All too often, defense programs consume resources like a fountain consumes water in a public park—always flowing regardless of cost or necessity. Programs with no clear use running billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule remain fiendishly difficult to kill. It is this unfortunate reality that made the July 13 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management so refreshing.
Department of Defense officials emphatically pressed lawmakers to cease production of any more C-17 cargo planes, saying they were neither requested nor required. Indeed, they said, the current capabilities of our strategic airlift fleet exceed the military’s present-day needs as well as worst-case scenario projections. Purchasing additional C-17 aircraft would run contrary to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ goal of saving $100 billion over the next five years and would necessitate cutbacks in other DoD programs.
(More after the jump)
The U.S. strategic airlift fleet consists of C-5, C-17, and C-130 aircraft, including 223 C-17s and 111 C-5s, providing a capacity of 35.9 million ton-miles per day. Air Force Maj. General Susan Y. Desjardins, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Mike McCord, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Alan F. Estevez all testified that according to the Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study-2016 (MCRS-16) conducted by DoD, the greatest airlift demand under extreme cases would be no more than 32.7 mtm/d.
The witnesses repeatedly stressed this point, as well as echoing Chairman Tom Carper’s (D-DE) statement that the military has not requested any more C-17s since 2007. Despite this, Congress has purchased 43 additional planes since that time. Senator John McCain pointed out that this amounted to $9 billion in direct spending, as well as billions more in support, training, maintenance, and other recurring costs associated with increased aircraft supply.
In addition, 22 of the lowest-performing C-5s are to be retired, saving money on their associated upkeep costs. Simultaneously, the remaining C-5s are scheduled to be upgraded with new engines and other systems, prolonging their service life and improving their reliability. When asked if it would make sense to continue retiring C-5s in favor of new C-17s, McCord said this would be a waste of money. Carper noted that for the cost of one new C-17, two C-5s can be upgraded, each of which can carry twice as much cargo and fly twice as far as a new C-17 while remaining in service for another 30-40 years.
So far Congress’ appropriations for FY 2011 contain no funding for additional C-17 aircraft, and Secretary Gates has recommended that President Obama veto any bill containing spending on them. “If you’re in a hole,” said Carper, “stop digging.”