Lawmakers divided over cargo plane options

By Megan Scully

March 8, 2007

A battle is brewing on Capitol Hill over the Air Force's future cargo fleet as supporters of two different heavy-lift planes maneuver to safeguard their programs.

On one side is a legion of lawmakers who want to buy more C-17 Globemaster III planes, a Boeing airframe produced in 42 states.

On the other is a smaller, but certainly vocal, group who want to proceed with modernizing all of the Air Force's massive C-5 Galaxy planes, a Lockheed Martin product undergoing extensive work at the company's Marietta, Ga., facility.

There might not be room in the fiscal 2008 budget for both. "There is no question that it's setting up some sort of a battle," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., whose district includes Lockheed's Marietta plant. "The question is when [do] you get beyond the parochial issue?"

Bubbling below the surface for some time, the strategic airlift debate has come to a head now that Boeing has announced it will begin to shut down C-17 production lines unless Congress adds money for 15-18 new planes next year. Those additions, which Boeing senior executives proposed Friday, could cost roughly $3.5 billion.

On Monday, Air Force leaders met behind closed doors with Senate staff and argued that they could buy more C-17s if Congress would lift restrictions on C-5 retirements.

The Air Force would like to retire roughly 30 older C-5s, which are twice the size of the C-17, but far older. And service leaders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley, have not been shy about declaring that the C-17 is a far more valuable asset than the C-5.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., acknowledged there is a "lot of work that needs to be done" in the budget to add more C-17s because it "conflicts with the C-5." Feinstein represents Boeing's Long Beach facility, where much of the C-17 work is done.

Lockheed built its last C-5 in 1989, but is replacing the fleet's engines and avionics -- a move that supporters say will keep the planes flying for at least another 25 years. But those efforts are experiencing cost overruns and delays.

The issue puts several members who have an interest in both aircraft in a tough spot. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., represents both the Lockheed facility and a C-17 plant in Macon. Meanwhile, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., has both C-17s and C-5s at Travis Air Force Base in her district.

"I don't want to be the mother in 'Sophie's Choice,'" Tauscher said.

Tauscher argued that the military needs more strategic lift -- and should proceed with both programs, given worldwide commitments and 92,000 new soldiers and Marines expected in the force over the next several years.

When asked if Congress could make room in the budget for both the C-5 modernization and buying more C-17s, Chambliss said: "I don't know. That's what we're going to be talking to the Air Force about."

Should it come down to a choice between the two programs, the C-17, which has legendary support on Capitol Hill, could ultimately win out. Congress last year approved 10 additional C-17s, to the tune of $2.1 billion.

But C-5 supporters do not plan to remain silent. "We are outgunned a bit, but that doesn't mean we are going to be out-voiced," Gingrey said.

By Megan Scully

March 8, 2007