USA — No More C‑17s, Defense Officials Tell Congress

WASHINGTON, July 13, 2010 — The mil­i­tary has more than enough large trans­port planes, and the appro­pri­a­tion of any more in the next bud­get year will force some into pre­ma­ture retire­ment, Defense Depart­ment offi­cials told a con­gres­sion­al pan­el today.

“We have enough C‑17s,” Mike McCord, prin­ci­pal deputy under­sec­re­tary of defense (comp­trol­ler), said. “Mon­ey spent on things we don’t need takes away from those we do need.”

Along with McCord, Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Y. Des­jardins, direc­tor of strate­gic plans for Air Mobil­i­ty Com­mand, and Alan Estevez, prin­ci­pal deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for logis­ti­cal and materiel readi­ness, repeat­ed Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates’ posi­tion against the pur­chase of more C‑17s to the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Home­land Secu­ri­ty and Gov­ern­ment Affairs’ fed­er­al finan­cial man­age­ment sub­com­mit­tee.

All three defense offi­cials agreed with the subcommittee’s lead­ers, Sens. Thomas Carp­er and John McCain, that the C‑17, in addi­tion to the C‑5, has been crit­i­cal to air­lift in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. How­ev­er, they said, the military’s cur­rent fleet of 223 C‑17s and 111 C‑5s is more than enough air­lift capa­bil­i­ty for years to come.

A depart­ment study that con­clud­ed in Feb­ru­ary was con­sis­tent with two oth­er stud­ies that found that the cur­rent fleet is suf­fi­cient “even in the most demand­ing envi­ron­ments” to take the mil­i­tary through 2016, McCord said. The old­est plane in the trans­port fleet, Lockheed’s C‑5A Galaxy, will be viable until 2025, and the fleet as a whole should last until 2040, he said.

The depart­ment has not request­ed C‑17s, built by Boe­ing, since the fis­cal 2007 bud­get, yet Con­gress has added them every year since, spend­ing about $1.25 bil­lion on C‑17s “that we don’t want or need,” said McCord, a 21-year staff mem­ber of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee before his cur­rent appoint­ment.

Any addi­tion­al appro­pri­a­tion for C‑17s will have to be off­set by retir­ing some of the military’s old­er – but still viable — trans­port planes, the defense offi­cials said.

And, the defense offi­cials said, adding force struc­ture such as air­craft always entails addi­tion­al costs in train­ing, main­te­nance, and infra­struc­ture, such as new hangars, bases and tool­ing. The depart­ment spends about $50,000 per air­craft per year to store air­craft where spare parts are avail­able, Des­jardins said.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giv­ing, because if you give it to us, we’ll main­tain it,” Estevez said.

It would be more cost-effec­tive, the defense offi­cials said, to mod­i­fy the C‑5M for longer via­bil­i­ty to con­tin­ue to work in con­junc­tion with the C‑17.

Des­jardins called the C‑17 the “back­bone” of the air mobil­i­ty fleet, and said the C‑5’s com­bi­na­tion of long range, high capac­i­ty and capa­bil­i­ty to car­ry out­size car­go is unequaled. Togeth­er, she said, “they meet the needs for car­go and capac­i­ty any­where in the world.”

Retir­ing the least-capa­ble C‑5s would save about $320 mil­lion, Des­jardins said.

“Mak­ing trade­offs of two types of air­craft when we already have more than enough of both is not going be cost effec­tive,” McCord said.

Asked what the depart­ment would cut to accom­mo­date any new C‑17s, McCord said that would depend on how many new C‑17s were bought. “You and Con­gress would decide that,” he said, “because you would cut from our bud­get about $300 mil­lion for every C‑17 added.”

“We have a good mix right now,” Estevez said. “Replace­ment is def­i­nite­ly not the most cost-effec­tive way. Buy­ing more to retire more is cer­tain­ly not the way the depart­ment needs to bal­ance its resources.”

The defense sec­re­tary has made that case to Con­gress, and Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has promised to veto any leg­is­la­tion that pro­vides for more C‑17s.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)