The C-17 Globemaster III remains the backbone of US Air Mobility Command inter-theater transport efforts around the world, and its ability to operate from shorter and rougher runways has made it especially useful during the Global War on Terror. Various fleet upgrades (including LAIRCM defensive systems) continue – along with heavy usage that is accumulating fatigue hours far faster than originally planned. The USA is trying to cap production at 205 planes (though the House has inserted 3 more, and the Senate 10 more, in the FY 2010 bill), but a fierce fight has now preserved the program for several years beyond the Pentagon’s planned phase-out.
Boeing’s C-17 replaced the USA’s C-141 Starlifter fleet, which was worn out early by the flying hours demanded of it. It has more payload capacity than the C-141, but less than the super-giant C-5 Galaxy. Fortunately, the C-17 has far more modern systems than the C-5, giving it a much higher base mission readiness rate. In order to keep things that way, the C-17 Sustainment Partnership involves Boeing in a partnership arrangement based on set availability and performance metrics. The C-17 GSP is part of Boeing’s Integrated Logistics Services.
The C-17 made its maiden flight on 15 September 1991, and the first production model was delivered to Charleston AFB, South Carolina, 14 June 1993. Officials sent the first squadron of C-17s, the 17th Airlift Squadron, declaring the 17th operationally ready on 17 January 1995. Robins Air Force Base notes that:
“The C-17 measures 174 feet long (53 meters) with a wingspan of 169 feet, 10 inches (51.75 meters). The aircraft powered by four, fully reversible, Federal Aviation Administration-certified F117-PW-100 engines (the military designation for the commercial Pratt & Whitney PW2040), currently used on the Boeing 757. Each engine is rated at 40,440 pounds of thrust. The thrust reversers direct the flow of air upward and forward to avoid ingestion of dust and debris. Maximum use has been made of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and commercial equipment including Air Force-standardized avionics. The aircraft is operated by a crew of three (pilot, copilot and loadmaster), reducing manpower requirements, risk exposure and long-term operating costs. Cargo is loaded onto the C-17 through a large aft door that accommodates military vehicles and palletized cargo. The C-17 can carry virtually all of the Army’s air-transportable equipment.
Maximum payload capacity of the C-17 is 170,900 pounds (77,519 kilograms), and its maximum gross takeoff weight is 585,000 pounds (265,352 kilograms). With a payload of 160,000 pounds (80 tons, or 72,575 kilograms) and an initial cruise altitude of 28,000 feet (8,534 meters), the C-17 has an un-refueled range of approximately 2,400 nautical miles.”
The C-17 can also airdrop 102 paratroopers and equipment, and its design allows it to operate through small, austere airfields. The C-17 can take off and land on runways as short as 3,000 feet (914 meters) and only 90 feet wide (27.4 meters). Even on such narrow runways, the C-17 can turn around using a three-point star turn and its backing capability. Its cruise speed is approximately 450 knots (0.74 Mach). Given the C-130 Hercules’ 20-ton limit, and the need for heavier vehicles in order to achieve survivability on the battlefield, the C-17s have been pressed into more extensive flying duties that include forward airfields as well as hubs. The result is a level of flight hours that remain above USAF projections, and are likely to continue doing so. Some estimates say the effect on the USA’s C-17 fleet will be to shorten the planes’ expected lifespan by 5 years.
The C-17 Globemaster III Sustainment Partnership
The GSP makes Boeing responsible for providing consistent sustainment support at continuously raised benchmarked levels. Product support is thus managed through a long term performance-based partnership between Boeing and its C-17 customers, which now include the US Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, The Royal Australian Air Force, the Canadian Forces, and NATO.
Boeing provides more than spares and repairs on the C-17 through the GSP program. Around the globe, Boeing employees oversee the supply chain and provide technical and engineering support in the field to Air Force maintainers. Boeing teammates work to keep C-17s available for warfighters and humanitarian relief missions. The company cemented its GSP role by establishing direct-sales partnership agreements with each of the three Air Logistics Centers (ALCs) at Robins Air Force Base, GA; Hill AFB, UT; and Tinker AFB, OK, to perform a variety of C-17 airframe and individual component repair actions. The arrangement allows Boeing to request an ALC to perform specific workloads as part of the public-private partnership arrangement. Personnel are also based at key locations like Ramstein, Germany, which will be the maintenance center for the new NATO fleet of C-17s.
The related Material Improvement Project (MIP) program is part of the Global Sustainment Partnership, and is based on estimated performance requirements for additional one-off engineering and retrofit requirements for the US fleet. This estimated annual program does not identify specific projects to be performed, just estimated aggregate requirements. The retrofit and upgrades are generally referred to by Block number.
For instance, GlobalSecurity.org notes that Block 13-14 has software modifications and improved station-keeping equipment used in flying formation with testing scheduled to be complete in 2004. Block 15 is planned to contain the upgraded on-board inert gas generating system along with navigation and safety modifications. Block 16 contains an avionics modernization package and a weather radar modification with testing to be complete in 2006. Additional enhancements, modifications, and corrections to existing deficiencies are concurrent and include a fuel system retrofit, main landing gear deficiency corrections, and a wheel brake and tire cost saving initiative.
In fiscal year 2005, the C-17 saw a sustained mission capability rate of 83.2%, while the worldwide launch departure reliability for 2005 was 95%. In FY 2006, the program resulted in a fleet-wide mission capable rate of 85.4%.
The C-17 PE/PI Program
While the C-17’s exterior hasn’t really changed since they first began rolling off the production lines, a block upgrades to the fleet have added a host of improvements. As of the beginning of 2008, C-17 Block 17 aircraft are the current standard for new production and upgrades.
PE/PI (“peppy”) began in 1995, and stands for Producibility Enhancement/ Performance Improvement, and is a collaborative effort between Boeing and the U.S. Air Force. The USAF explains what they need, or would like to see, and Boeing responds with upgrade proposals. Over the years, the C-17 PE/PI program has developed enhanced combat survivability (e.g. LAIRCM IR missile jammers, armor shielding to protect flight crews from small arms fire, OBIGGS), navigation and communication upgrades, and special operations features (e.g. combat lighting to support nighttime and infra-red operations). approximately $2 billion of PE/PI contracts have been issued to date.
The C-17 program has a 3 contract structure including production, PE/PI, and the GSP. There is a clear distinction between monies for the 3 contracts, but in practice they’re all connected. Once an improvement project completes its PE/PI cycle, it is incorporated into block upgrades for scheduled deployment to the fleet: as a GSP/ Material Improvement Program (MIP) retrofit, or as a new-plane install on the production line.
To learn more about the history of this contract, click here.