Strategic lift remains a concern?

C-17 in crosshairs?

I’ve been hearing that the C-17s are getting quite a bit more work than planned due to the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think most would agree that our commitment in those nations isn’t going to go away any time soon, and I think we’ll also agree that other new commitments will probably use up any slack that might be created by reduced force deployments. And then some.

I’m no big fan of Boeing’s business practices of late, but I’d hesitate to pull the plug on production of what has become the US military’s primary airlift platform. Everything I’ve heard about the C-17 since it joined the force has been good, and it’s not like a replacement is going to be coming on line any time soon.

“A final decision on additional C-17 orders has definitely not been made, despite news reports to the contrary,” Boeing C-17 spokesman Rick Sanford said.

A Boeing statement reiterated its long-standing argument: Independent analyses show that the military, and specifically the U.S. Air Force, has a requirement for more than 180 C-17 planes Boeing is contracted to build.

“Combatant commanders have called for 222 or more,” the statement said.

Cost analyses have been provided at the Air Force’s request for options for as many as 60 more C-17s.

The training and equipment of American forces are a large part of what sets them apart from the militaries of the rest of the world. But one thing that’s overlooked (as usual) is our capability to get those forces where they’re needed in a timely manner. We’re probably even farther ahead of others in that department than we are technologically. And that capability is critical, especially if our forces are going to remain stretched as tightly as they are right now.

Maybe Boeing could put together a tanker design based on the C-17. That would keep lines running (which would preserve the option to build more transports if needed) and would probably do a lot to streamline maintenance and training for the USAF. Thoughts?

In other airlift-related news, the C-130J Hercules Undergoes New Test:

As part of the second phase of the C-130J Hercules qualification test and evaluation, the aircraft will fly airdrop and formation-drop operations later this month.

The aircraft from here will take part in an exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., from Nov. 13 to 17. The evaluation will test the aircraft’s warfighting capabilities.

“The JRTC exercise is the graduation exercise for the airplane-high mobility operations, 24-hour surge operations and interoperability with the Army equipment and personnel generated from Little Rock,” said Lt. Col. Mike Brignola, who will conduct the evaluation.

And then there’s Officials take steps to repair aging C-130s:

Air Force officials are taking steps to repair aging C-130 Hercules transport aircraft that were grounded in February because of cracks found in some of the aging planes.

The cracks that were found were located in the center wing box, the structure that holds the wing to the fuselage of the planes. The Air Force grounded 30 C-130s in February and placed another 60 on restricted flying status.

All of the grounded aircraft are C-130E models, which were purchased in the 1960s. The restricted planes include some “E” models, some 1970s-era “H” models and a few aerial refueling C-130s.

A lot more info on what’s wrong and what’s going to be done to fix it at the link. The story says C-130s are entering “restricted” or “grounded” status at the rate of 1-2 per month.

I don’t think enough people have enough appreciation of the importance that logistics and strategic mobility have to our abilty to conduct military operations.


  1. I have books from the 80s and 90s about cargo planes which talk about how the Air Force reduced the number they were going to buy originally, and that projections show that they will need to buy more by 20xx because of this. So I don’t think this is anything new. The fact is, unless a country is willing to continually develop and build (or buy from others) new aircraft in a given role every 20-30 years, old aircraft will wear out and you’ll have to go back to building more of what you already have. Or, you can built extra ones to start with so you use the ones you have less, extending their lives, with the bonus that if there’s a disaster you can have the extra capability. I think this US govt’ meme where anything that’s over budget gets acquisition numbers cut back is silly. They already sink tens of billions of dollars into research, design, testing and tooling. They might as well spend the extra money needed to complete the units required. Well, another alternative is to build a certain number, then go to low-rate production or temporarily halt the line but keep it ready. Actually terminating a production line for a given aircraft, without having a replacement in the pipe, is very silly IMO. So, yes, they should keep the C-17s in low rate production if possible. If they can make a tanker version, great. I’ve heard good things about both the C-5 and C-17 so I don’t see why either should be replaced yet, and I also don’t see why the C-17 shouldn’t be adapted to other roles. My only concern is that it’s possibly a bit too big, since fuel is so heavy, you need a tough airframe but not necessarily a vast one.

  2. OK, I went back and had another read of the C-17 section of ‘Giant Cargo Planes’. The C-17 is almost identical in size (slightly shorter but wider wingspan) and weights to the KC-10. Therefore it would probably make a good tanker aircraft. It would probably even be possible to make the tanker versions have removable fuel tanks and be able to be used for transport if necessary, although I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile. I’m a bit confused about the C-17 acquisition. The book says that due to delays, the air force threatened to cut acquisition to 40 aircraft (I don’t know how many were originally planned) but that the manufacturer made a deal where they would provide 120 instead, at substantial savings. So it looks like the air force may have gotten as many/more than they had originally planned. If that’s the case, I suspect they simply are getting more use than they planned for as well. The last aircraft was supposed to be delivered in 2004 so that’s probably why this is coming up now. If they’re racking up hours faster than they thought they would, I think they should continue production. What about overseas sales? Anyone interested? Like I said until there’s a direct replacement, I think shutting it down is silly.

  3. Heh, and on your last point, I happen to like this quote: ‘Amateurs talk about tactics, dilletantes talk about strategy… professionals talk about logistics.’

  4. I doubt that that there is any serious thought about converting C-17’s to tanker craft. The C-17 is a specialized plane and costs about twice a comparable sized commerical craft. Install the necessary tanker components, redesign the fuel system and recertify the craft would escalate the price. The reason we use commerical craft for tanker planes, is that the performance requirements are not demanding – so cost and reliability becomes a paramount issues. Which matches commercial specs to a T.

  5. Yes, you’re right, the air force can buy about four KC-10s for the cost of one C-17. And I found information to clarify what it said in that book I have. The original plan was to buy 210 C-17s. That was reduced to 120. I suspect the US Air Force will want to continue low rate production for a while yet and probably eventually acquire close to the 210 number, to give them sufficient modern tactical airlift numbers over the next few decades. Do they have enough C-5s?

  6. I’ve thought for some time that a KC-17 makes sense, given the age of the KC-135 fleet and the loss of the apparent loss of the Boeing deal. This is the first commentary I have seen on this idea. Regarding previous comments, although the cost of the KC-10 is comparably low, is it still possible to obtain DC-10s? This aircraft is long out of production. New production KC-17s would provide an aircraft with parts commonality with the C-17, the capablility to operate refueling aircraft from forward airstrips, a cargo capability, and lower maintenance costs than the KC-10 and KC-135. KC-130s are also being procured. Isn’t a KC-17 a comparable concept: adapting a military cargo aircraft to air-to-air refueling? What prevents DOD from at least investigating this idea? I can see they’re pissed at Boeing, but buying from Airbus make me (and hopefully Congress) go ballistic.

  7. Obtain a new DC-10? No, but you could remanufacture a DC 10 using some of DC-10’s in the bone yard or buy used. DC-10’s are still fairly common and there is ready access (though declining) to parts. Re-engine a KC-135 makes a lot of sense. Parts wise 707 parts are still around, and the use of 3D precion Manufactoring spart parts are not an issue. KC-130 & KC-17 seem compariable, but you have to keep in mind a couple of things. The KC-130 was made to refuel helocopters for SOCOM. Given the job requirement, using a jet would be unfeasable. Given, the number of large prop planes available – the KC-130 is it. The KC-135 was choosen because of its speed. Mach.85 and its abiliy to refuel the heavy bombers. The C-17 is about 80 MPH slower the KC-135. ( So much for refueling SR-71’s..) Overall, the speed difference is not lethal to the concept. If you attempted to refuel a B-52 with a KC-130 – assuming the Buff did not stall out, would take about 2.2 hours. 300 gallons a minute to fill a 40,000 gallon fuel tank. Cost per Hour of Fight C-5 $8,965 C-141 $3,434 C-17 $5,081 KC-135 $2,178 Boeing 767 $2915 Making a KC-17 may seem like it makes sense, but you are taking the most capable cargo craft and giving it a refueling mission. In strategic movement, the two most critical missions is oversize cargo capasity and refueling capasity. Given limited resources, would you want local commander having to choose between refueling the heavy bombers dropping the JDAM’s or bringing in the M1A2 tanks?

  8. To be more specific about the differences between C17 and commercial aircraft, C17 includes extra features to give it access to short, rough runways. It has four engines, to provide the extra power for short take-offs. It has extra-strength landing gear because short landings sometimes mean coming down hard (smaller target area on runway) and to deal with rough runways. Tanker planes do not need all the extra stuff associated with short, rough runways. They do not have to be operated from forward areas. In fact, it would be silly to do so, since they have a long range (remember, they have a lot of fuel on board) and why are you storing so much jet fuel in a forward location anyway. Commercial aircraft work well for tankers because they can be built cheaper — they only need two engines (which also saves on fuel and maintenance costs) and don’t need all the extra hardening to take the rough, short-runway landings. Maintenance is also cheaper because of cheaper spare parts and maintenance expertise being widely available. In addition, because C17 is rear-loaded, a version that could be converted back-and-forth between tanker and cargo use would be overly complicated. The tanker boom would need to be installed right where the door currently is.

  9. Chuck – excellent post. Side Note – If however, the Air Force ever decided to interoperable with the rest of the air forces on the plannet – the boom would not be needed. (except for the heavy bombers)