C-17 proves itself fit for the future Pentagon to expand fleet of transport jets after near cancellation

November 04, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The C-17, the plane that flew back from the brink of cancellation, was cleared for takeoff yesterday as the workhorse of the 21st-century Army.

The $225 million transport jet has overcome almost every problem known to a weapons system -- cost overruns, production delays, performance shortfalls -- to become the Pentagon's choice to carry troops and equipment to future distant battlefields.

A special weapons review board, which studied the Pentagon's airlift options, decided yesterday that the four-engine C-17, which can land on little more than a field and turn on a dime, was the plane for the job.

The board recommended tripling the Pentagon's original order to 120 planes, at an additional cost of $18 billion. The cost of the initial order of 40 planes was $12.9 billion, or $323 million per plane. Improved production efficiencies and the larger order helped reduce the cost per plane, the Air Force said.

"This is a good news story," said Deputy Defense Secretary John White. "The C-17 program was in deep trouble a few years ago."

Airlift is crucial in an era when the U.S. military is retreating from forward deployment -- the maintenance of huge U.S. garrisons abroad -- and turning to power projection, the ability to transport troops quickly from U.S. bases to overseas trouble spots.

The C-17 can fly 85 tons of heavy cargo, such as M-1 tanks, helicopters and Patriot anti-missile batteries. It can reverse and turn under its own power. It is designed to be able to fly 15.2 hours a day during major airlifts -- almost three hours longer than other military trans porters.

While it cannot carry as much cargo as the behemoth C-5 Galaxy transporter, its capacity is twice that of the aging C-141 Starlifter, which it will replace by 2003. The search for a C-141 replacement, which led to development of the C-17, began more than 20 years ago.

The main attraction of the C-17 is that it is much more versatile than either the C-5 or the C-141, a quality that Pentagon strategists believe will be tested in future U.S. military missions.

"This will become the core airlifter for the United States of America," said Gen. Ronald R. Fogelman, Air Force chief of staff.

The Air Force had wanted 210 C-17s but reduced the number to 120 as the Pentagon's strategy turned from fighting a superpower conflict with the former Soviet Union to preparing a force capable of conducting two almost simultaneous regional conflicts.

A skeptical Congress, worried by the host of initial problems that the plane's manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas Corp., encountered at its plant in Long Beach, Calif., has limited funding to 40 of the transporters, and the administration will have to seek money for the other 80 in future defense budgets.

Boeing Co. had lobbied hard for the Pentagon to buy a modified version of its commercial 747 jetliner, known as the C-33. The Pentagon said yesterday that it would seek to integrate the C-33 into the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, civilian jets that can be mobilized in time of war.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp.'s C-5 also was considered for upgrading, but defense planners decided only to improve its air-drop capabilities, choosing the C-17 as the clear leader in cost and effectiveness.

So troubled was the C-17's early development that it was actually put on two years probation by the Pentagon in 1993. Either it would prove itself or it would be canceled.

The C-17 passed its crucial tests in July, when Air Mobility Command pilots subjected the aircraft to a wartime flight schedule of more than 500 sorties involving 2,300 flying hours over 30 days.

"That aircraft performs as advertised," said Maj. Joe Davis. "It's outstanding. It is capable of performing every military-unique mission that America asks of its airlifters."

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