Spiralling prices on C-5 upgrade programme give USAF room to reconsider requirements, including adding C-17s

The US Air Force may use the opportunity of cost growth on its Lockheed Martin C-5 upgrade programme to rethink its mix of airlifters, including the possibility of buying additional Boeing C-17s.

Statements by service leaders confirm reports that the C-5 reliability enhancement and re-engining programme (RERP) has breached the 50% unit-cost growth threshold under the so-called Nunn-McCurdy Act, requiring the Department of Defense to recertify to Congress that the upgrade is required. "Undoubtedly there will be a Nunn-McCurdy report. That will allow a redefinition - a look at whether we are spending the money in the right places," says air force secretary Michael Wynne. "The facts are coming out [on RERP], and the numbers are staggering," he says, speaking at an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando, Florida.

The RERP is re-engining the aircraft with General Electric CF6-80C2s, beginning with the later C-5Bs. But the USAF has been pressing Congress for some time to lift its prohibition on retiring the older C-5As so that it can free up funds to buy more C-17s.

The RERP and companion avionics modernisation programme (AMP) are intended to improve the C-5's mission-capable rate, currently below 50% according to USAF Chief of Staff Gen Michael Moseley, but the USAF has doubts about the cost-effectiveness of putting the original C-5As through both the AMP and RERP upgrades.

"Do you really want to spend on the As?" asks Moseley. "If we can get the Bs as reliable as possible with AMP and RERP and just AMP the As, we can save the $5 billion to RERP the As." It would still be possible to "fly out" the older aircraft by using them for missions within the USA, he says.

Wynne says the Congressional ban on retiring older C-5s is to protect the operating units, not the aircraft. "If we could find a way to re-equip the units, we could get the aircraft out," he says, suggesting the C-5A units could be re-equipped with the Lockheed Martin C-130J, Joint Cargo Aircraft or even C-17. The DoD's fiscal year 2008 budget request, submitted last week, does not include any C-17s, but has funds to mothball the production line.

Boeing is expected to lobby Congress aggressively to keep the line open, as it did last year by adding 10 aircraft to the FY2007 budget, extending deliveries to mid-2009.

One option being pushed by Boeing is the proposed C-17B, an intra-theatre transport version with enhanced short take-off and landing capability thanks to blown flaps and additional centrebody landing gear. Boeing Advanced Systems president George Meullner estimates the cost to develop the C-17B at around $450 million.

Source: Flight International