Strategic Mobility For The Future
SUBJECT AREA - Strategic Issues
Title: Strategic Mobility for the Future
Author: Major William L. Nichols, U.S. Air Force
Thesis: The reality for the future is a smaller, predominantly
continental United States (CONUS)-based American military that
retains global responsibilities and depends on improved strategic
mobility to resolve regional conflicts wherever they occur.
Airlift, sealift, and prepositioning are complementary and
synergistic -- we must improve all three.
Background: Economic and political realities mean that fewer
American troops will be based overseas, but a policy of "forward
presence" will remain essential to our national security
strategy. As the U.S. reduces forward-stationed forces and
increases reliance on mobile forces based in the CONUS, the
importance of strategic mobility is magnified. The strategic
mobility forces we have today are extremely important and
capable, but can they operate in the future global security
environment? Do we have enough "lift"? We will have enough lift
if we buy the additional mobility assets recommended in the
Mobility Requirements Study (MRS).
Recommendations: As a minimum, the U.S. should purchase 120
C-17s and 20 large, medium-speed roll-on-roll-off vessels to
ensure rapid and effective employment of military power in the
Strategic Mobility for the Future
Thesis: The reality for the future is a smaller, predominantly
CONUS-based American military that retains global res-
ponsibilities and depends on improved strategic mobility
to resolve regional conflicts wherever they occur. Air-
lift, sealift, and prepositioning are complementary and
synergistic -- we must improve all three.
I. Importance of Strategic Mobility in our National Defense
II. Strategic Mobility Forces
III. Mobility Force Requirements
IV. Modernizing for Future Challenges
Strategic Mobility for the Future
World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Just
Cause, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, and the Somalian
humanitarian mission have one common denominator: American troops
fighting outside of the United States, deployed and sustained by
strategic mobility forces. Where will our next threat occur?
How will our new president react to future national security
challenges? We do not have the answers to these questions. What
we do know is that, regardless of how or where our leadership
responds, strategic mobility forces will play a critical role in
any future military operations.
The new administration's only actions to date concerning the
military are to push for further cuts in the defense budget and
to provide token humanitarian assistance in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Soviet Union has been relegated to the history books, pieces
of the crumbled Berlin Wall can be found in souvenir stores, and
the Warsaw Pact is a fading memory. The demise of the Soviet
Union and the Soviet empire changed our defense planning from a
global to a regional defense strategy. Unfortunately, the world
is not necessarily a safer place in which to live. Regional
instabilities and ethnic strife are not on the decline. Until
President Clinton clarifies his visions of a structure and
purpose for the U.S. military in the post-Cold War world, we must
plan for uncertainty. In today's changing world, the only
certainty is uncertainty. Instead of preparing for the threat of
a global conflict against a hostile superpower, U.S. forces must
be ready for a wider range of contingencies in more diverse
regions of the world.
While there are many questions about the type of threat we
will face, military challenges to our nation's interests will
probably occur in distant locations overseas. Economic and
political realities mean that fewer American troops will be based
overseas, but a policy of "forward presence" will remain
essential to our national security strategy. As the U.S. reduces
forward-stationed forces and increases reliance on mobile forces
based in the continental United States (CONUS), the importance of
strategic mobility is magnified.
Airlift, sealift, and prepositioning are the foundations of
the strategic mobility triad. The three components are inter-
dependent, each offering a differing mix of speed, capacity, and
flexibility. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but all
three suffer from a chronic shortage of assets. Improving one
element of the mobility triad while ignoring the other two is not
the answer. An integrated approach that increases and improves
capability in all three strategic mobility elements is the
Airlift assets have been in demand since World War II.
Warfighting Commanders-in-Chief (CINCs) traditionally want their
combat forces in place "yesterday." Tomorrow is not soon enough.
On August 8, 1990, approximately 72 hours after President Bush
ordered U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf, military and commercial
passenger aircraft arrived in Saudi Arabia with American troops.
(19:47) At the height of the initial surge, more than 124
strategic airlift C-5, C-141, KC-10, and Civil Reserve Air Fleet
(CRAF) aircraft were landing in the desert each day -- that is
one airplane every 11 minutes. (19:53) Over the duration of
Operation Desert Shield/Storm, strategic airlift pilots flew over
15,000 sorties, delivering more than 500,000 passengers and
513,000 tons of cargo to Saudi Arabia. (1:194) Additionally,
tactical airlift C-130s moved over 209,000 people and 300,000
tons of cargo to and from forward positions in the Persian Gulf
theater. (1:194) During General Norman Schwarzkopf's strategic
flanking move (the "Hail Mary pass"), C-130s were landing at
unimproved forward airstrips every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day,
for two weeks. (19:53)
The Persian Gulf troop and materiel deployment was
impressive. General Hansford T. Johnson, Commander-in-Chief of
the U.S. Transportation Command, described it best when he said,
"No nation in history has ever moved so much, so fast, so far."
(4:94) However, if Saddam Hussein had invaded Saudi Arabia in
the summer of 1990, U.S. forces would have been hard-pressed to
quickly defeat the Iraqi invaders. The Desert Shield/Storm
buildup took seven months, required the commitment of virtually
all U.S. strategic airlift aircraft, and prompted activation of
the CRAF for the first time in history. Additionally, a month
into Operation Desert Shield, the Military Airlift Command had to
extend the 30-day maximum flying time accumulation limits from
125 to 150 flight-hours in order to keep the C-5 aircrews
"legally" flying. This extension helped temporarily; however, by
February 1991 many C-5 pilots reached the non-waiverable, 90-day
limit of 330 flying hours and had to stand down. (18:52) Flying
hour requirements and limited number of available airplanes are
not the only problems facing airlift, however. The current USAF
aircraft inventory is another concern.
C-5s and C-141s bear the brunt of the strategic (inter-
theater) airlift mission, while C-130s handle tactical (intra-
theater) airlift requirements. Only the C-5 can carry outsized
cargo such as Patriot missile launchers, Apache helicopters, and
the M-1 Abrams main battle tank. (2:18) It can carry heavy
payloads (291,000 pounds maximum) for a long range. The C-5's
range is unlimited with aerial refueling; without in-flight
refueling, it is 3500 miles with 172,000 pounds. (7:96) However,
it is restricted to hard-surfaced runways 6000 feet long by 150
feet wide during peacetime and 5000 feet long by 90 feet wide
during wartime. (17:16) Also, the C-5's size and lack of on-the-
ground maneuverability limit cargo throughput for a given amount
of ramp space. Only three C-5s can load or offload on a 500,000-
square-foot ramp area with a single entry point and planned
ground time for the loading/off loading is three hours and fifteen
Like the C-5, the C-141 has some serious limitations. It can
carry medium payloads (89,000 pounds maximum) for a long range.
The C-141's range is unlimited with aerial refueling; without in-
flight refueling, it is 2000 miles with 89,000 pounds. (20:16)
It has the same runway restrictions (6000 feet - peacetime/5000
feet - wartime) as the C-5. The real concern is the age of the
C-141: an average of 25 years. (20:31) It was originally
designed for 30,000 flying hours, but after decades of service,
the average C-141 already has flown more than 32,000 hours.
(17:12) C-141's are currently undergoing an overhaul designed to
make them last 45,000 hours, but because of accel-erated wear
during the Persian Gulf War, many will be approaching the 45,000-
hour mark in fiscal year 1997. The USAF had planned to keep
using them until the year 2010. According to a December 1992
General Accounting Office report, the C-141 fleet is currently
operating under several altitude and operational restrictions
because of cracks in six different areas of the aircraft. (11:20)
These restrictions limit how high they can fly and how much they
can carry. Also, approximately one-fifth (55) of the C-141 fleet
is in depot maintenance now and will remain there for 250 days to
repair the cracks. Normal depot main-tenance time is 150 days.
(9) The restrictions and increased maintenance time mean less
available strategic airlift for CINCs.
The venerable C-130 easily operates from 3000-foot landing
strips and uses relatively little ramp space, but carries light
payloads (50,000 pounds maximum) and flies almost 200 miles-per-
hour slower than the C-5 or C-141. (7:96) Also, it has a short
range (1800 miles with 50,000 pounds of cargo) since it is not
aerial refuelable. Like the C-141, the C-130 is an old aircraft
(average age is 22 years) and many are scheduled for retirement
in the next five years. (20:31)
KC-10s and CRAF aircraft provide CINCs with additional
strategic lift, but with some limitations. The KC-10 can
transport 169,000 pounds of cargo for an unrefueled range of 3800
miles. (21:50) However, it is incapable of carrying outsized
equipment. Additionally, the cargo door is high on the side of
the aircraft which requires expensive special military-handling
equipment and results in significantly longer loading/unloading
times. Wide-body CRAF aircraft have many of the same disadvan-
tages as the KC-10. The high cargo deck (typically about 16 feet
off the ground), small doors, and insufficient cargo floor
strength limit their ability to carry roll-on/roll-off cargo and
necessary firepower equipment. Also, CRAF aircraft are not
aerial refuelable and, like KC-10s, cannot operate from small,
austere airfields. (17:11)
C-5s, C-141s, C-130s, KC-10s, and CRAF aircraft constitute
the current airlift mobility force. Despite their limitations,
they perform their mission well. The successful Persian Gulf War
is a testament to their global reach. However, the U.S. needs a
new aircraft now to meet our strategic mobility requirements and
the USAF plans to buy C-17s to replace the aging fleet of C-141s.
The C-17 (christened as the Globemaster III) incorporates the
best features of the older C-5, C-141, and C-130 "airlifters"
along with updated technology. As the commander of Air Mobility
Command, General Ronald R. Fogleman has said, "The C-17 merges
into one airframe what the Air Mobility Command now has to do
with two or three different airframes." (15:11) It combines the
advantages of the C-5 (range, speed, aerial refueling, payload,
and outsized cargo capability) with those of the C-130 (surviva-
bility, short airfield capability, maneuverability, and airdrop
capability). The C-17 Globemaster III can transport 160,000
pounds of cargo for an unrefueled range of 2400 miles and land
(with a reduced payload) at an austere airfield with a 3000-foot
runway. (16:12) The design features which enable the C-17 to
operate into and out of short runways are powered-lift
technology, beefed-up landing gear, and head-up displays (HUDs).
The use of powered lift is based on an externally blown flaps
system. With this system, flaps are lowered and placed directly
in the engine's exhaust stream which increases lift. (17:15)
Powered lift allows the C-17 to take off in very short distances
and approach runways at a relatively slow airspeed and steep (5
degree) glide path. The landing gear is designed to handle
landing sink rates of up to 15 feet per second while the HUD
provides precise aimpoint control so the pilot can routinely land
within 250 feet of a planned touchdown point. This compares to
750 feet either side of a planned touchdown point for C-5s/
C-141s. (20:18) Slow approach speeds, steep glide paths, and
precise aimpoint control result in very short landing distances
with very heavy cargo loads.
Some other features include backing and ground maneuver-
ability. When maneuvering on the ground, the C-17 can perform
three point turns to reduce its turning radius. The C-130 and
C-17 are the only two airlifters designed to back up in routine
operations. Because of its backing capability and maneuver-
ability, eight C-17s can be parked in a 500,000-square-foot ramp
for loading and off loading compared to three C-5s or six C-141s.
Planned ground time for loading/off loading the C-17 is two hours
and fifteen minutes. (20:18)
PAYLOAD RANGE MINIMUM THROUHGPUT4
(MANIMUM) RUNWAY PER DAY
C-17 172,000 lbs 2400 NM1 3000 ft 4134 tons
C-5 291,000 lbs 3700 NM1 5000 ft3 1529 tons
C-141 89,000 lbs 2000 NM2 5000 ft3 1765 tons
C-130 50,000 lbs 1800 NM2 3000 ft 1201 tons5
1 With 160,000lbs and without in-flight refueling
2 With maximum load and without in-flight refueling
3 Wartime restrictions
4 Maximum into a 500,000-sq-ft ramp area
Table 1 compares the four airlifters. Because of its short-
field capability, the C-17 will increase airfield access by
approximately 300 percent worldwide. (8:4) Also, with more
throughput capability than the other airlifters, the C-17 can
deliver more combat power to the battlefield more quickly. In
testimony to Congress, General Johnson noted that the C-17, if it
had been available, could have provided General Schwarzkopf with
twelve more fighter squadrons and two light infantry brigades in
the first twelve days of Desert Shield. (19:53) Other C-17
performance advantages like enhanced survivability (beefed-up
airframe, self-inerting fuel tank, separated and redundant
systems) and full airdrop capability (including the Low Altitude
Parachute Extraction System) add up to an aircraft that is
unequaled by any airlifter in the world today.
Like airlift, sealift forces played a big part in the
Persian Gulf War success. Nearly 90% of all Operation Desert
Shield/Storm cargo tonnage traveled by sealift. Ships delivered
approximately 3000 troops, more than 3,100,000 tons of dry cargo,
and nearly 12 billion pounds of fuel. There were 275 dry cargo
ships employed in the operation (70 Ready Reserve Force (RRF)
vessels, 8 Fast Sealift Ships (FSS), and 197 commercial ships
(168 foreign flag) chartered from civilian carriers). (5:93)
Sealift provides the volume of warfighting materiel that
CINCs require. One dry cargo ship can carry the equivalent
tonnage of approximately 2.5 days of airlift. (12:20) Though
relatively slow when compared to airlift (transportation of
military personnel and equipment via sealift is measured in days
while airlift is measured in hours), sealift forces are still
very responsive. The first FSS arrived in Saudi Arabia on 27
August, 1990, only 20 days after it was activated. (13:4)
The Navy owns eight large Fast Sealift Ships. The FSS are
roll-on-roll-off (RO/RO) ships capable of 33 knots. These eight
ships can carry an entire U.S. Army armored or mechanized
division from the CONUS east coast to Southwest Asia (8600 miles)
in only 14 sailing days. (13:7) A single FSS can carry the
equivalent of 180 C-5 loads. (9)
The Ready Reserve Force consists of 96 ships maintained by
the Maritime Administration to meet surge sealift requirements.
The RRF includes breakbulk, barge, troop transport, tanker, and
RO/RO ships. (14:6) The Persian Gulf deployment highlighted some
deficiencies in the readiness of RRF ships. "Of the 78 RRF
vessels that were called up, 74 (70 dry cargo ships and 4
tankers) actively participated in the operation. Of these, 57
ships were to have been ready in 5 days, 16 in 10 days, and l in
20 days. Twenty-two met their activation targets, with the
median time from call-up to loading being 11 days." (5:93)
Overall, the RRF performed well, delivering 22 percent of Persian
Gulf War cargo.
Sealift forces consist of both government-owned and commer-
cial ships. Chartered commercial ships carried the greatest
amount of sealift dry cargo (37 percent) during Operation Desert
Shield/Storm. (5:93) Today, commercial trade is dominated by
containerships, so RO/RO and breakbulk vessels are dwindling in
number. We depend on commercial fleets to meet our sealift
requirements; government-owned ships alone do not have the
capacity. During the Korean War, the United States had more than
2400 dry cargo ships available for military use; during the
Vietnam War there were approximately 1200 available vessels.
Today there are less than 400. (12:21)
The third leg of the mobility triad is prepositioning.
Prepositioning can be either land-based or sea-based. Prepo-
sitioning equipment at crucial overseas areas reduces movement
requirements. However, land-based prepositioning is inflexible
and requires wartime planners to correctly guess where the next
conflict will take place. Prepositioning is also contingent on a
favorable political climate in the host nation allowing stock-
piling. Even if we knew where we would fight next, political and
diplomatic considerations could prevent us from placing combat
equipment in some areas. Currently, land-based prepositioning
facilities are located in Europe (in support of Army units),
Norway [supporting a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB)], and in
Southwest Asia (providing support equipment and supplies for 750
Sea-based prepositioning is more flexible, but as with land-
based stocking, it requires duplicate sets of equipment (an added
expense) and effective airlift to marry-up forces arriving by air
with the shipborne items. Additionally, not all combat equipment
can be stored on ships. Helicopters, avionics equipment, and
medical supplies are some items that do not fare well because of
environmental control problems. The sea-based prepositioned
forces include Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) and Afloat
Prepositioned Ships (APS).
There are thirteen MPS ships, divided into three squadrons.
There is one each located in the Indian Ocean (Diego Garcia),
Pacific Ocean (Guam), and the Atlantic Ocean (U.S. East Coast).
Each squadron is equipped with combat equipment and supplies to
outfit a brigade-size force for 30 days. The squadrons are
positioned so that they can reach almost any point in the world
in four to fourteen days, depending on the distance they have to
The Army and Air Force also store equipment and supplies on
prepositioned ships. Twelve APS support the USA and USAF.
Eleven of these ships are normally located at Diego Garcia and
one is in the Mediterranean Sea.
Evidence of the value of sea-based prepositioning was
displayed in the Persian Gulf when the first Marine Air-Ground
Task Force was combat ready and available to General Schwarzkopf
on August 25 -- 18 days after the beginning of deployment.
Prepositioned ships (including all 13 MPS and 8 APS vessels)
provided 272,000 tons of equipment and ammunition, plus 18
million gallons of fuel for American troops in Operation Desert
The strategic mobility forces we have today are extremely
important and capable, but can they operate in the future global
security environment? Do we have enough "lift"? In an effort to
determine future lift and power projection requirements, Congress
(in 1991) directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to come up
with an integrated mobility plan. The Mobility Requirements
Study (MRS) is the end-product of the DOD study.
The MRS looked at lift needs for fighting in many different
parts of the world and analyzed threats, warning time, and the
degree of allied support. A principal conclusion of the study
was that the U.S. should spend more on mobility assets.
Specifically, the MRS authors said, "The uncertain and dangerous
future world will require more capability than the United States
possesses today to project a powerful force quickly to overseas
crisis areas." (10:30) The study recommended programs to improve
all mobility force elements.
When (and if) the MRS-recommended programs are complete by
1999, the U.S. will have the ability to transport two army
divisions, two MEBs, associated tactical fighter squadrons and
their support to Europe in about 15 days. (10:32) For
contingencies outside of Europe, mobility forces will be able to
deploy about five Army divisions, a Marine Expeditionary Force,
accompanying tactical fighter squadrons, naval forces and support
units within about eight weeks. (5:97) The study acknowledged
that, even with full implementation of MRS recommendations, the
U.S. would not be able to handle two simultaneous crises without
a substantial amount of "coercive requisitioning" of commercial
shipping and full activation of the CRAF program. (10:31)
The MRS suggested a mobility plan that is a moderate risk
and medium-cost solution for modernizing our mobility forces to
meet future challenges. (9) In the plan, land-based prepo-
sitioning capability would remain at today's level, but the other
mobility elements' capacity would increase. Congress must
support this plan and approve the funding to buy all the assets
outlined in the MRS.
Under the sealift enhancement program described in the MRS,
sealift will benefit from the procurement of 11 new large,
medium-speed RO/RO vessels (LMSRs). The LMSRs will be capable of
24 knots and will add 3 million square feet to the current surge
sealift capacity. (9) The new LMSRs, combined with the eight
FSS, will enable the U.S. to ship two heavy Army divisions to any
point in the world within 30 to 45 days. (6:102) Sea-based
prepositioning capacity will increase by two million square feet
with the DOD purchase of nine new LMSRs and two newly leased
containerships. The additional prepositioned ships will provide
initial equipment for at least an Army heavy brigade and support
The answer to the airlift shortfall is the C-17. That is
not just a USAF opinion, it is the DOD's position. As Major
General Fred E. Elam (Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for
Logistics, Department of the Army) wrote, "The Army's airlift
needs can be stated simply: The Army needs the C-17 transport."
(8:4) The MRS recommends purchasing 120 C-17s. However, if the
C-141s do not undergo another service life extension (beyond
45,000 hours) before the turn of the century, we will need to buy
additional C-17s to offset the retirement of C-141s. What we do
not need now are further delays by our leadership in funding the
program. Congress has already cut C-17 production from eight
planes to six in 1993, and from twelve to eight in 1994. Under
President Clinton's budget-reduction plan, next year's C-17
production would fall to six. (3:3) Despite cost-overruns and
delays, the C-17 flight test program is going well. At the end
of January, 1993, the current fleet of five C-17s had flown 281
missions and logged 985 cumulative flight hours. (15:11) We must
increase the production rate, not decrease it. We certainly
cannot kill the C-17 program altogether as Representative
Conyers, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee,
The MRS plans for mobility are expensive. The staff of the
Senate Armed Services Committee estimated that the sealift
improvement will cost $10 billion. Costs for the C-17 program
are over $40 billion. The reality for the future is a smaller,
predominantly CONUS-based American military that retains global
responsibilities and depends on improved strategic mobility to
resolve regional conflicts wherever they occur. Airlift,
sealift, and prepositioning are complementary and synergistic --
we must improve all three. Can we afford to buy additional
mobility forces? We can ill-afford not to.
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