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Associated Press November 28, 2005

C-17 planes herald new era at Hickam

The transport jets due here next year support humanitarian and tactical airlift missions

By Audrey McAvoy

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE » The new face of Hickam Air Force Base is a squat gray cargo jet commanders dub a workhorse. But don't be deceived by its modest appearance.

The C-17 is at the core of the modern U.S. military. The plane's ability to land on dirt fields, fly long distances and drop more than 100 paratroopers into battle make it a favorite of commanders reorganizing the military into a rapid-response force.

Eight of the planes, each shorter and narrower than a Boeing 747, will move to Hawaii starting in February. The new jets will give Hickam's active-duty force the ability to deliver troops and heavy equipment to trouble spots for the first time since the Vietnam War.

"Come February 8th, at 11 o'clock in the morning, we'll have a new era at Hickam," said Col. William Changose. "We will have the assets and the ability to support the (Department of Defense) in the Pacific with global airlift -- airlift that can go anywhere at any time."

The Air Force has dozens of C-17s across the nation from Washington state to South Carolina. Boeing is finishing up a contract to supply 180 of the planes to the Air Force by 2008. The planes are capable of fitting aboard three of the Army's tanklike Stryker light armored vehicles.

The planes have proved their capabilities, dropping 2,000 paratroopers into northern Iraq when Turkey denied the United States passage by land across its borders. In Afghanistan the Air Force used C-17s to drop 2 million rations to civilians at the start of the war there in 2001.

The geography of Hawaii will enhance the strategic value of Hickam's C-17s. Basing them here positions them closer to some of the more serious potential threats to U.S. interests, ranging from North Korea's development of nuclear weapons to China's vow to invade Taiwan if the island formally declares independence.

The U.S. response to last December's tsunami showed how having C-17s in Hawaii could accelerate the U.S. response to contingencies along the Pacific Rim.

"By having these planes already in the area, whatever we do in the Pacific ought to probably take a couple days less of air crew time and flying time," Changose said.

Changose, commander of Hickam's 15th Airlift Wing, said the emergency medical mission performed by a C-17 plane visiting Hickam in September underscored the benefit of having the planes based in the islands.

The Air Force needed a reliable aircraft that could land on a short runway to deliver drugs and a few doctors to the Marshall Islands after a fire destroyed a hospital's drug and medical supply warehouses.

Commanders pressed the C-17 into service because its other cargo planes were not as versatile.

One job Hickam's C-17s will have is transporting the fast-response Stryker Brigade the Army is establishing at Oahu's Schofield Barracks. The unit is designed to deploy anywhere in the world in 96 hours.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said the need to transport Stryker troops and vehicles could mean the Air Force will want to move more C-17s to Hickam in the future because the squadron of just eight planes would fall short of the Army's needs.

At the most, each C-17 can take off with three Stryker vehicles aboard. Schofield Barracks currently plans to acquire close to 300 of the vehicles for the roughly 3,900 troops that will join the brigade.

Hickam's new planes will be arriving in the islands as the Pentagon puts more troops, planes, ships and other equipment closer to where they might be needed. In the past few years, the Navy has moved three submarines to Guam and announced plans to base an aircraft carrier either at Pearl Harbor or Guam's Apra Harbor.

Moving C-17s to Hickam "makes sense in the broader context of the Pentagon's plan to transform the military and to have what they call lily pads -- the key logistical hubs they can operate out of," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.

Copyright 2005, Associated Press