U.S. airlift ability in doubt due to maintenance woes

March 28, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As North Korea makes increasingly loud threats of war, nearly half the Air Force's workhorse C-141 transports, used for ferrying troops and equipment to any conflict, are grounded for maintenance.

The erosion of the military's aging airlift capacity -- crucial to U.S. engagement in the regional conflicts that plague the post-Cold War world -- is heightening concern inside and outside the Pentagon.

"Airlift in this country is broken right now," Gen. Joseph Hoar, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month.

General Hoar said that airlift problems would prevent the U.S. military from fighting the two almost simultaneous regional conflicts that it should be able to handle under current guidelines. Defense planners believe that one such conflict could be in Korea.

Tension on the peninsula has been heightened by confrontation over North Korea's refusal to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities. While U.S. officials stress that there is no sign of any imminent attack from the North, the government in Pyongyang warned Thursday that imposition of United Nations economic sanctions, under consideration to force North Korean compliance, would be viewed as a declaration of war.

"If a conflict were to break out [in Korea], we would need a much larger number of forces and materiel to move into that theater, and it might be needed there very quickly," said Loren B. Thompson, deputy director of Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program. "It is widely recognized that the U.S. at present does not possess the airlift required in order to quickly respond to a range of potential regional conflicts."

Noting that 90 percent of U.S. equipment in previous U.S. foreign conflicts has been delivered by sea, he said, "Airlift is not crucial except during the early stages of a war, when rapid response vTC may have a decisive effect on the future progress of the war."

Airlift fleet 'marginal'

The Air Mobility Command, which operates the airlift, has assessed the health of its Lockheed C-141 Starlifter fleet as "marginal," although a command spokesman said, "We are fully capable of meeting crisis contingency operations."

To meet current transport demands, the command, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., has converted Boeing KC-135 and McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 refueling tankers into cargo carriers and leases planes from 14 civilian airlines.

Its C-5 Galaxies, which can airlift three times as much as the C-141s, are also being pressed into extra service, but there is a limit to how much more they can do. Maj. Jereon Brown, the command spokesman, said the C-141 repair schedule was "not hampering us to a sizable extent" but was causing "minor delays" to low-priority movements.

Of the Air Force's 244 C-141s, 105, or 43 percent, are undergoing maintenance. The plane reached its operational low point in November, when 173 were grounded for repairs to correct a wing fault.

In the event of conflict, Major Brown said, planes under repair that were flyable would be "pulled" out of maintenance and "sent to war or wherever they needed to go."

Sen. Ted Stevens, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, said in an interview last week, "We have got an aging fleet of C-141s, and they are showing the signs of age."

The senator, who expressed his concerns to Defense Secretary William J. Perry at a congressional hearing this month, told The Sun, "I would not want to imply in any way we are not capable of meeting any crisis that comes along.

"The difficulty is that each crisis takes a bigger bite out of the life cycle of the airlift and accelerates the time when there has to be ready a suitable [airlift] replacement for next-century utilization," said.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last week, the deputy undersecretary of defense, Walter B. Slocombe, said: "The ability to deal with aggression in Korea is one of the measuring factors in our defense planning. Together with our South Korean allies, we have made extensive preparation to deter and, if necessary, to defeat a North Korean attack."

Timetable for war

The Pentagon's guidelines set a timetable for U.S. airlift and sealift capacity that would be needed to fight a war in Korea:

* Immediately: Field a three-brigade heavy Army division with support units, seven to eight fighter wings and two Marine brigades.

* Within a month: Deploy the remainder of a three-division Army heavy corps, the remainder of 10 Air Force fighter wings and additional Marine forces.

* Within six weeks: Assemble a force strong enough to launch a successful counterattack.

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