On February 2nd, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress that the military needs no additional C-17 aircraft and that the production line should be shut down in 2011. His testimony drew bipartisan criticism from several senators, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Senator McCaskill protested “we keep hearing…this is something that the military doesn’t want.… Then I go over there [to Afghanistan and Iraq], and that’s not their attitude at all.” Sen. Inhofe added that he believes America’s airlift capacity is in “dire straits,” and that it is a travesty America’s airmen are still flying old C-130E models, despite persistent engine troubles.
Congress has so far resisted this Administration’s and previous attempts to terminate the C-17 program, arguing rightly that it is a vital platform with much-needed capabilities relevant to both today’s battlefields and humanitarian crisis response operations. The aircraft is designed to deliver heavy cargo onto short and or semi-prepared runways. This unique capability is crucial to current humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti, where airports have been severely damaged by the recent earthquake. The lift capabilities of this aircraft have also added value in Afghanistan, which lacks sophisticated infrastructure.
In Haiti, the Air Force has chosen, in the words of Senator McCaskill, to fly “the reliable, easy-to-land on short runways, load-’em-up, get-’em-out, cheaper-to-fly C-17” rather than the older C-5 plane. Since the earthquake, over 40 C-17s have flown airport equipment, communications infrastructure, and humanitarian relief to the country. It was the Air Force’s platform of choice in an environment with overcrowded and damaged runways where tactical as well as strategic capabilities were required. Terminating the country’s only remaining wide-bodied cargo aircraft production line that supplies the carrier the Air Force trusts most in hazardous environments is imprudent and unwise.
Secretary Gates stated during the same hearing that of 204,000 landings for strategic lift since 1997, only 4 percent have been at airfields that a C-5 could not access, and half of those were in Iraq. Four percent may sound low, but it equates to over 8,000 landings that required the C-17 aircraft, or over 4,000 in Iraq alone. Senator McCaskill cautioned in response that just as many airstrips in Iraq were more suitable for landing the C-17. The escalating situation in Afghanistan—which has even less developed infrastructure than Iraq does—may similarly be more suitable for C-17 landings, and the Air Force should be adequately resourced to respond to the nation’s demands with ease.
Secretary Gates acknowledged that the time is approaching to retire the oldest C-5s. If given the opportunity by Congress, the Pentagon will eagerly do so. But without the ability to purchase more C-17 aircraft, the Air Force may face a dilemma: an increasing need for strategic airlift capabilities in precarious and constraining environments, and a decreasing number of ways to meet ongoing requirements.