USAF rounds on Congressional C-5 protection

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US Air Force leaders seeking to free up funds to buy more Boeing C-17s and new tankers have stepped up a rhetorical campaign against a Congressionally protected upgrade programme for the Lockheed Martin C-5 fleet.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne presents the shortcomings of the C-5 re-engining and reliability (RERP) programme in stark economic terms. RERP's stated objective to boost the overall reliability of about 100 C-5s by 10 percentage points equates to adding 10 aircraft to the fleet, Wynne says. If the cost to complete the programme is $17 billion, he adds, "then those airplanes are very expensive. Is this most efficient way to get the 10 additional aircraft?"

Gen Michael Moseley, USAF chief of staff, seems incredulous that Lockheed's $11.7 billion cost estimate to complete the programme could be at least 50% to 100% below estimates produced by his staff: "The variance in the numbers have been very frustrating." The air force contends that omissions in Lockheed's cost estimate amount to at least $4.2 billion and has requested an independent review by the cost analysis improvement group, an internal think-tank reporting directly to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

General Arthur Lichte, chief of Air Mobility Command, links the future of C-17 production to eliminating funds for the C-5 fleet. "We're at the end of C-17 production unless something else happens," he says, adding that "something else" meant cancelling the C-5 RERP contract and reallocating the funds to buy more C-17s. The air force has proposed retiring the oldest 30 C-5As, and replacing them with new C-17s.

Boeing has warned that the C-17 production line will shut down in August 2009 if no new orders are received.

Lockheed is standing by RERP's performance objectives and its $11.7 billion cost estimate. For now, the C-5 is protected by Congressional decree. The USAF is prohibited from retiring any C-5 until test results from the first three RERP-modified aircraft are released in 2009. Congress also has ordered the USAF to maintain a strategic airlifter fleet of 299 aircraft, which nearly sums up the current projected fleet of 109 C-5s and 190 C-17s.

Jim Grant, Lockheed's senior vice-president for business development, says the three C-5Ms modified with new engines and more reliable parts have completed 60% of the flight-test programme: "The reliability objectives are being achieved."