The U.S. Congress has finally agreed to let the U.S. Air Force retire its oldest transports. The air force has 59 elderly C-5As, that were introduced in the early 1970s, and Congress insisted they be kept flying because otherwise some key legislators would lose jobs in their districts. Keeping these old aircraft in the air was getting so expensive, that it became embarrassing to Congress, and now the air force has been allowed to retire them. There are still 52 C-5Bs models, built in the 1980s, that have some (economically) useful life left in them. These will be upgraded (new electronics and new engines) to C-5Ms. Before the latest decision, the air force was going to spend a lot of money upgrading the C-5As. But now the air force can build more C-17s instead.
Earlier this year, there were 205 C-17s built or on order, but now Congress has added eight more. This will provide a fleet of 265 heavy lifters. The air force has been trying to get at least 300 of these large transports, and bit by bit, they are getting there. In addition, they will continue to rely on leasing civilian aircraft. This is done via CRAF (Civil Reserve Air Fleet). In 2003, for the first time since the 1990-91 Gulf War, the United States mobilized CRAF. Twenty-two airlines were ordered to make available 78 commercial aircraft (47 passenger aircraft and 31 wide-body freighters.)
CRAF was set up in 1951, and used for the first time in 1990. At the time, the air force was paying some $700 million a year to 32 airlines so that, if a national emergency was declared, the air force could call into military service transports with a minimum of fuss and paperwork. The program has continued since then. Aircraft can also volunteer their aircraft for military service, which is easier to do right now because of the depressed state of the air transport business. During the Gulf War, airlines that had their aircraft mobilized earned $1.5 billion in use fees. The CRAF transports moved 62 percent of the troops brought in by air to the Persian Gulf, and 27 percent of the air freight.
The one disadvantage of CRAF is that these civilian aircraft are not built to move all types of military equipment, nor can they land on crude airstrips. As long as the United States is likely to be fighting in remote parts of the world, there will always be a need for specialized military transports.