Congress holds the key to future of USAF's Boeing C-17 fleet

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USAF wants to retire C-5s to afford more transports

Congress has been handed the challenge of deciding whether the US Air Force will get more Boeing C-17 transports. Testifying last week, air force secretary Michael Wynne and chief of staff Gen Michael Moseley said the USAF could buy more C-17s if Congress would lift its prohibition on retiring older Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxys.

Australia, meanwhile, has given the C-17 programme a lifeline, announcing plans to buy up to four aircraft for A$2 billion ($1.48 million).

Despite capping C-17 procurement at 180 aircraft with its fiscal year 2007 budget request for a final 12 transports, the US Air Force has told Congress its highest unfunded priority is the purchase of a further seven C-17s. “We are burning the C-17s up at an unexpected rate,” said Moseley, citing heavy use in Afghanistan and Iraq where the aircraft are being used as intra-theatre transports as an alternative to vulnerable ground convoys.

Arguing the C-17 is “much more valuable” than the C-5A, Moseley said: “We can’t get rid of the C-5s because of legislation.” Congress has barred the USAF from going below 112 C-5s, blocking it from retiring the C-5As, until it has determined the feasibility of modernising the older Galaxys in the same way the newer C-5Bs are being upgraded. That decision will come after the C-17 line shuts in 2008 based on current orders.

A Department of Defense mobility capabilities study completed late last year supported ending C-17 procurement at 180 aircraft, based on planned purchases of Lockheed C-130Js and a new small intra-theatre airlifter to be acquired jointly with the US Army. The services agreed last week to combine their respective Future Cargo Aircraft and Light Cargo Aircraft requirements into a Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) programme, Moseley said.

If endorsed by undersecretary of defence for acquisition Ken Krieg, the JCA agreement clears the way for the army to release its long-awaited request for proposals for an initial 33 aircraft to replace its Shorts C-23 Sherpas. The army is expected to buy about 70 aircraft, and the air force up to 150, Moseley told Congress. So far, only two bidders are known: Alenia/L-3 with the C-27J and Raytheon/EADS Casa with the CN-235 or C-295.

GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON DC