C-17--the Great Survivor

Production of the C-17 military transport aircraft was originally due to have ended in 2004. But, as Anthony Beachey discovers, output could continue for years, keeping the Globemaster in business with the USAF for decades to come.


The Boeing C-17 Globemaster, originally developed by McDonnell Douglas, has been in service with the US Air Force since 1995. Currently, the USAF possesses 205 C-17s, but in October the US Congress approved $2.5bn of funding in the 2010 budget for a further 10, despite President Obama’s objections. This will maintain output through 2012.

According to some reports in the American press, the extra aircraft are not needed for military reasons. Indeed, newspapers often refer to a surfeit of military transport aircraft and allege that Congressmen are simply placing the orders to maintain jobs and placate voters in their constituencies. Production of the C-17 is spread across 43 states and provides well-paid employment to more than 30,000 workers.

The C-17, however, has undoubtedly proved a reliable workhorse and is currently used extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also in service with the RAF and the Australian and Canadian armed forces, among others. Its ability to fly long distances and land in remote airfields in rough, land-locked regions has given it a significant advantage over competitors during much of the past two decades, and the fact that Boeing has service departments located around the world to maintain the aircraft has provided its salesmen with further ammunition when negotiating orders.

US’s reported surfeit

Opponents have argued, however, that the USAF already has enough C-17s (US military planners say they have sufficient numbers of the aircraft) and that the aeroplane is outdated – it first emerged on the drawing boards in the early 1980s. But Boeing has argued that production of the C-17 must continue given that output of the next generation of military transport aircraft may not begin for many years.

"In October the US Congress approved $2.5bn of funding in the 2010 budget for a further 10 C-17s."

The C-17s currently entering service also represent a significant advance on the first aircraft delivered to the USAF. They benefit from upgraded avionics, additional lighting systems and Honeywell’s IntuVue 3D All Weather radar system. They also have a larger fuel capacity than the original aircraft.

The US isn’t alone in placing orders, either. The Indian government announced recently it was considering purchasing 10 C-17s in preference to the Ilyushin IL-76 transport. New Delhi is reported to be negotiating with Boeing, despite the fact the C-17s cost three times as much as their Russian rival. There are also reports that the United Arab Emirates, spurred by Iran’s military build up, may place an order for four C-17s before the end of the year.

Boeing could also benefit from delays to the production of EADS’ A400M military transport aeroplane. The A400M, a competitor to Boeing’s C-17 transport and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s C130J Hercules, is four years behind schedule after being plagued by problems with its engines as well as in other areas. EADS is negotiating with seven countries that ordered 180 A400Ms worth €20bn to modify or rewrite the contracts, but there have been reports that some of these customers may opt for the C-17 as an interim measure.

South Africa has already cancelled its order for eight A400M aircraft and the C-17 is clearly one of the few viable alternatives. Pretoria scratched the order and is demanding hundreds of million of dollars in compensation after being told that the project’s costs had soared.

Earlier this year France was also reported to have expressed an interest in the C-17 to bridge the capability gap caused by delays to the A400M. The French air force has about 50 A400Ms on order. That move may simply have been designed to put pressure on EADS but both the UK and France are now demanding that EADS curb any further increases in the price of the A400M project.

US budget woes

The Globemaster could also benefit from the US government’s budget woes. Washington’s ballooning deficit means there will be few funds left to provide the tens of billions of dollars needed to develop the next generation of military transport aircraft. That could leave the US without a viable alternative to the A400M once the European aircraft’s problems are solved, giving EADS a clear run in export markets around the world. Meanwhile, the US government could be left with little option but to place further orders for upgraded C17s in coming years. Thus, production of the C17 could well continue until long into the next decade while the aircraft currently being delivered may have to serve the USAF for up to 40 years.