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Senate rivals agree to seek study of military airlift needs

Amendment comes amid increased frustration over what many perceive as ever-changing requirements for the Air Force's C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III fleets.

In a rare show of unity, two factions of senators in favor of competing military cargo aircraft have filed a joint amendment to the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill requiring an independent study of the military's airlift requirements.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., comes amid increased congressional frustration over what many lawmakers perceive as mixed messages and ever-changing requirements for the Air Force's C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III fleets. The language is one of roughly 200 amendments up for consideration during debate on the Pentagon policy measure this week.

So far, consideration of the bill has focused almost exclusively on the Iraq war, a debate that is expected to continue to dominate floor discussions this week. Senate Democratic leaders, who still hope to wrap up work on the bill by Friday, will likely file a cloture motion Monday on a Democratic amendment mandating a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq within 120 days. A vote on that cloture motion is expected Wednesday, a Senate leadership aide said.

Debate on the subject of strategic airlift typically pits the legion of C-17 supporters against a smaller, but vocal group of C-5 advocates on Capitol Hill, with both groups maneuvering each year to expand or safeguard their programs. To garner support for her amendment, McCaskill, whose state includes C-17 maker Boeing Co., reached out to C-5 backers, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Biden and Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The amendment requires a detailed report on Air Force airlift needs by a federally funded research and development center and sets a February 2009 deadline for its submission to Congress. The study would review, among other topics, current and future military missions, the effects that permanent increases in Army and Marine Corps personnel will have on airlift needs, and any potential changes in airlift requirements arising from the Army's Future Combat Systems.

The Army expects to use C-17s to transport the components of FCS, a vast system of manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles tied together by a complex electronic network -- a plan that could bode well for the Globemaster III in the study.

"This amendment will ensure that an independent study looks closely at the country's strategic airlift needs," McCaskill said in a statement. "With the investment we're making in the Future Combat System, I believe that we will find that we need more, not less, airlift capability in the future, and that includes the continued production of the C-17."

But C-5 backers are encouraged that the study could also give a boost to efforts to modernize the Galaxy fleet. Congressional supporters of both aircraft want "an even-handed approach to get the real facts" and are "hopeful this will give us a really good, objective look at the key issues," a Senate aide supportive of the C-5 program said Friday.

Lawmakers, who have received varying and inconsistent assessments from the Air Force on the airlift fleet, are growing tired of "four-star officers' gut-level instincts when it comes to billions of dollars," the aide added. In May, the House authorized 10 additional C-17s in its version of the authorization measure, but the Senate bill does not add more planes.