is still open to fill them.

* DID (Feb 22/06) – C-17 Lobbying Picks up In Wake of Commerce Dept. Report

* DID (Jan 3/06)- Long Beach Seeks to Help With C-17 Costs as Lobbying Intensifies

* DID (Nov 14/05) – Delayed Pentagon Mobility Study Finally Offers a Preview

C-17: Back to the Future? (August 2006)

YC-15 & F-4

YC-15 and F-4
(click to view full)

Flight International also believes they Boeing will be angling for the potential to use a modified C-17 in 2012, when the USAF plans to begin its AMC-X theater airlifter program to replace the C-130. Since the C-17 evolved from the AMST program’s YC-15, which was intended to replace the C-130s back in the 1980s, a derivative bid in 2012 would in a sense see the C-17 program come full circle.

Additional Readings

* DID FOCUS Article – Interactive: C-5s vs. C-17s in Washington. Best source for ongoing updates.

* Aviation Week’s Defense Technology International (Jun 13/07) – A400M Could Dominate Strategic Lift. Also covers the C-17 program, and C-5 AMP/RERP upgrades.

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