Keeping MAC Airborne
SUBJECT AREA - National Security
Title: Keeping MAC Airborne
Author: Major J E. Page, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: With the rapid aging of the United States airborne
troop transport fleet, we need the C-17 aircraft to fill the
impending void in our airlift capabilities.
Background: A reduced communist threat and current economic
concerns are driving the United States military to become
more continental in nature. At the same time, the absence of
Soviet influence worldwide and international economic
considerations are leading the United States to assuming an
even larger role in international affairs. As a result, the
developing U.S. continental military must be capable of
deploying rapidly and in strength to any global location.
An increased dependence on mobility is coming at a time
when the Military Airlift Command's fleet of transport
aircraft is in need of replacement aircraft. The natural
aging process and the increased stresses imposed on aircraft
during the war with Iraq mandate that the U.S. transport
aircraft fleet be upgraded if it is to remain operationally
responsive to future military needs. A suitable replacement
for MAC has been developed in the form of the C-17 aircraft.
Recommendation: The C-17 program should receive strong
support from military and strategic planners in order to
ensure that defense budgets provide for adequate production
of that aircraft to fill our mobility needs.
Keeping MAC Airborne
Thesis statement. With the rapid aging of the United
States airborne transport fleet, we need the C-7 aircraft
to the impending void in our airlift capabilities.
I. Airlift in U.S. Military operations
A. Historical use
l. Just Cause
2. Desert Shield/Desert Storm
3. Berlin Airlift
B. Projected use
1. Revised U.S. military strategy
2. Continental forces
II. Airlift Status for the U.S. Military
A. Current Fleet
1. Material condition
2. Age considerations
1. Budget status
1. Desert Storm performance
2. Continued availability
III. Airlift for the Restructured U. S. Military
KEEPING MAC AIRBORNE
The recent sweeping changes in the Soviet Union and in
the Eastern Bloc countries have had a significant impact
on the future military strategy of this country. When
these new developments in our enemies' statuses are
combined with this country's current recession, validity
is given to the argument that we should begin to scale
back our overseas posturing of forces. The decisions to
wake such moves have already been made, and the wheels to
enact those changes are now in motion. However, as we
decrease the size of our military forces and reduce our
presence at foreign bases, we must not forget that America
still has vital interests around the world which must be
protected. Accordingly, it is imperative that strategic
planning for the future include the capability to
transport troops and equipment quickly and efficiently
outside the United States. With the rapid aging of the
United States airborne troop transport fleet, we need the
C-17 aircraft to fill the impending void in our airlift
In the last three years, the United States has
participated in two, major military actions to protect her
interests. In 1989, U. S. forces invaded Panama in order
to topple Manuel Noriega's regime and to ensure our
continued access to the Panama Canal. In l990, the U.S.
military combined with an international coalition to drive
Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces out of the oil rich country
of Kuwait. The successes enjoyed in both of those
operations was largely attributable to an ability to
rapidly deploy sufficient numbers of troops and equipment
to those two troubled areas of the world. Inadequate
mobility would have seriously degraded the responsiveness
of our military forces, and likely, was the difference
between success and failure in both ventures. If we hope
to enjoy the same measures of success in any future
conflict, we must bolster our mobility assets now.
The United States has a long history of dependence
upon airlift capabilities for rapid response to emergency
crises around the world. During World War Two, using C-47
transports, the Air Transport command delivered 45,000
tons of cargo a month to China to assist in the war
against Japan. (19:338) Beginning in 1948, and continuing
for eleven months, United States Air Force transport
aircraft were heavily engaged in the Berlin Airlift. The
Korean and Vietnam wars saw thousands of troops and tons
of supplies airlifted into those theaters of operations.
These examples and hundreds of other similar response
actions clearly demonstrate America's need to keep and
maintain a viable, quick-response airlift capability.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United
States can be expected to expected to larger role in
international affairs. If efforts continue to reshape
America' s military into a continental force, then airlift
will certainly be an asset utilized in nearly every global
situation in which we become involved. Without sufficient
numbers of transport aircraft to rapidly project required
numbers of troops and equipment outside this country, the
United States military will essentially become a force
suited for little more than securing our own borders.
Top-level government officials, in recognition of
current and impending changes in our national strategy,
have acknowledged a continuing and ever-increasing need to
have combat-ready forces which can quickly deploy to any
region of the world. Secretary of the Defense Dick Cheney
stated to a Senate panel, "Our focus now is on regional
crises and contingencies."(15:52) In consonance, General
Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
maintains that whenever U.S. forces are deployed in the
futures they will be committed in overwhelming numbers. A
recent Joint Chiefs assessment agrees that today's
environment dictates the need for more strategic lift
The words of the Secretary of the Defense and the
Chairman have not been lost on the senior leadership of
the Air Force. A recent Air Force white letter stated,
"As forward forces decline, but global interests remain,
airlift will be even more in demand."(15:52) General H. T.
Johnson, commander in chief of Military Airlift Commnand
(MAC) goes on to assert his view, "Anytime we have to
take action, we will have to move a force very, very
quickly. From a strategy standpoint, I see transportation
being of increased importance. "(15: 52)
Why the apparent sudden concern over this country' s
airlift capabilities? Part of the answer to that question
has already been addressed. Our military is becoming more
and more a continental force. To what extent our forces
will be based in the United States has not yet been fully
deterinined, but the resultant numbers may be substantial.
By far, the greatest percentage of our overseas
military forces in the past have been based in Europe.
Those troops were positioned primarily to counter the
Soviet threat. Even before the dissolution of the Soviet
Union, negotiations between American leaders and the
Soviets had brought about the decision to reduce forces in
Europe with the Conventional Forces Europe Agreement.
Now, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the number of
U.S. forces which will remain in Europe will probably not
represent a significant fighting force.
In the Pacific theater, the U.S. military is rapidly
removing its military assets from the Philippines Islands.
A watchful eye is being kept on the military situation in
Korea. However, as a token of goodwill, the U.S. is not
conducting its annual military training exercise, Team
Spirit, in South Korea this year. This faction may be a
prelude to future force withdrawals from that country.
These reductions in our overseas force strengths mean
that if a crisis situation develops anywhere in the world,
military assets located in the United States, vice forces
already positioned in a particular theater, will be
required to respond. Our overseas forces simply will not
possess adequate strength to quell many disturbances.
Airlift will be the only mode of transporation which can
quickly and effectively impose sufficient forces to
prevent a situation from developing to such magnitude that
it becomes too costly in lives and equipment for U.S.
Some analysts might point to the recent Gulf War and
question why all the concern today over the U.S.
military' s airlift capabilities. They might correctly
observe that the U.S. military forces deployed to Saudi
Arabia to counter the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein were
largely forces based in the continental United States.
After all, using 111 C-5 Galaxy, 227 C-141 Star Lifter,
and ll7 commercial aircraft, MAC was able to transport
500, 000 combat troops and 577 ,000 tons of cargo to the
Gulf region in a timely manner. (5) In six weeks of
Operation Desert Storm, more tonnage was airlifted into
the Gulf than was lifted during the 65 weeks of the Berlin
Airlift. That effort in itself should be evidence that
our airlift assets were both adequate and capable.
Yes, it is true that the U.S. Tranportation Command
demonstrated, with certainty, its ability to deploy large
numbers of troops and equipment globally. However, while
conducting those movement, we came to recognize that the
Military Airlift's fleet of transport aircraft was being
seriously taxed. The demand for airlift assets became so
great, that the Air Force was forced to cease inducting
airframes into depot level maintenance. Maintenance which
was required to be conducted at the local level was
waived. Weight restrictions, which had previously been
placed on C-141 aircraft in order to extend their service
lives to 45000 flight hours, were removed. Additionally,
aircraft were also flown in flight profiles which were not
specified in their design criteria.
As a result of such usage, the Air Force began to
experience a significantly greater increase in the number
of premature aircraft systems failures. The physical
stresses imposed by the increased utilization of C-141
aircraft were revealed after the war when inspections
detected cracks in the outer sections of the wings of
those aircraft. It quickly became evident that the C-141
and other large transport aircraft would soon reach the
end of their service lives.
The fact that the United States must maintain
substantial airlift mobility assets has already been
established with the senior Pentagon and Bush
administration officials. Now, we must be certain that
those in Congress who control the budget strings are also
aware of the imperative need to upgrade our existing
transport system. The fact that the first C-141's were
introduced thirty years ago in 1961, and that the first
C-5's were delivered in1969, should cause some members of
Congress to realize that it is time now to begin replacing
The fact that we need to improve our transport
aircraft fleet is not just now coming to light. The C-17
is the aircraft which was designed to bolster that fleet.
Initially, the C-17 was intended only to supplement our
already existing fleet of transports. Now, however, the
C-17 will likely serve as a replacement for the C-141 and
possibly the C-130 rather than simply being a supplemental
Even with the recognition of an obvious need to keep
and improve an effective system of military
transportation, we may yet see budgetary constraints
undermine efforts to maintain adequate airlift
capabilities. Armed with the knowledge that our C-130's,
C-141's, and C-5's are reaching the end of their useful
lives, Congress still cut funding for the C-17 program in
this year's national budget. The budget now only allows
for 120 of the originally sought 210 airframes. It must
again be emphasized that those 210 original airframes were
not intended to be replacement aircraft, but were meant
for a supplemental role. This fact makes the budget
reduction even more questionable.
The C-17 aircraft, if built in sufficient numbers,
appears to be a worthy replacement for our waning fleet of
transport aircraft. The C-17 was designed to have a high
degree of survivability with its self-inerting fuel tanks,
redundant and separated components, and other such protec-
tions. Its speed and maneuverability have been lauded
during test flights which began in September 1991.
Two distinct pluses for the C-17 are its payload
capacity and its range. The C-17 is capable of
simultaneously carrying almost as many paratroops as the
C-130 and a heavier equipment load than the C-141.
Additionally, the C-17's ability to conduct inflight
refueling becomes a significaiit factor as we reduce our
The C-17's ability to operate from runways as short as
3000 feet in length gives it a distinct advantage over the
C-141 and the C-5 which require a minimum of 6000 feet of
runway for operations. Strategically, this capability
gives a commander an additional six thousand runways
around the world from which to operate. In the Middle
East alone, this equates to twice the number of runways
from which the C-141 and C-5 can deploy. The ability to
utilize these additional airfields may well prove to be of
vital importance to military planners in the future as we
begin to operate more and more from the continental United
These factors will provide strategic planners with a
greater range of options for conducting safer more
efficient, and more effective military operations. It has
been estimated that if we had the C-17 available for use
during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, the number of
transport missions flown would have been reduced by 29 %
from 858 missions to just 526. In 1983, an exercise in
Honduras required 32 C-141 and C-5 flights to transport
troops and cargo. The C-17 could have reduced the number
of sorties by as much as 86%.(12:46)
Some of the lessons learned for the Persian Gulf war
offer strong evidence that there is a need for the C-17
aircraft. General Merrill McPeak, the Air Force Chief of
Staff, expressed this same view to a Congressional panel.
He empbasized his point by presenting official Air Force
estimates that the rate at which cargo was received and
processed at one vital air base in northern Saudi Arabia
using C-5 aircraft could have been almost three times
faster using C-17 transports.(8:26)
Another recent venture where the C-17 would have
proven itself a valuable asset was in Operation Just Cause
in Panama in 1989. In eight weeks, MAC flew 775 missions
to Panama delivering 40,000 personnel and 21,000 tons of
cargo.(15:54) C-130 aircraft flying in support of Just
Cause from the continental United States were forced to
refuel at Howard Air Force Base in Panama. That refueling
evolution served to congest avital airfield in the midst
of the operation. The delivery of airborne troops by C -
141 transports was successful, but the increased seating
capacity of the C-17 would have eased the congested skies
which had in excess of 200 aircraft airborne at H-
Hour. (6:34) The C-17 has the range, the speed, and
capacity required to have effectively moved those airborne
troops. Additionally, the C-17 would have aided the
security effort of Just Cause by minimizing the number of
pre-staging flights required. After the completion of
Just Cause, General H.T. Johnson expressed the opinion,
"Airlift, and lots of it, is a crucial, irreplaceable
asset in this variety of military operation. In fact, the
need for improved airlift grows daily along with the need
to add the proposed C-17 aircraft to the MAC fleet of
Another factor which adds to the attractiveness of the
C-17 is its reduced manning requirements. The aircrewmen
required for the C-141 sorties flown during Operation Just
Cause numbered 565. Transposing the C-17 into those same
sorties reduces the aircrew requirements to just
387.(12-:45) This reduced manning requirement will take on
an even greater significance in the future when military
force reductions are implemented.
Some budget analysts question why we should not place
a greater dependence on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF)
for our troop transport shortages. CRAF is a voluntary
program in which commercial air carriers provide aircraft
for military use. It is a program which was
conceptualized over 25 years ago, but which was first
employed during the Gulf War.
During the war in Southwest Asia, CRAF certainly
demonstrated its value. By the end of the war, 60% of the
passengers and 20% of the cargo moved to the Gulf were
transported on civil aircraft. (18:27) As of May 1991, the
numbers for the redeployment of forces had reached 87% for
passengers and 43% for equipment.(13:37) Without the
assistance of the commercial aircraft industry, we may not
have been able to mass by January 1991, the forces
required to defeat the Iraqis.
These very impressive statistics do not indicate the
underlying problems which developed with the use of civil
aircraft. The management of crews and aircraft to be used
in CRAF was faulty. Over periods of time, aircraft which
had been specially fitted to conduct specific missions
were often sold, re-modified, or placed in rework without
accurate records of changes of status. Crewmen who were
to man the CRAF assets often had left the commercial
airlines, were no longer current in or had never been
trained for specific missions, or were among the first
members of Reserve units called to the Gulf and thus were
not available for CRAF. CRAF crewmembers, whose average
age was 55 years, often were not able to adjust to the
demands of extended duty days.(18:27) Thus, the
requirement for two crews per aircraft was imposed. The
lack of ground support equipment compatible to both
military and civil aircraft was another difficulty which
One problem which did not impose itself during the
Gulf War, but which could potentially pose a problem in
the future, is the foreign ownership of U.S. airlines. If
a significant percentage of a company is foreign owned, it
is possible that foreign owners of those assets who oppose
a military venture, may not allow those airplanes to be
utilized. A similar situation was experienced by the
British during the Falklands War when Chinese crewmen on
British merchant ships were prohibited by the Chinese
government from entering the war zone.
The owners of CRAF aircraft are re-evaluating
continued participation in the program from a financial
standpoint. Mr. William Slattery, executive vice
president for operations at Northwest Airlines, revealed
this past December that Northwest had not yet recovered
from their involvement in the war and they are taking a
long, hard look at the costs; of participating in the CRAF -
program in comparison to the benefits. (18:28)
The first-time use of CRAF uncovered many problems.
That fact should not have been unexpected. "How serious
were those problems?" is the question which must be
answered now. CRAF does not appear to be a program in
which we can invest our future strategic policies. The
U.S. military needs to maintain its own homogeneous
transport capabilities .
We in the military services have acknowledged that the
current world situation and this country' s economic state
warrants reductions in our armed forces. Drawdowns are
already being implemented. However, our military leader
embraced these reductions with the understanding that
risks to our defense capabilities would be offset by
modernization of our forces. Without such improvements,
we will be left with a professional military which is too
small and too immobile to move globally with adequate
speed and sufficient strength to prevent the eruption of a
We must continue to radiate optimism and enthusiasm
about a robust force of C-17 aircraft to replace our
current airlift assets. Secretary Cheney in his annual
report to the Congress and to the President stated,
"Today's environment dictates the need for more strategic
lift assets. Despite large reductions in virtually all
other components of the nation's armed services, modest
growth is needed in our transport airlift
The C-17 transport aircraft is the tool which will
allow the United States military to remain a force in
readiness. Our military must continue to be characterized
as a force which can be deployed quickly and quietly to
strategic locations around the world in sufficient numbers
to deny an enemy force any opportunity for an effective
response. The aging of our airlift fleet is a diagnosed
ailment. The C-17 is the prescribed cure.
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