Air Force expects future airlift fleet to exceed 300 planes

Service expects to know this summer how many long-distance aircraft it will need to support and transport burgeoning ground forces.

Senior Air Force officials acknowledged Tuesday that the Pentagon's current plans for strategic airlift are not adequate to meet the needs of an Army and Marine Corps that are growing by 92,000 troops.

Chief of Staff Michael Moseley told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Air Force is reviewing the matter and expects this summer to know how many long-distance aircraft it will need to support and transport the burgeoning ground forces. The military's current plans call for 300 strategic lift aircraft, which include C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy planes.

Moseley said he envisioned the future airlift fleet exceeding 300 planes. But the Air Force would like to retire 25 to 30 of the "worst actors" in the C-5 fleet, which would free up money to buy additional C-17s and continue modernization efforts on the remaining C-5s, Moseley said. The C-5s -- which are twice the size of a C-17 but far older -- are undergoing extensive work at Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., facility.

The Air Force is also waiting for Boeing Co. to determine how many additional C-17 orders it needs to keep production lines open beyond their scheduled 2009 closure date, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said. Wynne said he expects Boeing will need orders for less than one aircraft a month to keep the C-17 lines open temporarily.

Boeing officials, however, have stated they need money for 15 to 18 more C-17s next year to keep the lines open for another year. Those additions could cost roughly $3.5 billion. The Air Force did not request any additional C-17s in its fiscal 2008 budget proposal sent to Capitol Hill on early February, prompting 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 the annual defense spending bill. Congress last year added $2.1 billion for 10 new C-17s, bringing the size of the fleet to 190 planes.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., pressed the Air Force leaders on their plans to cancel an alternative engine program for the international Joint Strike Fighter. Congress last year required the Air Force to continue efforts to develop two engines for the $250 billion program, amid concerns that a single engine producer would ultimately drive up costs.

Moseley said Tuesday that the plan to reject the second engine was a cost-saving measure. "It's $2 billion that we don't have," he said.

Defense officials have said the potential cost savings in eliminating a backup engine outweighed the risk of relying solely on the primary engine, made by the Pratt & Whitney unit of Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp. Two makers -- General Electric Co. and the British firm Rolls Royce -- produce the alternative engine.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., raised concerns that the Air Force would have to take money from other priority programs to keep the second engine going.

The Air Force's budget, Wynne said, is "so delicately balanced" that there is no wiggle room to free up an extra $2 billion. "This is about money in the worst way," Wynne added.