Saturday, August 19, 2006

Can the Boeing C-17 Be Saved?

Boeing Aircraft moved Friday toward implementing a final closing plan for its Long Beach C-17 facility, placing at risk the production of our nation's winged military workhorse. According to Retired Air Force General John Handy, in an essay yesterday, the loss of the Long Beach C-17 production plant would be a devastating loss for the country:

Dismantling the C-17 line now means that the U.S. will be limited in its ability to adequately support the war against terrorists, as well as the loss of the most capable aircraft ever used in support of humanitarian crises at home and abroad. How will we respond to hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?

A decision to stop production would likely cost the Defense Department many more dollars in the long run. In the not too distant future, our military will face the costly decision of whether to resurrect the production line at a cost of about $4 billion or fund research and development for a replacement aircraft at even higher cost.

The C-17 takes about three years to build at a price of about $200 million each. Currently, 154 of these aircraft and their Air Force crews are serving all over the world — flying peacekeepers to Kandahar, airlifting the wounded from Iraq to Germany and delivering troops to Kabul, among other duties.

In fact, because of its long-range, high-payload capacity and nimble landing abilities, the C-17 is in such high demand that it is being flown at rates — and in combat situations — far exceeding original expectations, effectively shortening the predicted lifespan of each aircraft. In Iraq, the C-17 has delivered more than 70% of all material moved via air, with high reliability rates.

The Department of Defense contends that the military needs only 180 C-17 aircraft to meet current needs — which will be filled by the end of the current production run in 2008. This is well below the Pentagon's original January 2001 recommendation of at least 222 aircraft. In fact, the 222 figure was calculated before the 9/11 attacks, after which military needs multiplied significantly, particularly for airlift requirements. The adequacy of our existing C-17 fleet is not the only issue. If we do not commit to fully funding the C-17 program this week, Boeing would be forced to shut down its production line in Long Beach.

The B-2 bomber is a cautionary tale. Considered the most expensive plane in history, the original B-2 procurement was cut from 132 aircraft to 20, exponentially increasing the cost per plane and leaving our military with an aging bomber fleet that we are now seeking to replace.

It would be unwise to do the same with the C-17 aircraft. Our nation's military has many well-defined requirements and limited resources. Meeting the multiple challenges presented by the global war on terrorism demands an agile, well-armed force that can be deployed with large payloads effectively around the world.
So far the signs from the Pentagon don't augur well for the survival of the C-17. In May,
Boeing announced the completion of the last commercial airliner -- the Boeing 717 -- to be built in Long Beach, marking the end of an era in a long, storied history in Southern California aviation. My college is right across the street from the 717 plant -- I can see from my classrooms the American flag waving atop the corporate towers -- and I find the whole plant-closing episode a sad chronicle in the deindustrialization of American aeronautics.

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