C-17 Jet

Having canceled nearly 50 major programs in last year’s defense budget, the secretary of defense is making another run at finishing off the C-17 and Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine. Congress spared these programs last year, but may be willing to go along with Secretary Gates this time around.

Certainly President Obama has changed his tune. During the presidential campaign, he singled out the C-17 as a must-have priority, saying America needed it to “preserve global reach in the air.” Now, however, the Pentagon says it has enough “lift” without it. Odd, considering that the Army and Marine Corps are still adding personnel.

It’s simple math: To move more extra troops (and their heavy gear, including Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters), you need extra lift to get them to places like Haiti, Chile, and Afghanistan. And that lift can be handy on the home front too: witness the welcome service of the C-17s that recently provided support to those devastated by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The C-17 is the last remaining military wide-bodied cargo production line in America. What happens when we need those highly-skilled engineers and designers in the future? It’s a serious question, yet the administration’s response is a bland and unsupported assurance that, if we need ’em, we’ll surely be able to find ’em somewhere in the private sector.

That assertion defies logic. The last U.S. bomber-production facility is now home to a Walmart. Once closed, these facilities and their talented workforce will disperse and disappear. Even if Humpty Dumpty could be put back together again, the cost of restarting a shut-down C-17 line is estimated at $5.7 billion, hardly a savings for the Defense Department in the long-run.

Finally, the U.S. needs more C-17s due to sheer attrition. In times of war, military equipment wears out five to six times faster than in peacetime, and the C-17s have been getting a heavy workout for eight straight years. The current fleet will have to be retired from service much faster than planned. Many will reach the end of their programmed service lives in just twelve years.

It takes two years lead time to order supplies for aircraft assembly. A lapse in production would create a serious capability gap — and wind up costing taxpayers more in the long run. Congress should tell the Pentagon to place its C-17 replacement orders now, as part of the 2011 defense budget. Indeed, it should be ordering additional C-17s just to keep up with readily foreseeable demand.

Cross-posted at The Corner.