Senator weighs need for more long-range transport planes

By Megan Scully

March 28, 2007

Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is considering investing heavily in more C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes to better position the armed forces to respond to contingencies abroad.

Inouye, who now is reviewing the Pentagon's fiscal 2008 budget request in anticipation of a markup of the massive spending bill this summer, is working with the Air Force to determine how many C-17s the military will ultimately need.

The Air Force now plans to buy 190 of the Boeing Co. aircraft. But a Bush administration push for a permanent increase in Army and Marine Corps personnel -- combined with a high operational tempo overseas -- could bring the total requirement for C-17s to around 220 planes, Inouye said.

"The wars are not fought in Missouri or Michigan. They're fought abroad," Inouye said during an extended interview Monday. "And if that's the case, somebody or some craft, air or naval, will have to ship them over."

The C-17, Inouye added, has "at this moment the greatest potential for serving us well in that situation."

More planes would come with individual price tags exceeding $200 million, which many C-17 supporters argue is a necessary cost to maintain an effective long-range airlift capability now and in the future.

But while Inouye sees the benefit of a larger air transport fleet, he also is reluctant to significantly boost the size of the Defense budget. Doing so, he fears, could jeopardize domestic spending accounts, such as those for health care and education.

The Defense spending request for fiscal 2008, including war costs, totals more than $620 billion. The base budget alone for next year comes to $481.4 billion -- 30 percent more than the last Pentagon spending plan prepared by the Clinton administration.

"We can't continue to add to [the Defense budget] knowing that by doing that [Congress must] cut health programs, education programs," Inouye said. "This nation has showed enough statistics that frighten me. The rich are getting rich and the poor are getting impoverished."

That could mean that adding more C-17s -- a long-range transport plane with legendary support on Capitol Hill -- could come at the expense of other military programs. "These are not Tinkertoys," Inouye said. "They're very expensive."

One target could be the larger but older C-5 Galaxy airlifter, a Lockheed Martin Corp. plane undergoing extensive upgrades in Marietta, Ga.

Refurbishing some of the older C-5s, Inouye said, is not as cost-effective as buying new C-17s. The Hawaii Democrat also lauded the C-17's capabilities -- including its ability to land on shorter runways.

Should Inouye proceed with retiring some of the C-5s, he likely will have support from Air Force officials, who have said they would like to remove 25 to 30 of the "worst actors" in the Galaxy fleet to free up money to buy more C-17s and continue modernization efforts on the remaining C-5s.

But the Air Force did not ask for any more C-17s in its fiscal 2008 budget proposal, which led Boeing to announce earlier this month that it will begin to shut down production on the program, which affects thousands of jobs in 42 states.

Because of its economic impact across the country, the C-17 has been a longtime favorite for congressional add-ons to Defense spending bills. Indeed, Congress last year added $2.1 billion to buy 10 more C-17s.

In the interview, Inouye, a veteran appropriator who has earmarked billions of dollars for Hawaii over the years and looked out for favored military programs, defended congressional add-ons to annual spending bills.

"The administration and some of the members have suggested that the role of the Congress is to rubber stamp -- approve or disapprove -- the president on the budget, that it's not our business to add or to have what is called earmarking," Inouye said.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Constitution makes it very clear that we in the Congress have the ... responsibility of establishing the budget."

Inouye added that members of Congress often know their constituents' needs better than the White House.

"I wasn't elected to be a rubber stamp for the president," Inouye said.

By Megan Scully

March 28, 2007