JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland -- The Air Force projects its muscle through fighter jets, bombers and drones. But without tankers, those aircraft are short on flight time. And without airlift support, the pilots, crew and maintenance units needed to keep them flying stay stateside.
That connection is what Air Mobility Commander Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II wants lawmakers to remember. And it's why the service is working to upgrade its C-5 Galaxy fleet and keep its C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in key condition.
"Just a few years ago, we had 112 C-5s. Today, we have 56," Everhart told congressional staffers during a demonstration day here March 31. The presentation included a tour a C-5, plus two C-17s and a C-130 Hercules.
Sequestration resulted "in moving eight C-5s into backup aircraft inventory … which means we still have the aircraft but lost all manning and funding to operate them," he said.
Now Everhart wants them back, and he's making it his top priority.
"I need them back because there's real world things that we've got to move, and they give me that … added assurance capability," he said.
"Those eight C-5Ms? I was going to buy them back within a two-year period," Everhart said. With budget caps in place and without an appropriations bill, "that's been delayed twice … in two budget cycles."
AMC hopes to make up for lost time in part by upgrading the largest airlifter in the Air Force's inventory. The C-5, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is undergoing a modernization program that includes upgrading the avionics "to improve communications, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management compliance as well as adding new safety equipment and installing a new autopilot system," according to a release.
The modernization also involves "modifying C-5A/B/Cs into the C-5M Super Galaxy by upgrading to the F-138 commercial engine," the release said. The engine delivers more than a 20-percent "increase in thrust, a 30-percent shorter takeoff roll, a 58-percent faster climb rate and will allow significantly more cargo to be carried over longer distances."
The Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program program, which began in 2008, is scheduled to be completed in 2018, officials said Friday. That means 52 C-5s -- one "A" variant, 49 "B" variants, and two "C" variants -- are scheduled to receive the RERP modification.
Everhart said that a C-5M recently aircraft flew from Travis Air Force Base, California, to Yokota, Japan, a major feat for the 247-foot-long airlifter, which can take off at a max weight of 840,000 pounds. Normally, it would stop in Hawaii. But it kept going.
"It's the only airlifter in the inventory that can make the flight non-stop, which means we can put the American flag on the ground in hours versus days," Everhart said.
An average C-5 flight is roughly eight to 10 hours, said Capt. Robert Drye. A third of the fleet is cycling through maintenance at any given time, the pilot said.
Re-engining the C-5M gets crews "so much farther, faster," he added.
The Air Force is rotating its C-17 fleet between the active duty, Reserve and Guard to stretch its lifespan -- or enterprise fleet management, as AMC calls it, said Capt. Theresa Izell, a maintenance officer.
"This isn't really revolutionary," Izell said of sharing resources throughout the total force. But it's a band-aid solution for the near term.
"Our strategic planners and programmers are not predicting that we're bringing on a new airlifter in the future fast enough to outpace the retirements of our C-17s," she said.
Other upgrades continue.
Some C-17s are undergoing modification and are slated for future upgrades that include replacing the Head Up Display, or HUD, a transparent data display in front of the pilot that provides situational awareness; inputting Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out for aircraft location and tracking; Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) for command and control; and Secure Line of Sight/Beyond Line of Sight (LOS/BLOS) Voice and Data Communications, Maj. Korry Leverett told Military.com on Tuesday.
Before budget caps, the Air Force had high hopes of a next-generation airlift capability. But after major drawdowns -- plus an ongoing continuing resolution from Congress instead of an appropriations bill -- the service isn't hopeful for immediate airlift support.
In 2012, it retired its first C-17 "T-1" test aircraft. The C-17 is set to reach the end of its service in the early 2030s, officials have said. The Air Force has 213 Globemasters, made by Boeing Co., according to its inventory.
By rotating the Globemasters among the three components, Air Mobility Command believes "we'll gain 10 to 20 years for service life on the C-17," Izell said.
Through enterprise fleet management, "we're going to shrink that, and no longer have that airlift gap," she said.
The command's second priority, Everhart said, is to move toward a synchronous system.
"We've got to get fleets standardized," he said. "We kind of joke about it, but we call [the C-130 Hercules] the Frankenherc," alluding to the use of different parts to construct Frankenstein's monster. But in the case of the Hercules, "I have H models, I have J models" plus different variations of the H models.
"I've got to do the same thing with the C-17, because I have Block 17s, Block 18s, Block 19 [versions], and we keep modernizing -- but we need to standardize," he said.
How that happens will be determined by the budget, and how industry partners can aid in creating a modular system, he said, adding that standardization would enable the command to better determine deployment schedules and crews it would send based on platform.
Everhart added, "Right now, the Army is considering systems that will not fit on the C-130H or J," but would on the larger airlift platforms. "We need to consider that fact when deciding to buy more of what we have, versus developing the next airlifter to maximize effectiveness with our joint partners."
All these efforts are the "positive steps we need to take to restore lost capacity to enable agile response for the joint team," he said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.