Military Airlift:

Options Exist for Meeting Requirements While Acquiring Fewer C-17s

NSIAD-97-38: Published: Feb 19, 1997. Publicly Released: Feb 21, 1997.

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Louis J. Rodrigues
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the basis for the November 1995 recommendation by the Defense Acquisition Board that a fleet of 120 C-17s be acquired to meet airlift needs, focusing on: (1) whether less costly options exist to meet airlift needs; and (2) the use of the C-17 to support a strategic brigade airdrop.

GAO found that: (1) an option not considered by the Defense Acquisition Board would be to acquire 100 C-17s and no commercial transport aircraft; (2) this option would save the government over $7 billion in life cycle costs; (3) airlift needs could be met with this reduced number of C-17s if the Department of Defense (DOD) implemented other individual measures; (4) costs for implementing the measures would not be significant compared with the potential savings and have been accommodated in GAO's estimate of the potential savings; (5) a fleet with 100 C-17s would also be sufficient to support missions that require the unique military capabilities of the C-17; (6) until fiscal year 2004, however, the Air Force will not be able to support an extended range brigade airdrop to a small, austere airfield as called for in the Army's concept of operations; (7) in the interim, the Air Force and Army are considering other alternatives to perform the extended range brigade airdrop mission now required in DOD's Defense Planning Guidance; (8) GAO believes alternatives could be used, with a fleet with 100 C-17s and modified C-5s, to support an extended range airdrop to either a small, austere or larger airfield either indefinitely or until the Air Force begins replacing the C-5, currently planned to begin in 2007; (9) if DOD and Congress determine that an extended range brigade airdrop to a small, austere airfield is a valid need, this need could be considered in choosing a replacement airlifter for the C-5; (10) for safety reasons, the Army has imposed a restriction on paratroopers jumping from C-17s in close airdrop formations due to turbulence created by the C-17; (11) until this safety concern is resolved, the C-17 cannot be used to support the brigade airdrop mission; (12) although Congress has approved and DOD has awarded a multiyear contract with an accelerated production schedule for the final 80 C-17s, that contract contains a clause that would permit the government, if full funding for a production lot under the multiyear contract were not available, to revert to single-year options without paying cancellation costs; (13) while there would be an increase in program discontinuation costs to close out the contract at 100 rather than at 120, those additional costs have been accounted for in GAO's estimate of the potential savings; (14) DOD and McDonnell Douglas have implemented initiatives to reduce the total program cost of the 120 C-17 program; and (15) however, the current estimated cost of $43 billion is about the same as that estimated in 1994.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress authorized the full buy of 120 C-17's under the C-17 settlement agreement.

    Matter: Because of the potential savings of over $7 billion and the relative contribution of the final 20 C-17s, Congress may wish to consider funding only 100 C-17s and requiring DOD to reexamine the decision to acquire 120 C-17s. DOD can meet mission requirements by employing various relatively low cost options and by extending the use of alternatives for accomplishing the longer range brigade air drop.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has approved the settlement plan on the C-17 for production of all 120 C-17's.

    Matter: Before approving the acquisition of the final 20 C-17s primarily to support the brigade airdrop mission, Congress should require that DOD certify that the aircraft's wake turbulence problems have been solved.


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