The Art of Airlifting

A few days ago, the Pentagon made a wise decision–to purchase 80 McDonnell-Douglas C-17 transport aircraft. The plane has intercontinental range, in-flight refueling capability, can carry heavy equipment, land on crude airfields and get out again with minimal delay and maintenance. With the C-17, McDonnell-Douglas had also managed to reverse (at least temporarily) an old journalistic adage and military complaint: The system that gets fixed isn’t news. Two years ago, the plane was on the Pentagon’s endangered species list. Now it will provide most of U.S. strategic airlift for the next few decades.

Most, but not all. To adapt a venerable adage: Today, military airlift is too important to be left to military airplanes.

During the selection process, the C-17 faced no state-of-art competition. Lockheed Martin’s proposal to reopen its C-5 line was never really practical. The only alternative to the C-17 was Boeing’s offer to build specially modified 747 cargo aircraft. But, as Boeing acknowledged and as everyone in the Pentagon knew, 747s could never replace the unique capabilities of the C-17. Rather, they could complement it as a part of the overall mix of aircraft in the transport fleet. The idea still merits a serious consideration. Adding a couple dozen 747s to the fleet makes strategic, operational and economic sense.

Strategically, the United States is, practically by definition, an expeditionary power. U.S. forces must travel to fight, often several thousand miles. A robust airlift capability would be necessary under any circumstances. But in this age of come-as-you-are warfare and instant (and sometimes simultaneous) crises, ample airlift is vital. In a pinch, the specially adapted commercial planes of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet can haul troops and certain kinds of cargo. In a crisis, unmodified craft can be pressed into service. Still, military cargo has unique requirements. A supplemental 747 capability would go far toward meeting the need for fast-response, long-distance heavy lifting.

Strategically, also, a strong U.S. airlift fleet is vital to support other nations engaged in military or humanitarian work Indeed, in all situations, it is preferable to provide such support, rather than commit U.S. troops. The U.S. airlift capability is a diplomatic as well as military tool. In the past, our allies have depended upon it to carry out their own tasks. This trend can be expected to intensify as peacekeeping and humanitarian activities become more frequent.

Operationally, the U.S. military faces a classic conundrum. Tactical mobility–the ability to move around on and above the battlefield–creates logistical immobility: the need for a massive supporting infrastructure and the steady flow of supplies. This structure will often have to be improvised, using whatever civilian and military facilities might be available in the theater of operations. IN previous protracted operations, most supplies have come by ship–assuming all those mothballed vessels can make it away form the dock. (The Desert Shield/Storm experience was not encouraging in this regard). But sealift has inherent limitations. Ships are slow. Modern vessels, save for Navy assault shipping designed to support landing operations and roros (roll-on/roll-off vessels carrying loaded vehicles) require extensive and vulnerable port facilities. Ports may be hundreds of miles from where the supplies are needed. Roads may be primitive or nonexistent.

Today, however, air transportation and the attendant support structure are just about universal. Few nations don’t have airports that can handle modern commercial transports, or be quickly upgraded to do so. It’s considerably easier to put in an airfield than build a port, especially in landlocked countries.

The C-17 is excellent for operating in austere environments–which is what it should be used for. Under less stringent circumstances, modified 747s are an appropriate supplement, a gap-filler between the C-17 and sealift.

Finally, the Pentagon rightly touts the virtues of buying “off-the-shelf” whenever possible. The 747’s technology is proven; the plane’s virtually global civilian supporting infrastructure is already in place; it would be cheaper than procuring an equivalent number of C-17s. And buying 747s would help sustain the aerospace industry’s current fragile recovery, especially among Boeing’s suppliers and subcontractors. Conceivably, it might even encourage foreign purchases. In sum, the U.S. military airlift fleet is an enormously important military and diplomatic tool, indeed, a unique national asset. It must be strengthened. But not every sortie–perhaps not even most–will require the capabilities of the C-17. Boeing 747s would enhance the mix, increase the capabilities of the fleet, and make economic sense.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.