Air Force News

Airlift future a question of balance

Released: 25 Aug 1999

by Staff Sgt. Michael Dorsey
Air Force Print News

WASHINGTON -- Supporting airlift operations the magnitude of the Kosovo conflict could cause problems in the future, says the Air Force chief of staff.

"From an airlift standpoint, on a day-to-day basis we have sufficient airlift. But where airlift becomes very, very important is in operations such as this last one and in major theater wars," Gen. Michael E. Ryan said to 25 reporters during a recent Defense Writers' Group breakfast in Washington.

"We are not a two-major theater war Air Force in a lot of areas," he said. "One of them is in airlift. For planning purposes, one of the reasons why we have 90 days between the two major regional contingencies is to be able to swing the airlift fleet from one theater to the other, because it's primarily a one-theater airlift force."

As of Aug. 23, cargo and refueling aircraft had flown 3,163 missions in support of Operation Allied Force. Despite fighter and bomber missions ending after the NATO-supported air campaign ceased, airlift continues to move people and equipment during the redeployment phase.

"I don't think we can afford to have a two-major theater war airlift force simultaneously," the general added. "That would drive the numbers completely out of the reality realm. But we need to continue to modernize our airlift fleet and that's what we're working on very hard in our budgets."

With the C-141 Starlifter, long considered the workhorse of the heavy-transport fleet, closing out its career and giving way to the emerging C-17 Globemaster, the Starlifter's fading role signifies the Globemaster's succession as the flagship of airlift evolution. The current fleet carried the burden of missions with 1,217 during Allied Force.

Part of the modernization effort for heavy transports includes further production of the C-17.

"As you know, we were going to buy out the C-17s at 120; then we added another 14 last year," Ryan said. "We also want to 're-avionic' and re-engine the C-5s because they are very, very important to large, oversized cargo capability."

After the heavily tasked C-17 and KC-135 comes the C-5 Galaxy in total number of missions, just ahead of the C-130. The general said he wants to continue modernizing the various versions of the C-130 tactical airlift fleet into a C-130J and C-130X fleet. This effort will eliminate the 21 different C-130 configurations in the Air Force.

"For the most part, these large airplanes, except for the C-141 which will be coming out of the inventory, are in pretty good shape as far as the box and the wings -- the structure of the airplane -- are concerned," he said. "Due to their age and time they were built, efforts are being made to upgrade the avionics and engine areas of the airframes."

Ryan said humanitarian airlift did not cease even when the Air Force deployed its aircraft fighting forces to the Balkans in support of the air strikes. Pointing out that airlift forces were taxed in Europe because the air strike escalated to the level of a major theater war, he stressed that getting lighter and leaner remains the way of the future.

"We can't take the shower and the kitchen sink and everything else when we go forward," Ryan said. "We have to do this a little bit lighter."

The question facing the Air Force is how it arrives at its desired airlift strategy, the general said.

"Should we take 30 days' worth of supplies when we go forward with a squadron, or should we take seven and then depend on rapid airlift to backfill? We're going through those kinds of operations," he said.

In the meantime, airlift remains an integral part of the Air Force into the future. A mobility aerospace expeditionary force is planned to support the AEF under the expeditionary aerospace force concept when it becomes reality Oct. 1. The mobility AEF, led by an airlift or refueling wing commander, will handle humanitarian missions as well as combat situations that bomber and fighter units only support.


* C-5 Galaxy
* C-17 Globemaster III
* C-130 Hercules
* C-141 Starlifter
* KC-135 Stratotanker
* Gen. Michael E. Ryan