Defense Acquisitions:

Strategic Airlift Gap Has Been Addressed, but Tactical Airlift Plans Are Evolving as Key Issues Have Not Been Resolved

GAO-10-67: Published: Nov 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Nov 12, 2009.

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Department of Defense (DOD) used nearly 700 aircraft, as well as commercial and leased aircraft, to carry about 3 million troops and 800,000 tons of cargo in support of wartime, peacetime, and humanitarian efforts in 2008. C-5s and C-17s move troops and cargo internationally (strategic airlift) and C-130s are the primary aircraft that moves them within a theater of operation (tactical airlift). Over the next 4 years, DOD plans to spend about $12 billion to modernize and procure airlifters and is currently studying how many it needs. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to (1) identify the status of DOD's modernization and acquisition efforts and (2) determine how well DOD is addressing any capability gaps and redundancies. In conducting this work, GAO identified the cost, schedule, and performance of airlift programs, as well as DOD's plan for addressing gaps and redundancies. GAO also discussed mobility study efforts with DOD, Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), and RAND Coporation officials.

DOD has recently revamped airlift investments due to modernization cost increases and requirement changes. For strategic airlift, the number of C-5s that will be fully modernized were cut in half because of substantial reengining cost increases and C-17 quantities were increased from 180 to 213 aircraft. These twin changes resulted in a net cost increase of about$3 billion. Additional costs and force structure changes are possible pending decisions on C-5 retirements, other modifications, the potential need for more C-17s to meet tactical airlift needs, and the planned shutdown of C-17 production. For tactical airlift, substantial cost increases for modernizing C-130 avionics tripled unit costs, delayed its schedule, and resulted in almost 60 percent fewer aircraft being modernized. There have been large increases in the C-130J quantity to replace older C-130s, but modest increases in unit costs. The joint Army-Air Force C-27J program was recently transferred to the Air Force and quantities were cut from 78 to 38 aircraft, with an uncertain effect on the Army's airlift missions. The Army and Air Force must also resolve fundamental differences in operating requirements and employment strategy for the Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL). DOD appears to have addressed its strategic airlift gap, but there is a potential future tactical airlift gap for moving medium weight equipment. Also, questions regarding how the Air Force will meet the Army's direct support mission have not been resolved. DOD is using $5.5 billion appropriated by Congress to procure 23 additional C-17s, which DOD officials believe more than offsets the strategic airlift gap associated with the restructured C-5 modernization program. However, there is a potential gap in the tactical airlift of medium weight loads beyond the capability of the C-130s. The C-17 is the only aircraft capable of moving this type of Army equipment within a theater of operation, although not to austere, short, or unimproved landing areas. The JFTL is envisioned to provide this capability, but will not be available for 15 years or more under the current acquisition strategy. While the various mobility studies acknowledge the C-17's significant dual role, they did not comprehensively evaluate the expanded use of the C-17 to transport medium weight equipment in theater and how this could impact the force structure, the C-17's service life, and decisions related to when to shut down the production line. In addition, questions remain about the number of C-130s and C-27Js needed to fulfill Army direct support missions. Two studies reached somewhat different conclusions about the cost effectiveness of using C-130Js and C-27Js for this mission. The Air Force and Army have not completed a plan for meeting Army direct support requirements, which could affect future decisions on both the C-27J and the C-130J. DOD's recently established portfolio management structure is supposed to provide a useful forum to address the broad range of airlift investment decisions. However, efforts so far have primarily focused on new programs rather than addressing gaps and making other airlift decisions such as when and how many C-5s to retire or the appropriate mix of C-130s and C-27Js needed to perform Army missions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Air Mobility Command engaged RAND to define the Army's time-sensitive, mission-critical requirements and mix of aircraft needed to satisfy same. That report, as well as the results of the Mobility Capability Study, clarified the numbers of C-130 and C-27Js needed for special the Army cargo. A two-service working group honed working agreements and MOA regarding Air Force support of Army special needs.

    Recommendation: To help improve DOD's management of strategic and tactical airlift assets, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Air Force and Army to reach agreement on plans detailing how Army time-sensitive, mission-critical requirements will be addressed and prioritized against other Air Force priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Air Mobility Command engaged RAND to define the Army's time-sensitive, mission-critical requirements and mix of aircraft needed to satisfy same. Air Force also completed the mobility capabilities study that better defined C-130 requirements for common pool lift. The Air Force has also identified a quantity of C-130 aircraft to be specifically allocated to meet Army time sensitive, mission critical cargo requirements. Air Force and Army worked to define mission critical time sensitive needs and process. Management of C-27J moved to Air Force and the quantity was reduced.

    Recommendation: To help improve DOD's management of strategic and tactical airlift assets, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander, Air Mobility Command, to determine the appropriate mix of C-27Js and C-130s that are needed to meet Army time-sensitive, mission-critical requirements and common user pool requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD used the results of the February 2010 Mobility Capabilities Requirements Study - 2016 to determine future strategic airlift requirements and fleet composition. Officials decided to cap C-17 procurement and reduce the number of modernized C-5s. Also sought approval for retiring up to 22 C-5s.

    Recommendation: To help improve DOD's management of strategic and tactical airlift assets, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation) and Commander, U.S. Transportation Command to develop a specific airlift plan that would identify when C-5s will be retired and identify the total number of additional C-17s, if any, that would be needed to replace C-5s or perform tactical heavy lift missions until the time the JFTL is fielded.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD recently completed the Mobility Capabilities Requirement Study, which provides an assessment of airlift needs through 2016. The study was a joint effort between the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the U.S. Transportation Command. Study results are being used by senior defense leaders to make decisions on C-5 and C-130 modernization efforts, as well as C-17, C-130J and C-27J procurements.

    Recommendation: To help improve DOD's management of strategic and tactical airlift assets, the Secretary of Defense should direct the portfolio management team, consisting of U.S. Transportation Command and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, to provide more comprehensive advice to senior leaders on the full range of airlift investment decisions, including new program starts, modernization efforts, and retirement decisions. This would also include identifying alternatives for using existing common user aircraft to meet service-specific missions and considering new roles and missions for the Air Force.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation, stating that the Air Force and Army are currently engaged in approving the Initial Capabilities Document and will then be working on the Analysis of Alternatives to consider viable alternatives for addressing capability gaps. On follow-up in 2012, we determined that the JFTL and related concepts are still being considered, but no specific program start is envisioned for the foreseeable future. In the current budget environment, a new start of such a advanced technology is considered unlikely. Therefore, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help improve DOD's management of strategic and tactical airlift assets, the Secretary of Defense should direct the joint Air Force and Army program office to develop a plan to follow an evolutionary approach for developing the JFTL based on DOD acquisition policy that includes selecting mature technologies, normally developing increments in less than 5 years, and fully funding each increment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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