Officials urge Hill to stop adding more C-17s to fleet

Senior defense officials on Tuesday urged lawmakers to end production of the C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes, arguing that the Air Force's fleet of large cargo aircraft already exceeds the military's operational needs.

During a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, Pentagon and Air Force officials warned that any congressional effort to buy more unwanted C-17s -- each carrying a price tag of nearly $300 million -- would jeopardize funding for other needed programs.

In addition, they argued that adding more C-17s to the fleet could hinder the Pentagon's five-year effort to trim more than $100 billion in unnecessary costs across the department and military services and redirect the savings to more pressing needs.

"Force structure is the ultimate cost driver in the department," said Michael McCord, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense in the Pentagon's comptroller office. Costs associated with additional aircraft, he added, include training, operating and construction costs not included in a plane's price tag.

The Pentagon's heightened efforts this year to end C-17 production follows a recent study of the military's airlift requirements, which found that the Air Force's fleet of 223 C-17s and 111 larger C-5 Galaxy aircraft provides about 10 percent more lift than the department requires.

Neither the House-passed fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill nor the Senate Armed Services Committee's version includes funding for more C-17s.

But appropriators have long favored buying more of the Boeing-built cargo planes, and may attempt to add more to the fiscal 2011 defense spending bill despite strong warning by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that he would recommend President Obama veto any legislation that keeps the procurement program alive.

The Pentagon last sought money to buy a C-17 in its fiscal 2007 budget request to complete its planned purchase of 180 of the aircraft. Since then, Congress has added roughly $9 billion to spending bills to buy another 43 planes, whose production employs 30,000 people in 43 states.

During meetings on Capitol Hill over the last several months, Boeing has argued that it needs the U.S. military to buy five planes in fiscal 2011 to supplement international orders and keep the production lines running at optimum speed, several defense sources tracking the issue recently told CongressDaily.

But Federal Financial Management Subcommittee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who also serves as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during Tuesday's hearing that he believes the current fiscal environment and budgetary pressures may help lawmakers opposed to buying more C-17s "prevail over appropriators."

Meanwhile, officials on Tuesday also asked lawmakers to lift a ban on retiring the oldest C-5s in the fleet. The Pentagon wants to retire 17 C-5s in fiscal 2011 and another five the following year to shed some of the military's excess cargo capacity.

The retirements are estimated to save $325 million over the next several years in depot maintenance, flying hours and modernization costs, said Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins, Air Force director of strategic plans, requirements and programs at Air Mobility Command.

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