Procurement: Time Is Running Out For the C-17

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September 20, 2006: The United States has decided to cripple its ability to produce more C-17s by allowing the production line at Long Beach to shut down. How does this work? Simple, by letting the production line shut down, it will take billions of dollars and years, to re-start production. If, that is, the tooling is still available. In the past, when production lines have been shut down, tooling has been destroyed - Boeing did just that to the tooling for the MD-11 line in 2000. There are also problems finding factory space. You need a lot of floor space to build a C-17. And then there's the labor situation. All the experienced C-17 workers will have retired or gone to other factories. If you have to train new workers, build now tools, or build a new factory, it will take even more money and time (neither of which you might have) to re-start the line.
In August, suppliers of some long-lead time (up to three years) components for the C-17 were told by Boeing to cease production. This was the beginning of a process that would leave the United States unable to produce more of the world's best airlifter, abort a planned C-17B with even more capabilities than the C-17A, and force the Air Force to make do with an inadequate force of 198 C-17As and 112 C-5s (which first flew in 1968).
The C-17 manufacturer, Boeing, has been calling for orders since late 2005, and even paid out of pocket to keep the line open for nearly a year. However, its resources are much smaller than those of the Department of Defense, and Boeing announced it would soon start shutting down the production line.
However, NATO is trying to come to the rescue by planning on establishing a squadron of C-17s. This squadron will fulfill national missions for NATO members, while also giving NATO an organic ability to carry out various missions for the UN and EU (European Union), including humanitarian missions (to include the delivery of food, medicine, and even full-up field hospitals).
Thirteen countries, including the United States, have signed letters of intent for an initial batch of three or four aircraft. This is sufficient to keep the line open. NATO plans to keep the planes in the same configuration as those in service with the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force. The size of the squadron could increase as the various NATO countries scrape together more cash for future orders.
This is not the first time NATO has set up a joint squadron. When the E-3 AWACS aircraft entered service, NATO bought 18 of those planes, and regularly deployed them around its member countries (to bases in Norway, Greece, Italy, and Turkey) from a German base. Sweden is considering the purchase of at least two C-17s, while Canada is considering four planes. The United Kingdom has one C-17ER on order (to join four in service), and Australia four.
NATO needs to hurry. Suppliers of long-lead items are already beginning to shut down their production lines. This will have the effect of stopping C-17 production in July, 2009. As that date approaches, more of the suppliers will stop producing, and will begin to retool their production lines for other projects. Eventually, Boeing will do the same for its production line. When that happens, the production of what is arguably the world's best transport aircraft will end. The F-22 might have the sex appeal, but the C-17 is just as vital – if not more so. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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