Puzzling accounting in the Pentagon abounds. Weapon programs exceeded their budget by $300 billion in a single year. The Defense Department bought $13 billion in spare parts, $7 billion of which our troops don't need. Now, in its latest outrage, the department wants to pour $13 billion into its aging fleet of C-5 Galaxy cargo planes rather than purchase more capable aircraft, such as the C-17 Globemaster III.
Cargo aircraft aren't the sexiest planes in America's arsenal, but they're essential for ferrying troops and equipment to battle. With our nation fighting two wars on the other side of the globe, reliable and versatile cargo aircraft that are affordable to operate are as indispensable as the bullets in our soldiers' rifles.
That's why the Pentagon's C-5 debacle is so worrisome. The Defense Department claims that refurbishing 111 C-5s will help rein in procurement costs while supporting our airlift needs. In reality, its plan is like saying that it's OK to max out your credit card if you shop only at the used car lot. In the end, our troops will get an inferior aircraft and the nation's budget will sink deeper into the red.
To weigh the relative value of the C-5A and the C-17, we need to understand that airlift is a matter of quality, not just quantity.
For example, refurbishing seven C-5As gives the Air Force only the additional capabilities of buying just one new C-17. What this means is that the modest increase in capability gained by refurbishing a C-5A is only about one-seventh the capability gained by adding a new C-17. And unlike the C-5A, the modern C-17 can reliably perform the full range of missions demanded by our military, such as the precision airdrop of a brigade, the delivery of humanitarian assistance or acting as a flying ambulance to evacuate wounded warriors.
Now consider the cost. Fixing up those seven C-5As will cost us nearly $1 billion. The price tag for that single C-17: less than one-third as much, at about $276 million.
Also consider how much it costs to operate these aircraft. Just as with buying a new car, its total cost isn't only in the sticker price, it's also in how much you'll spend on gas and maintenance. It costs the Pentagon nearly twice as much per hour to keep a C-5A in the air - $21,000 - than it does to fly a C-17 - $12,000.
And, to come back to our car analogy, you also have to account for reliability. Aviation experts and independent analysts from the Congressional Research Service report that the C-5A is the Fiat of the U.S. military's cargo fleet. It's notoriously unreliable and unavailable to fly roughly half of the time. That is one reason the military spent $1 billion to lease Soviet-era aircraft to supplement our airlift in Iraq over a four-year period. In contrast, the C-17 is the gold standard of cargo aircraft, as it's rated highest in reliability.
By all these measures, purchasing new, advanced C-17s rather than fixing up those old C-5s makes the most sense for America's airlift capabilities, our troops and our nation's bottom line. But, it might also be the right move for our ailing economy as well.
The Pentagon plan would immediately shutter the C-17 line, which today supports jobs for more than 30,000 Americans. It could also undermine America's edge in military and commercial aerospace, a sector our economic competitors are eying hungrily. And, with the closing of C-17 facilities, not a single plant would remain on U.S. soil with the capability of producing military cargo aircraft larger than a C-130.
In the face of the Pentagon's long record of needless waste, Secretary Robert Gates pledged to bring real change to the department and to rein in our government's largest and most unwieldy bureaucracy. If there's anyone who can do it, it's a man of his estimable talents.
But there's a larger lesson to consider: Budget cuts, at the Pentagon or anywhere else in government, must focus on real, long-term savings rather than illusory, short-term cost cutting that only shortchanges national needs. And, in the case of modernizing the tired and aging C-5A fleet instead of buying new reliable C-17s, shortchanging our troops is not the kind of change we need.
Antonio Gil Morales, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is former national commander of the American GI Forum.