THE McDONNELL Douglas C-17 (MDC) military-transport aircraft finally won the endorsement of the US Department of Defense on 3 November, but the fate of the multi-billion dollar programme is far from assured, with political hurdles yet to be negotiated.

Congressional backers of the prime alternative, a modified Boeing 747-400F dubbed the C-33, are likely now to try to overturn the Pentagon's Defence Acquisition Board (DAB) recommendation that the USAF purchase 120 C-17s by manipulating the budgetary purse strings.

Opponents of the decision are already portraying the DAB recommendation as being politically motivated. Oregon Democrat Elizabeth Furse is urging a congressional probe of the plan to buy 80 more Globemaster IIIs.

"Decision-makers at the Pentagon behaved like lemmings in their rush to 1996 election appeasement, ordering a $36 billion turkey," says Furse.

She has asked the US General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate DAB backing of the C-17.

The US Air Force was already committed to purchasing 40 Pratt & Whitney F117-powered C-17s, but a detailed analysis concluded that the purchase of 80 additional C-17s worth $18 billion made the most sense.

Apart from the Boeing 747-400F, a new version of the Lockheed Martin Galaxy military transport, the C-5D, was also a contender.

The C-17 programme is now considered "a good news story", but two years ago it was in deep trouble. Senior Pentagon officials then gave MDC until this November "...to get the cost down and the quality up."

Paul Kaminiski, the Pentagon's acquisition chief, says that the C-17 programme has now been turned around.

The C-17's reversal of fortune has primarily been caused by two factors: cost and concrete. Kaminiski says, that there was only a 1% difference in life cycle cost in procuring an all-C-17 force, or a mixed transport fleet.

"The bottom line is that there was very little difference in cost, but 120 C-17s offered far greater flexibility," he says, allowing the aircraft to be operated from unmade fields, whereas the 747 can be operated only from prepared runways.

Source: Flight International