As the 2011 U.S. defense budget creeps languidly through Congress, two senators have launched an effort to keep their colleagues from adding money to buy more C-17 cargo planes.
Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and John McCain, R-Ariz., held a hearing July 13 so three senior Pentagon officials and two other military experts could testify - repeatedly - that the U.S. Air Force does not need any more C-17s.
Rather, the Air Force has an airlift surplus of at least 10 percent that could easily be expanded to 20 percent or more, the five witnesses agreed.
The Air Force hasn't asked for more money to buy C-17s since 2007. That year the Air Force wanted 12, and Congress bought it 22. In 2008, the Air Force wanted none, but Congress bought 15. In 2009, the request was also zero, and Congress bought eight. In 2010, the Air Force once again asked for no C-17s, and lawmakers bought 10.
Carper said this year he has decided "to play offense" and get the Air Force unambiguously on the record as saying it wants no more C-17s before appropriations committees in the Senate and House again buy more of them.
The C-17 is a great airplane, Carper said. But the fleet of 223 that the Air Force now has, together with a fleet of 111 C-5 airlifters, provides more lift than the U.S. military needs. And buying even more C-17s is more than the U.S. can afford, he said.
The U.S. government is currently overspending its budget by $1.3 trillion a year. To do so it has to borrow money from China, Japan, Britain and other countries, Carper said. The U.S. is borrowing at a rate that is unsustainable, he warned.
Carper isn't the only one who is worried. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the Pentagon must cut $100 billion, mostly in administrative expenses over the next five years.
"We have a lot more capability than we need," Carper said. "And we have a lot more appetite than money. When you're in a hole, stop digging."
In a worst case scenario, the Defense Department estimates that it will need 32.7 million ton-miles of airlift a day. Today it can airlift 35.9 million ton-miles a day, said Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins, the Air Force Air Mobility Command's director of strategic plans, requirements and programs.
The Air Force doesn't need more C-17s, she said. In fact, the Air Force would like permission from Congress to retire 22 of its oldest C-5s, she said. That would save $325 million in maintenance, flying and modernization costs over the next five years, she said.
Since 2007, Congress has spent more than $10 billion buying C-17s that the Air Force doesn't want, according to Carper.
"It's waste, pure and simple," said Mike McCord, the Pentagon's deputy budget chief. Each dollar spent on unneeded equipment is money that can't be spent on necessities, he said.
McCain, who has battled against buying more C-17s for years, said it is important for senior military officials to say clearly that no more C-17s are needed. "But how the Appropriations Committee will act remains to be seen," he said.
Appropriations committees in both houses of Congress wield enormous power, often adding favored projects to annual budgets.
What keeps the C-17 going is the influence the "military-industrial complex" has with the committees, McCain said. "The needs of the war fighters should predominate, not the profits" of defense companies, he said.
"Giving us something we don't need is the gift that keeps on giving," said Alan Estevez, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for logistics and material readiness. The money spent to buy the unwanted planes is just the beginning. The extra C-17s consume tens of millions a year in maintenance and operating costs, he said.
McCain said, "The argument we need to make to our colleagues is that there will be at least $1 billion in extra costs" if Congress keeps buying C-17s.
Each new C-17 costs $244.5 million, said Jeremiah Gertler, a military aviation expert with the Congressional Research Service.
The planes are popular with lawmakers for a number of reasons:
å Jobs. "Members' own statements and press releases make clear that economic and employment benefits for a particular geographical area" affect buying decisions, Gertler said.
å Military need. Some members of Congress simply disagree with the Pentagon's assessment of how many airlifters are needed.
å Industrial base. Some lawmakers believe it is necessary to keep the C-17 production line open in case more planes are needed in the future.
But C-17s aren't the only answer if there are future airlift needs, said William Greer, of the Institute for Defense Analysis.
Lift capacity could be increased by 10 percent or 20 percent without buying more planes, if the Air Force made better use of refueling tankers for airlift, by relying more on civilian cargo planes, relying on allies and by having C-5s fly with fuller loads, Greer said.
Carper said saving money by not buying unneeded C-17s is only one step the U.S. government needs to take to bring its budget under control. He said he plans to meet with McCain and Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to discuss Congress' determination to buy a multibillion-dollar alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter despite Pentagon insistence that the engine is not needed.
Carper called for financial reforms outside the Pentagon as well. Billions of dollars in owed taxes go uncollected each year, he said. Millions more in improper payments are made by government agencies and not retrieved when the mistakes are discovered.
Between 2001 and 2008, the United States took on as much debt as it had in its entire history before that, Carper said. "And now it's even higher. It's not sustainable."
The defense budget sought for 2011 is $726 billion, including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.