ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA. — The speed and efficiency of last fall's U.S. military buildup on the Arabian peninsula was largely attributable to a near doubling of U.S. strategic airlift capacity in the 1980s.
In 1980, that capacity stood at 28.7 million-ton-miles per day. By the early 1980s, both the Congress and the Defense Department had become convinced that a major increase in airlift capacity was needed to fulfill the U.S. commitment to Europe's rapid reinforcement, as well as to provide a hedge against possible sudden military contingencies in the Persian Gulf. A goal of 66 million-ton-miles per day was set.
A number of near-term programs were initiated, including production of 50 more giant C-5 Galaxy transports, 41 new KC-10 tanker/cargo planes, and conversion of selected commercial airliners to accommodate military freight. By 1989, a year before Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, U.S. airlift capacity had been boosted to 48.5 million-ton-miles per day.
To flesh out the remaining gap the Pentagon called for building brand-new airlifter, known today as the C-17. It is slated to replace the aging and less capable C-141 Starlifter, which still accounts for almost 30 percent of total U.S. strategic airlift capacity, but which, unlike the C-17 and C-5, is relatively costly to operate and cannot carry the largest items of military equipment.
The C-17 is also heralded as having significant tactical capabilities. Smaller than the C-5, it takes up less space on potentially crowded Third World tarmacs, and is designed to land on runways of 3,000 feet in length, compared to the 4,000 feet required for a fully-loaded C-5. The C-17 also has one less crew member than the C-5.
During the past year, some dark clouds gathered over the C-17's future. First, a year ago the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, bowing to acute budgetary pressures, cut the planned buy of C-17s from 210 to 120.
Second, the C-17, which has yet to undergo its first flight test (the date has slipped repeatedly, and now stands at July or August of this year), is nine to ten months behind schedule and increasingly over budget.
The secretary of the Air Force, Don Rice, says the $35.2-billion program has already suffered a $600- to $900-million cost overrun; some Pentagon cost analysts peg the figure at $2 billion. Even assuming no further cost growth, the price of each of the 120 C-17s is now posted at $293 million.
This is the kind of money one associates with advanced, complex strategic bombers, like the B-1B -- not simpler, unarmed cargo planes. (The Air Force's F-117A stealth fighter, the most spectacular combat aircraft employed in Operation Desert Storm, cost but one-sixth of the C-17's estimated price.)
Third, Desert Storm itself is likely to prompt a reassessment of future U.S. strategic airlift requirements, which for over 40 years have been driven largely by the now vanishing prospect of a war with the Soviet Union in Europe. The absence of the C-17 did not significantly inhibit the greatest military airlift of all time from achieving a resounding success.
The existing fleet of long-range transports, including the time-tested C-5, which has a longer range than the C-17 (therefore requiring less in-flight tanker support) and can carry 65 percent more tonnage, proved more than sufficient to handle the airlift requirements. Moreover, for better or worse, Secretary Cheney's decision to lop 90 C-17s (representing 7.5 million-ton-miles per day of capacity) from the original program has shattered prospects for fulfilling the goal of 66 MTM/D.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there exists a readily -- available and far cheaper alternative to the C-17: production of more C-5s. The airlift capacity represented by the planned 120 C-17s equals that of only 74 C-5s, and reliable estimates of the cost of reopening the C-5 production line and proceeding to build 74 more Galaxies total about $10.8 billion, or less than one-third the total program cost of the C-17.
Why pay almost $300 million a copy for a plane that has yet to make its maiden flight, when a proven aircraft with greater range and payload can be had at little more than half the cost?
The significance of the C-17's putative tactical superiority over the C-5 is, moreover, far from self-evident. If it is limited to the same, smaller payload as the C-17, the C-5 can use runways of 3,000 feet. The C-17's 1,000-foot runway ''advantage'' was meaningless in Saudi Arabia, where most air bases have extensive ramp space and runways in excess of 10,000 feet.
In other potential hot spots, like Central America, most runways are less than 3,000 feet -- too short to accommodate either the C-5 or the C-17. As for tactical airlift requirements, they can continue to be satisfied, as they have since the early 1950s, by the venerable though matchless C-130 Hercules, improved models of which the Air Force is still ordering and which performed yeoman's service in Saudi Arabia.
Operation Desert Storm has demonstrated once again that the name of the game in strategic airlift is to haul as much cargo as far as possible in the shortest amount of time. And it is a game for which the C-5 is better qualified than the C-17.
Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.