USAF rebalances airlift inventory, deals setbacks to Boeing, Lockheed

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Boeing C-17 production and Lockheed Martin C-5 modernisation are again facing setbacks as the US Air Force attempts to rebalance its strategic airlift fleet.

Boeing has revealed plans to slash C-17 production by one-third by 2011, with deliveries falling from 15 in 2009 to 13 in 2010 and 10 next year. The slower output will preserves C-17 assembly until October 2012, the company says.

USAF officials, meanwhile, are lobbying Congress to stop adding more C-17s to the budget and to repeal a ban on retiring C-5As.

"I understand the angst, but the reality is that we need to move forward," Gen Norton Schwartz, USAF chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on 23 February.

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  © Boeing

The USAF wants to rebalance its strategic airlift fleet with 317 aircraft, including 223 C-17s and 94 C-5s, and an undetermined number of re-engined and upgraded C-5Ms. The plan calls for retiring 17 of its 59 C-5As to partly offset the 43 C-17s added by Congress above the USAF's acquisition plans.

Congress has blocked the USAF from retiring any C-5As until at least 90 days after the service submits a report assessing the C-5M initial operational test and evaluation phase. That report is due to be submitted to Congress around 15 March, Schwartz says, and is likely to endorse the previously troubled re-engining programme.

"The re-engining has been really successful," Lt Gen Mark Shackelford, USAF acquisition chief, said on 23 February at an Air Force Association event. The USAF wants "as many updated C-5s that we can push through", he added.

The operational assessment showed the re-engined C-5M is far more capable and reliable than the C-5A, says Shackelford. One C-5M even delivered cargo directly to Afghanistan, according to Lockheed.

The USAF plans to upgrade 48 C-5Bs to the M-standard over the next six years, and its remaining C-5As could also could be modernised later.

Despite the plan, the USAF will continue to face pressure from some quarters of Congress to buy more C-17s, or at least make room for them in the inventory.

Boeing plans to keep C-17 production going through at least 2013 at the reduced rate. India has signed a letter of request to buy 10 C-17s, although the timing of a contract award remains unclear. Boeing says it wants to keep the line open beyond 2013 for continued international and domestic orders.