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Looking ahead: future airlift; designing the next generation airlifter, a capabilities-based approach.

The next-generation aircraft must be cost-effective enough to be acquired and maintained in sufficient quantities to meet future security and military strategy requirements.


Rapid global mobility provides the virtual spine of our global engagement philosophy. Without it, the United States would eventually degrade into a regional power. We must maintain a complete or full degree of ability to position and sustain mobility forces and capabilities through air and space, across the range of military operations as required.

Air Force Task 5, Rapid Global Mobility Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1

The changing and uncertain nature of the strategic climate for the next 30 to 50 years merits serious thinking regarding the design and acquisition of a next-generation strategic airlifter versatile enough to perform a variety of missions while having the defenses to resist the myriad of threats it may encounter. Three to 5 decades from now, when the life cycles of both the C-5 and C-17 are projected to end, there will be a gaping hole in strategic airlift capability, necessitating the development of an aircraft that can fulfill the missions they now accomplish. (1) This aircraft must be cost-effective for acquisition and maintenance in sufficient quantities to meet future security and military strategy requirements. In the near term, this implies a large buy of C-17s to handle requirements the United States cannot meet. However, there must be an aircraft with the requisite technology to meet the requirements. This article looks at the kinds of capabilities required for the development of the next-generation strategic airlifter. (2)

When considering the capabilities of the next-generation airlifter, it is important to understand current airlift aircraft capabilities enabling the evolution of new capabilities, characteristics, and features. The aircraft ultimately developed and fielded will likely have similar, yet vastly updated, features and capabilities. This article steps the reader through some of today's significant airlift aircraft capabilities and features, while discussing some of their implications for potential future use. Assumptions and limitations are given regarding the status and progress of some of Air Mobility Command's (AMC) airlift modernization efforts, as well as other improvements and enhancements affecting future development. From there, an analysis of considerations and characteristics of future technologies is presented, laying the foundation for future recommendations. Considering Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition and budgeting cycles, it is now appropriate to begin delving into these issues to position US forces for sustained progress.

Current Airlift Capabilities

The United States depends on a flexible and responsive global transportation system that can get American and allied forces to a theater in a timely and decisive manner.

Air and Space Power in the New Millennium

Current airlift aircraft capability has evolved as a function of requirements and available technology. Requirements and technology are conceived and constrained by fiscal necessities and defense priorities as determined by the DoD's defense planning systems process. This process accounts for threats to US security at home and abroad as enunciated in the President's annual National Security Strategy, which outlines how US national instruments of power-such as diplomacy, information, military forces, and economic power-are used to protect American interests worldwide. Approximately every 3 to 5 years, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff translates the National Security Strategy into a national military strategy, which then provides broad guidance on how the Armed Forces will "prepare now for an uncertain future by including a broad strategy for defending against threats to US interests." (3) Therefore, aircraft capabilities are developed in relation to requirements to counter threats to American interests.

This article provides brief descriptions of aircraft capabilities available in the Air Force airlift fleet today that have evolved over time in response to the threat environment and fiscal constraints. Capabilities are categorized as physical features, avionics and defensive systems, and specific mission functions. An understanding of these capabilities is the foundation for understanding future decisions being made regarding the characteristics of the next-generation airlifter.

Physical Features

Unique physical features provide airlifters the ability to perform their mission efficiently and will remain considerations for the next-generation airlifter unless superseded by better, more cost-effective technologies. (4)

Outsized Capacity. Among airlifters' most utilitarian features is the ability to carry outsized cargo, (5) which only the C-5 and C-17 currently have. Outsized capacity allows items--such as main battle tanks, Patriot missile batteries, large helicopters, a submarine rescue vehicle, and an Army mobile-bridge layer-- to be transported very close to their ultimate destination. However, the latter three items can be carried only on the C-5, showing a lack of versatility in the airlift fleet. (6) For example, if a major C-5 structural problem were discovered, necessitating the grounding of the fleet, how would the United States transport those specific outsized items in an emergency? It could be contracted out to foreign operators, or it could be shipped by sea. What if those foreign operators put restrictions on the use of their aircraft or in some way compromise the security of the mission? What if getting it there by sea were not fast enough? Clearly, a versatile airlifter with outsized capacity is needed in the future.

Armor-Resistant Aircraft Skin. Armor-resistant aircraft skin is another feature currently available. "The C-17 is designed to survive a 2,000-foot hit from a 12.7 millimeter, armor-piercing incendiary projectile, anywhere on the airframe." (7) This kind of feature has evolved in response to the threat environment for airlift assets. Since it is expected airlifters will be employed ever closer to a hostile environment and sometimes within it, their exteriors must be resistant to small-arms fire and blast fragments. Currently, aircraft have armor installed in the seats and cockpit floors to protect the operators from these hazards.

Fly-by-Wire Flight Controls. The C-17 has the unique distinction of being built with fly-by-wire flight controls and an electronic flight-control system, allowing it to fly at extremely low speeds during the landing phase. Shorter touchdown distances are possible, permitting the aircraft to land and operate at locations with short runways or semiprepared strips of approximately 3,500 feet or less, depending on aircraft weight and runway surface conditions. Further, the C-17 electronic flight-control system features auto trim, lessening pilot workioads during critical maneuvers. This capability allows the aircraft to operate at literally hundreds more locations than previously possible with aircraft of similar capacity.

Powered-Lift Technology. Hand-in-hand with fly-by-wire flight controls is powered-lift technology. When the C-17 flaps are lowered into the range for approach and landing, engine exhaust interacts with them allowing both slower approach and touchdown speeds, as well as steeper approach angles. This lets the aircraft land and stop easily on a runway of limited length--a crucial capability for airlifters as the trend toward expeditionary operations and the actual use of shorter, austere airfields remains.

Large Cargo Doors. Though often taken for granted because of their simplicity, large cargo doors are a crucial design feature of airlifters. They provide for relatively easy onloading and offloading of unwieldy loads like helicopters and tanks. Additionally, loading and unloading time is shortened as a result of large, unencumbered cargo compartment entrances. This becomes critical for operations at austere airfields with a low maximum, aircraft on-ground capability. (8) Large cargo doors allow for quicker cargo throughput in these types of situations.

High-Wing/Low-Ramp Design. Wings on the top of the fuselage give the added benefit of faster loading and unloading because of the relative absence of wing encumbrance in the loading area. High-wing design contributes to ramps that are low to the ground, making it convenient for aircraft loading personnel and materiel-handling equipment to load and unload the aircraft quickly. High-wing designs normally equate to slower en route cruising speeds compared to most commercial turbojet aircraft operating at similar high altitudes (above 30,000 feet) in the same airspace. It will be crucial to improve the performance of these types of designs in future airlifters to avoid exclusion from the airspace for inability to fly at required minimum speeds.

Roll-On/Roll-Off Capability. Closely related to large doors and high-wing/low-ramp design is roll-on/roll-off capability. This capability offers speed and ease of loading and unloading of aircraft cargo. Roll-on/roll-off capability implies the ability not only to drive rolling stock cargo--such as high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and tanks--on and off the aircraft but also to literally roll cargo on and off via the built-in, roller-floor system. Roller-floor systems can be configured quickly from the roller configuration to a smooth surface in a matter of minutes by a single person, adding enormous flexibility and mission capability to an aircraft. A roller-laden floor also allows pallets to be pushed into place quickly.

Avionics and Defensive Systems

Although physical features are static design attributes of all airlifters, the avionics and defensive systems built into them offer easy upgrade to newer, more capable, and cost-effective versions. Avionics and defensive systems permit airlifters to operate close to hostile environments with reasonable self-protection. Yet, the current capability is purely defensive. Technology, requirements, and new employment tactics must be developed and improved before a safe, standoff capability (directed energy, self-defense weapons) is installed on airlifters.

Traffic Collision Avoidance System. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) is designed to improve the situational awareness of the cockpit crew by providing them with information about the location of other aircraft in the vicinity of the TCAS-equipped aircraft. As airspace becomes more saturated with air traffic (especially the North Atlantic region) and airlifters increasingly operate in areas where air-traffic control services, TCAS will help avert catastrophes like the 1997 US C-141 and German TU-154M collision off the west coast of Africa that killed 33. This technology or its updated successor will become standard equipment on future airlifters.

Redundant Global Positioning System (GPS). Since the early 1990s when the GPS made its debut on aircraft, many have come to rely on its ability to tell them where they are, where they want to go, and how to get there. Inherent with prolific GPS is pinpoint navigation of multiple aircraft continually flying over the same geographical navigation fixes and routes. The big sky theory is reduced to small sky as a result of enhanced precision, increasing the chance for accidents.

Despite this, the benefits of GPS-equipped aircraft are great. They no longer have to rely on internal navigation systems, which, without periodic updates, are susceptible to error. However, when most single GPS-equipped aircraft malfunction or satellite coverage goes down, their ability to navigate can be severely reduced. Also, how can one be sure the data the GPS is feeding to the navigation system are accurate?

Redundant GPS units with the receiver autonomous-integrity monitoring (RAIM) system provide the solution. (9) RAIM is a relatively new capability available with GPS; not surprisingly, it has not made its way into many military aircraft. RAIM notifies pilots of several types of malfunction, including loss of satellite coverage and out-of-range navigation data, as it constantly evaluates the quality of the data it delivers to the flight crew. Another benefit of redundant GPS is increased performance accuracy during precision airdrop maneuvers. This technology or an enhanced version thereof should be incorporated in any future airlifter.

Head-Up Display (HUD). HUDs provide pilots the convenience of flying tactical maneuvers without reference to internal control and performance instruments. They allow aircraft like the C-130J and C-17 to fly steep, austere airfield approaches to a precise touchdown point. This feature, combined with fly-by-wire and powered-lift technologies, are the heart of contemporary airlifters' austere airfield capability. (10) Head-up displays also aid in formation flight, permitting pilots to focus their eyes on other formation aircraft while simultaneously monitoring the aircraft's performance.

Night Vision Goggle (NYG) Capability. NVG capability permits the C-130, C-141, and soon, the C-17 to fly special operations missions in a dark cockpit environment. Even if the capability is not used on the next airlifter, it is advisable to incorporate the technology since it is both relatively inexpensive to install and can be used for special operations missions. NVG capability requires both cockpit-lighting enhancements that use night vision goggles, as well as connections, within the aircraft to power the goggles.

Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS). (11) JTIDS is briefly mentioned here as a technology to consider installing on the next airlifter. Installation and use will be dependent on the role JTIDS will play in conjunction with the core role of the aircraft. Currently, few aircraft types in the Air Force inventory (none of them airlifters) are equipped with JTIDS technology. Air Force technology and airlift doctrine must evolve in a manner directing its widespread use, after which it should be installed and employed to its maximum capability.

Missile Warning System and Countermeasures Dispense Sets. Considering the potential and actual threat environment airlift aircraft currently operate in, it is critical for them to be protected with defensive systems capable of warning the aircrew of incoming shoulder-fired or ground-launched missiles. Missile warning systems and countermeasure dispense sets (CMDS) offer that protection and can be programmed by the user to operate at various altitudes and flight regimes. The CMDS system can also be programmed to dispense stores either manually or automatically, providing flexibility of use. The importance of these systems cannot be overstated and should improve into more capable, reactive systems.

Chaff and Flares. Closely related to missile warning systems and countermeasure defense sets are chaff and flares. Chaff and flares are designed to confuse and divert radar-guided missiles aimed at aircraft. Chaff, made from metallic strips, is ejected from the aircraft when a missile is detected by the aircraft's onboard missile warning systems. Flares serve the same function as chaff except they are designed to defend against heat-seeking missiles by ejecting extremely high-temperature devices out the rear of the aircraft, attracting incoming heat-seeking missiles.

Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). (12) Radar warning receivers notify the aircrew of an incoming missile via radar lock-on detection. This system is usually integrated with other, onboard defensive systems to provide a full, defensive system suite, capable of thwarting most asymmetric threats.

Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) and Enhanced Visual System. (13) Forward-looking infrared and enhanced visual systems use heat to paint and detect images. Consideration should be given to incorporating the evolved version of this technology as a hedge against future threats. FLIR technology, coupled with the enhanced visual system on HUD-equipped aircraft, will permit airlifters to operate more efficiently by allowing them to land and take off at fields previously restricted, by weather. The enhanced visual system superimposes the heat signature of any airfield lighting and other heat-producing devices or structures onto the head-up display regardless of outside weather conditions. FLIR and enhanced visual systems will reduce the possibility of having to divert aircraft full of mission-critical cargo.

Specific Mission Functions

The history of airlift has provided us with examples of constantly evolving missions requiring stellar attributes. The unique characteristics of today's airlifters will support the bridge for tomorrow's attributes.

Direct-Delivery Concept. The concept of moving cargo directly from origin to destination by the C- 17 has revolutionized airlift doctrine and employment. Direct delivery decreases delivery time because of fewer en route stops. It also reduces the chance for maintenance failures attributed to increased aircraft cycles. Additionally, direct delivery is not reliant on organic intratheater aircraft to augment the mission, thus conserving tactical assets. For example, a C-17 can transport an M-1A Abrams main battle tank and crew directly from its point of embarkation in the United States to an austere airfield very close to hostilities, eliminating the need to offload the tank and crew at an intermediate stop where ground transportation would have to deliver them to the battle. This capability could be employed extensively in the future if, for example, the entire C-130 fleet were grounded.

Expeditionary Airfield Operations. Direct delivery of forces and equipment has required airlifters such as the C-17 and C-130 to operate at minimally capable, austere airfields where other large, fixed-wing aircraft cannot operate. Some of airlift's physical features previously discussed enable operations to, from, and at expeditionary airfields. This capability is linked to the absence of overseas bases and operating locations for airlifters to operate from, necessitating the need for an aircraft conducting its mission autonomously from locations with crude facilities and infrastructure.

Reverse-Thrust Taxi. Reverse-thrust taxi not only improves throughput of cargo per day but also, in the case of the C-17, is designed to deflect reverse thrust, both forward and upward, to avoid damaging an austere airfield's surface. By deflecting the thrust upward, foreign object damage is minimized. C-130s also perform reverse-thrust taxi operations, making them and the C-17 nonreliant on-ground, towing equipment required by the C-5.

Air-Refueling Capability. Much has been written about the advantages of aerial refueling, which extends the range of operations for airlift forces and allows missions to continue from origin to destination without landing and the possibility of ground delays. Despite tying up valuable tanker assets that may be in high demand during contingency operations, its use far outweighs the disadvantages. This capability should remain a part of any next-generation airlifter, especially in light of its versatility.

Airdrop. Airdrop capability allows the precise delivery of troops, equipment, and relief supplies over a specific geographic location. Its employment may be required when basing options do not exist, when the element of surprise is to be preserved, when contingency operations are taking place, or a host of other reasons. The Army currently requires the Air Force to deliver a brigade of troops and support equipment over a single drop zone within 30 minutes. (14) Future airlifters will likely retain this requirement since it is an essential element of the Army's forcible entry mission. (15)

Combat Offload. When airdrop of supplies is not feasible because the cargo is not rigged for it or the crew transporting it is not airdrop qualified, combat-offload capability offers enhanced delivery options. Combat offload is performed on the ground by releasing the aircraft brakes from a stationary position and a high-power rating set. It is usually employed due to limited maximum aircraft on ground at the airfield where other aircraft must also land and deliver cargo or when hostile conditions exist at an airfield. Combat-offload capability provides the prompt but orderly disgorgement of a full load of cargo in a matter of seconds. Like other mission capabilities, it provides aerospace planners an additional, flexible employment option.

Low-Level Operations. Low-level operations allow aircraft to fly below an adversary's radar coverage and remain undetected from the ground visually and, thus, small-arms fire and shoulder-launched missiles. This capability is especially useful on airlifters who are performing special operations and provides inherent flexibility for aircraft employment options.


Current airlift aircraft capabilities have provided contingency planners with several versatile options for employing airlift assets. Though there are dozens of characteristics not listed here, these should stimulate thinking on practical measures for improving the existing technologies and capabilities.

Physical features allow the aircraft to carry outsized equipment with faster and easier onloading and offloading of difficult loads, while avionics and defensive systems protect the aircraft, cargo, and crew from threats in current and future ambiguous threat environments. Current, specific mission functions illustrate the kinds of missions airlifters are accomplishing and highlight the requirements of our forces. These capabilities are starting points for development of the next-generation airlifter that will meet the requirements of the next-generation armed forces. To consider capabilities the aircraft should exhibit, assumptions and limitations follow regarding the timeframe in which it will be fielded.

Assumptions and Limitations

The post-Cold War need for mobile, flexible forces to deal with threats and flashpoints that can flare up at a moment's notice has placed a new emphasis on airlift.

Jane's Defence Weekly (16)

When considering logical assumptions for the years 2030 to 2050, better mobility processes and technologies are sure to top the list, but there are others. AMC' s Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000--the 2000 version of the command's roadmap outlining capabilities, aircraft modernization efforts, and acquisition priorities--provides some of the answers. What other assumptions can be made? Operating improvements, computer-aided design, and enhancements to operating procedures provide the impetus for development of a better aircraft. The advantages they provide must be considered.

Inherent Operating Improvements

Five operating-improvement assumptions are stated here as a result of rapidly changing technologies likely to be present between 2030 and 2050. First, lighter weight, stronger materials are available. Harking back to when the first airplanes were built with canvas, wood, and metal to the present-day development of lighter, yet stronger, composite-framed aircraft, future aircraft will likely be even lighter, more durable, and more structurally sound than aircraft built today. Stronger composite materials will withstand the extreme temperature variations encountered as a result of more capable aircraft engines transporting aircraft between the fringes of space and earth.

Second, the evolution of technology suggests advanced, high-bypass engines or even advanced, non-air-breathing engines that operate near space could be manufactured for aircraft of the future. (17) Several factors drive this evolutionary technology. Among them are the advantage gained by projecting power faster to a theater of operations, before potential adversaries have time to react, and being able to respond quickly to a humanitarian crisis. A good reason for needing faster responding airlift forces is the Army's goal of transporting a division ready brigade, medium force anywhere on the globe within 96 hours after takeoff. (18)

Third, natural laminar flow aerodynamics, such as those incorporated into the design of both the F-22 and the joint strike fighter, will improve. (19) Better aerodynamic designs, in addition to the first two improvements listed previously, will naturally lend themselves to a fourth factor: increased fuel efficiency.

Better fuel efficiency translates to savings for a defense department normally lacking the funding to fulfill many of its requirements. Increased fuel efficiency also equates to longer range, requiring less dependency on air-refueling aircraft and "deliver[ing] more goods faster than present [aircraft] ." (20)

Last, it is assumed, to support the direct delivery and austere field capability likely desired of the next strategic airlifter, improved lift-over-drag ratios will be developed to allow the aircraft to take off and land in shorter distances. (21) The means exist today to make these operating improvements realities via computer-aided design.

Computer-Aided Design

Computer-aided design, used extensively during the development of the Boeing 777, will likely be the vehicle of choice in designing aerodynamically sound aircraft in the future. Costs for aircraft development are rising, competition is consolidating among aircraft manufacturers, and large numbers of component manufacturers are involved in today's aircraft manufacturing effort. Computer-aided design offers a cheaper, multimanufacturer-linked process for designing aircraft over the conventional method of building and testing prototypes. (22) Computer-aided design potentially lowers research and development costs since initial designs leading to a final product can be tested thoroughly in advance through computer modeling and simulation programs. Once a design prototype has been built, a small-scale version could be validated through wind-tunnel testing. The evolution of these processes will compress the amount of time needed to develop, test, and procure aircraft, allowing the latest technological advances to b e incorporated. These technological changes likely will evolve, and enhancements to operating procedures for airlift forces will likely become reality, further driving the overall quality of the design of the next airlifter.

Operating Procedures Enhancements

Operating procedures, in the context used here, denote actions taken by AMC and the United States Transportation Command to minimize limitations of today's airlift forces and their employment. By making assumptions and outlining limitations needing fixes by 2030-2050 and perhaps sooner, the lessons learned throughout the process will allow those results to be considered when the follow-on airlifter is being designed and built. The benefit of the following five enhancements to operating procedures, which are addressed in AMC's Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, will create new, unforeseen problems that will have to be solved as well. The first regards C-5 dependability problems.

Poor maintenance reliability problems of the C-5 will be tackled vigorously and solved by fiscal year 2011 through a program called the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Reengineering Program. (23) Since the C-5 is a critical asset for outsized-cargo capability, the Air Force will spend millions and perhaps billions of dollars replacing the engines and upgrading the avionics, "result[ing] in reduced fuel consumption, a 22-percent increase in thrust, and most importantly, [improved] reliability." (24) So much money is being invested in the aircraft because the majority of its service life is yet to come and "the fact that infrastructure, simulators, and spare parts for the airplane 'all exist already,' and flight- and ground-maintenance crews are 'already trained.'" (25) Among other upgrades to the C-S and all mobility aircraft is the Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) program modernization.

GATM is both a communications/surveillance and navigation safety upgrade designed to allow air-mobility aircraft to operate in the increasingly restrictive airspace in high-traffic areas around the world, particularly the North Atlantic Ocean and central Europe. AMC plans to modify its entire fleet to accommodate GATM, to include TCAS, with final completion of the last aircraft slated for fiscal year 2013. (26) Though costly, this operating improvement will reduce adverse flight route changes, increase fuel efficiency and costs, increase cargo loads, and improve situational awareness for flight crews. (27) GATM or its equivalent follow-on will be incorporated into future aircraft architectures, providing greater freedom of operation throughout the world's most saturated airspace. While GATM improves flight-to-ground interface, intransit visibility (ITV) promises to do the same for the ground-to-flight interface.

Intransit visibility allows command and control elements in the air-mobility system to monitor the progress of cargo from origin to destination--similar to the way major commercial-cargo carriers track parcels today. ITV modernization efforts, including components for individual aircraft compatibility, will be integrated, allowing faster, more efficient use of airlift forces. AMC's goal is to upgrade its fixed infrastructure to achieve complete intransit visibility by fiscal year 2005. (28) Although not directly improving the airlift fleet per se, the efficiency resulting from improvements in operating procedures through intransit visibility is synergistic to the entire airlift mission process, yielding greater throughput of cargo than ever before. A fourth operating procedure assumption improving cargo throughput is the addition of KC-10 tankers to the fleet of usable airlift aircraft. (29)

Thirty-seven of the 59 KC-10s in service are considered part of the strategy, while other KC-10s are used to fulfill their role as aerial refuelers in executing the tanker portion of the strategy. (30) This assumption will remain for the foreseeable future because it is viewed as a tremendous force multiplier for airlift until a more permanent solution is found to solve shortages in airlift capacity. Some aircraft manufacturers, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have developed concept multipurpose aircraft designed to fulfill both the airlift and air-refueling mission simultaneously. (31)

The last operating procedure enhancement assumption is continued use of Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) (32) assets to fulfill national requirements for both passenger and cargo movement to a major theater war (MTW). CRAF aircraft are likely to provide nearly 95 percent of all passenger movements and 40 percent of all cargo deliveries if fully activated (Stage III). (33) This assumption is crucial in that CRAF holds the key to the ability of US forces to meet their wartime commitments. Additionally, if CRAF use remains at current levels over the next 30 to 50 years, the airlifter of the future will not have to be built specifically for troop transport (except to meet brigade airdrop requirements) and can focus more on cargo capacity considerations. Associated with continued CRAF use are Boeing's plans, in conjunction with Air Force officials, to market a C-17 commercial variant, the BC-17. (34) Since the Air Force does not always require outsized capacity for day-to-day operations, especially during peacetime , and some areas of the commercial sector do have a requirement for outsized capacity (construction companies, oil-drilling firms, and large engine manufacturers), the idea is revolutionary. CRAF participants who purchase or lease the BC-17 would get guaranteed business from the military, while the military gets use of that commercially procured asset without paying the up-front acquisition costs. (35) Other advantages include increased airlift capacity for meeting the two-MTW strategy, conservation of scarce defense funds, and an enhanced partnership with CRAF participants who are required to deliver cargoes to hostile areas alongside their military counterparts. It is a win-win situation for all. In essence, CRAF partnerships with the defense community will drive future airlifter design considerations.


Thinking about the assumptions and limitations of the airlift picture for 2030 to 2050 indicates the United States is positioning itself to meet future challenges. Operating improvements will transform the capabilities of the airlifter, making use cost-effective and its operation far more efficient. Computer-aided design is the enabler that tests these improvements before full-scale prototypes are built. Computer-aided design will also permit several aircraft component manufacturers to integrate parts into the design early to effectively validate compatibility in the design process, minimizing overall design costs.

AMC initiatives taken now to improve the overall health of the airlift fleet will yield important data to foster improved aircraft designs. It also may provide data on how to extend the service life of aircraft beyond their typical lifespans. This, in turn, ensures modernization efforts will be kept to a minimum and are more cost-effective, thereby allowing funding for other critical programs.

With the changing face of the future strategic environment, a hazy, yet developing, picture of what the future airlifter's characteristics should be is coming into focus. The years ahead will witness leaps and bounds in technology over what is available today; however, many of these technologies will be outgrowths of today's know-how. The next strategic ailifter will have greater range, higher capacity, and increased speed and be no larger than the C-5, if not smaller. However, it must retain the capacity to carry specialized outsized equipment. These features should be seriously considered for the next-generation aircraft, which is where the focus now shifts.

Considerations and Characteristics for the Next Airlifter

The required capabilities of the air mobility system in 2025 have been identified as follows: point-of-use delivery and extraction, long unrefueled range, total resource visibility, survivability, intermodality, modularity, interoperability, responsiveness, and cost. Each serves an integral purpose in a synergistic whole. If the air mobility tasks required to meet national objectives in 2025 are to be accomplished, each of these capabilities must be present in the air mobility system.

Air Force 2025

To turn the vision of Air Force 2025 into reality, major changes in technology and how it can be employed better must evolve. These capabilities become a starting point for enabling new ideas to take shape. Both the USAF Scientific Advisory Board's New World Vistas and Air Force 2025 point to capabilities required of airlift forces of the future. (36) Much can also be said about increased airlift-user requirements in recent years. For example, it now takes nearly 100 C-17 flights to transport a Patriot air-defense unit overseas. (37) What if, by 2030, the United States has an operational national missile defense system, as proposed by the new Bush administration, making the Patriot system obsolete? This might significantly reduce the amount of airlift needed to conduct a major theater war if all other planning factors remain the same. Therefore, there are many things to consider for the development of the next airlifter.

Needs Assessment

DoD's acquisition system is driven by the mission-needs analysis process and integrated priority lists generated by the warfighting commanders in chief (CINC). (38) Any future aircraft developed must fully consider the integrated priority lists and Service users requirements to prevent costly mistakes. (39) Forming user-assessment teams to study the issues in advance may contribute to accurately forecasting needs, capabilities, and requirements. Granted, not everyone on the team will reach full consensus on all issues since CINCs and the Services have competing demands, but an openminded approach is suggested.

Defensive Systems Revisited

Defensive systems are another significant consideration for the environment in which airlift forces operate. AMC listed aircraft defensive systems as its number one acquisition priority in its Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, highlighting their importance to the command as indicators of where air mobility systems operate now and in the future. (40) Though these systems are costly, the possible risk to aircraft and crew without them outweighs the cost. The flexibility defensive systems offer in terms of where airlifters can safely operate--particularly systems that can detect and defend against infrared surface-to-air missiles--will allow airlifters to operate as close to hostilities as calculated risks permit. (41) One defensive capability to pursue is the directed-energy, self-defense system that uses either laser or high-power microwave technology. According to the New World Vistas study, this weapon improves aircraft survivability and increases the chances for mission success against the very real threat of surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles targeted at airlift aircraft performing routine missions. (42) The use of such a system would revolutionize airlift doctrine and deter most aggressors from attacking airlifters, making the cargo and aircraft more survivable in hostile conditions plagued with asymmetric threats. A system like this may also incorporate many of the other defensive systems, reducing crew workload while increasing capacity due to weight savings. Based on the pace of emerging technologies, such a system will weigh less than 500 pounds, be portable if necessary, and take up very little space aboard the aircraft. (43)

Asymmetric Threats

Asymmetric threats and adequate defenses to deter them must also be considered. "US dominance in the conventional military arena may encourage adversaries to use.., asymmetric means to attack our forces and interests overseas and Americans at home." (44) The next-generation airlifter must incorporate technologies that defend against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC) of mass destruction since they pose a very real threat to our forces. (45) Defensive systems that counteract offensive information operations conducted by adversaries to intercept, disrupt, and deter communications and navigation should also be considered. NBC capability in the hands of adversaries could have devastating results for unprotected US forces at relatively little cost to a potential adversary. (46)


The physical size of the next-generation airlifter must be carefully considered. An aircraft no larger than the C-S will likely suffice for several reasons. First, unless infrastructure and facility upgrades increase to accommodate aircraft larger than the C-5, any future aircraft might not have universal access to airfields. Second, though increased size usually equates to longer range, cost also increases, deterring both DoD and potential buyers. (47) Third, if direct-delivery capability is desired, size will dictate where the aircraft can land, operate, and take off.


Compatible speed with civil airline aircraft is another consideration. The next airlifter should be capable of speeds necessary to gain access to restricted North Atlantic and European airspace. "GATM [modernization and installation programs] will do us no good unless we can compete with faster airline traffic." Additionally, "speed [equates to] greater throughput [of aircraft] per day." (48) By way of comparison, most modern airline traffic cruises at .80 Mach and greater, while the C-141, C-5, and C-17 cruise between .74 and .77 Mach. (49)

Onboard Materiel-Handling Equipment

Another consideration requiring innovative technological thinking concerns advanced onboard aircraft materiel-handling equipment. One such system, known as load by wire, could alleviate some of the problems associated with transporting cargo to austere locations with limited materiel-handling equipment. (50) For example, when en route changes to destination cargoes necessitate the delivery of cargo located in the forward section of the aircraft and the offload site does not have the ability to offload, transport, and store the cargo, load by wire could be employed to perform those functions internal to the aircraft. Load by wire moves cargo within the cargo compartment, making the offload less dependent on external materiel-handling equipment.

A consideration for aircraft with dual-row cargo capability is a revolving floor system that can safely rotate the floor to position pallets at the ramp for more convenient offload. Limitations with radical systems such as this include the cost to develop them (since the concept is revolutionary in nature) and the added weight required to house the components and backup systems in case of critical failures. (51) These systems may also augment a high-precision airdrop system if the aircraft is equipped to perform airdrop operations. (52)

External Design

Finally, the external design of the aircraft itself must be taken into consideration. (53) Boeing has considered a blended-wing aircraft body style, while Lockheed Martin has done the same (Figure 1). (54)

The advantages of designs like this, as stated by Lockheed Martin, include "generous internal volume for fuel and cargo...with reduced structural weight." (56) This design also seems to incorporate characteristics of stealth and low-observable technologies--another consideration for the next airlifter. Further analysis and study in this area are required. Another design fielded by Lockheed Martin is the box-wing or joined-wing concept (Figure 2). (57)

Lockheed Martin touts this aircraft as a multirole aircraft with dual aerial-refueling booms maintaining "a full cargo capability including roll-on/roll-off loading of vehicles, equipment, and ... containers." (59) An advantage of this aircraft is the reduced cost of a multirole aircraft; a disadvantage is the dilution of the core capability necessary for direct delivery. The challenge will be Lockheed Martin's, Boeing's, DoD's, and others' to overcome, if possible and necessary.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Thinking needs to begin now for the next generation airlifter.

New World Vistas, Mobility Applications Volume

The evolving nature of technology holds the key to future development of airlift aircraft. Its attributes and capabilities will be inextricably linked to existing capabilities and requirements. Actions taken in the near future to develop an airlifter to meet the needs of next-generation armed forces should begin. The feasibility, capability, signposts, and ancillary capabilities of the next-generation airlifter discussed throughout this article facilitate further thinking and research regarding its development.

Needs of potential users, as well as the forecasted strategic environment, should be taken into consideration. Since that is largely unknown for an aircraft to be fielded decades from now, the aircraft must be built around emerging threats and requirements of the Services and CINCs at the time of its development. (60) It must be flexible enough to be upgraded (plug-and-play avionics boxes that can be swapped out easily for upgraded ones) since both threats and requirements are subject to change. To lower costs and enhance compatibility, the design effort should be conducted closely with industry manufacturers and CRAF partners from the beginning and should emphasize DoD needs over industry partners to ensure defense requirements and survivable systems are installed. Partnering with industry and CRAF participants allows access to the benefits of commercial-off-the-shelf technologies (COTS).

COTS should be incorporated into the design of the aircraft to the maximum extent possible. It offers several advantages over specially designed military components, including worldwide logistics availability, compatibility to commercial aircraft, and ease of upgrade to newer models--all translating to lower manufacture and maintenance costs. If costs are not kept within reasonable limits, no one outside the United States will be able to afford the aircraft. (61)

Recommendations made by both Air Force 2025 and the USAF Scientific Advisory Board's New World Vistas studies should be considered and implemented as technology and feasibility permit--specifically, those that leverage American technological advantages over potential adversaries such as the development of directed-energy, self-defense systems and information-dominance systems, as well as those providing for physical survivability (defense against weapons of mass destruction and shoulder-fired weapons). (62)

With the absence of the C-17 and C-5 from service between 2030 arid 2050, their usable capabilities must be retained in any new design. As a caveat to desired capabilities:

* Improvements to existing physical features and capabilities should first be considered.

* Outsized capacity is absolutely required since none will exist.

* A robust defensive-system suite for operation against asymmetric threats and at austere locations is required. The suite should include infrared countermeasures, countermeasure defense sets, missile-warning systems, chaff, and flares, as a minimum. If the need is substantiated, a directed-energy, self-defense system should be incorporated, depending on the types of threats.

* The aircraft skin must be somewhat resistant to small-arms fire, antiaircraft fire, and certain shoulder-fired weapons.

* The aircraft should also be able to conduct direct delivery to austere locations. Because of the lack of forward-basing options and transformation to expeditionary operations by all the Services, direct-delivery capability ensures a rapid response, negating the need for intermediate stops and permitting the United States to act unilaterally and swiftly in defense of national interests. However, as with other capabilities, direct delivery will depend on the future strategic environment and how often this capability is actually employed by the C-17 by 2030. (63)

* Air-refueling capability enhances flexibility and rapid response time. It is an absolute requirement to retain for the foreseeable future. Its continued use will depend on improvements made to engines as well as improvements in fuel efficiency.

* Airdrop capability will be necessary since none will exist with the departure of the C-5 and C-17.

Special operations characteristics for the next-generation airlifter are nice to have, if feasible, but not required, depending on the capabilities and capacity of the proposed advanced theater transport likely fielded and operational by 2030. (64) Among the most important of these characteristics are NYG capability, JTIDS, and RWR compatibility.

Avionics and defensive systems will improve and evolve into more capable and usable systems for cost-effective inclusion on the next-generation airlifter. Special attention must be given to improvements that will protect the aircraft and crew from predictable and unpredictable threats while allowing it to accomplish its mission with acceptable levels of risk.

Finally, when development of the next-generation airlifter begins, representatives from the CINGs, Services (including operators, engineers, and scientists), industry (including CRAF participants), and DoD should form a working group to consider the characteristics and capabilities of the next airlifter outside the normal mission-needs analysis process. Their inputs should become a template for developers and manufactures to use in designing the most functional aircraft possible.

This article gives insights into the development of the next-generation strategic airlifter. By analyzing current capabilities and emerging technologies, a clearer picture of required capabilities materializes. These required capabilities will, in aim, become the basis for future development. It is crucial to begin this process as early as the requirement for the next airlifter is identified to ensure proper measures are take a at the proper time. Planning for success will result in a superb aircraft ready to perform at the tip of the spear anywhere, anytime.


* Needs of potential users, as well as the forecasted strategic environment, should be taken into consideration.

* Aircraft must be built around emerging threats and requirements of the Services and CINCs at the time of its development.

* The design must be flexible enough to be upgraded (plug-and-play avionics boxes that can be swapped out easily for upgraded ones).

* The design effort should be conducted closely with industry manufacturers and CRAF partners from the beginning and should emphasize DoD needs over industry partners to ensure defense requirements and survivable systems are installed.

* Partnering with industry and CRAF participants allows access to the benefits of commercial-off-the-shelf technologies.


(1.) Author's interview with David Merrill, senior analyst, AMC Studies and Analysis Division, 8 Mar 01. Mr Merrill commented, "No one expects the C-5s to last beyond FY2040." He commented that it was too early to tell what modernization efforts would be made to the C-17 to extend its life until 2030-2050.

(2.) This article focuses on the development of a from-the-ground-up military aircraft only and does not consider COTS aircraft for several reasons, including their current inability to operate in austere environments or carry outsized cargo, like heavily armored main battle tanks and Patriot missile batteries, and a lack of adequate defensive systems, biological and chemical weapons protection, and airdrop capability. However, the interoperable, universal, and readily available technologies inherent in COTS aircraft that do not detract from the military-specific attributes required for the aircraft to operate in austere threat environments should be used to the maximum extent possible. The legitimacy of a military airlifter over COTS aircraft from a DoD standpoint was announced and justified in Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense. DOD Announces C-17/NDAA Aircraft Decision, Washington, DC: Defense Link, 4 Nov 95 [Online] Available:, 9 Nov 00.

(3.) The National Military Strategy from 1997 derives its guidance from the President's National Security Strategy to "Shape, Respond, and Prepare Now for an Uncertain Future." This translates loosely to readying the Armed Forces to meet any threat encountered with whatever means and capabilities available. DoD, Joint Chiefs of Staff. National Military Strategy of the United States of America, Washington DC, 1997, 1.

(4.) From this point forward, the term airlifter will be used to denote strategic airlifter for brevity's sake. The term strategic airlifter implies the ability to perform intertheater airlift between theaters, such as between the United States and Europe. Tactical airlift aircraft such as the C-130 are capable of strategic airlift but are better suited for intratheater airlift of forces and equipment within a theater of operations. This distinction is made to merely illustrate the difference in assets used to perform specific missions. Important to note here is that the C-17 is capable of both inter- and intratheater airlift, a concept known as direct delivery, which is described in the Specific Mission Capabilities section.

(5.) DOD Announces C-17/NDAA Aircraft Decision.

(6.) Seena Simon, "Plan for Costly Upgrade of Aging C-5s Questioned," Air Force Times, 30 Oct 00, 18.

(7.) Bill Sweetman, "Airlifters Rise to Greater Challenges," Jane's International Defence Review, Mar 96, 67.

(8.) MOG refers to an aircraft's ability to operate at a location. Factors in its determination are speed and ease of operations, as well as the actual physical footprint the aircraft makes at that location.

(9.) RAIM allows the computerized-GPS receiver to maintain self-awareness regarding whether or not it has information from enough GPS satellites (minimum required-five) to reliably calculate position and altitude.

(10.) An austere airfield is one where minimal infrastructure on the ground site exists and there is a short, usually 3,000-foot. landing strip available.

(11.) "JTIDS is a communications, navigation, and identification system intended to exchange surveillance and command and control (C2) information among various C2 platforms and weapons platforms to enhance varied missions of each of the Services." Department of Defense, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation FY96 Annual Report. Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, Washington DC, 1996 [Online] Available:, 10 Feb 01. JTIDS provides the operator superb situational awareness of both friendly and adversary aircraft operating in the same airspace.

(l2.) "The RWR system detects, identifies, processes, and displays airborne interceptor, surface-to-air missile, and antiaircraft artillery weapon systems." Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis Network. AN/ALR-69 RWR, 22 Apr 00 [Online] Available:, 10 Feb 01.

(13.) EVS incorporates a FLIR camera that allows the pilot to look through fog and darkness by projecting an infrared real-world image on the HUD. The image provides the pilot the ability to avoid terrain and land the aircraft safely on landing surfaces in very low-visibility conditions.

(14.) Congress of the United States, A Congressional Budget Office Study, Moving U. S. Forces: Options for Strategic Mobility. Washington DC, Feb 97 [Online] Available:, 30 Oct 00.

(15.) Ibid. Airborne forces were dropped in Grenada in 1983, in Panama in (1989, and planned to drop on Haiti in 1994. Cargo airdrop, by contrast, is a much more frequent occurrence.

(16.) Nick Cook, "Briefing: Airlifters," Jane's Defence Weekly, 24 Jul 96, 19.

(17.) David A. Fulghum, "Future Airlifters Promise Global Range," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 20 Jan 97, 52.

(18.) "Air Force Expects to Need More Airlift, but Details on Hold," Air Force Times, 11 Sep 00, 29.

(19.) "Future Airlifters Promise Global Range," 52.

(20.) Bruce D. Callander, "The Evolution of Air Mobility," Air Force Magazine, Feb 98 [Online] Available:, 8 Feb 01.

(21.) New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century, Washington Mobility Applications Vol. Sec 4.1, Washington DC: USAF Scientific Advisory Board, 1995.

(22.) Bill Gregory, "Tanker-Transports, Future USAF Airlifters Are Likely to Be Versatile Multimission Aircraft," Armed Forces Journal International, Dec 97 [Online] Available: l997/Dec/IndTech.html, 30 Oct 00.

(23.) Department of the Air Force. Headquarters AMC, Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, C-S Roadmap, Vol 3, Table 4, Fig 21, Scott AFB, Illinois, 1999.

(24.) Brian Bender, "USAF Reviews Airlift Fleet Requirements," Jane's Defence Weekly, 11 Aug 99, 7; Stephen Willingham, "Despite Leaner Army, Demand for Airlift Should Remain High," National Defense, Dec 00,17; Bill Sweetman, "Upgrades Dominate US Airlift Plans," Interavia, Apr 00, 40; and Sandra I. Erwin, "Need for Global Mobility Spurs Demand for Airlift," National Defense, Dec 98, 19.

(25.) John A. Tirpak, "Airlift Gets a Boost," Air Force Magazine, Dec 97 [Online] Available:, 30 Oct 00.

(26.) Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, GATM Roadmap, Sec

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, ITV Roadmap, Vol 3, Sec 3.6.17.

(29.) MRS-05 currently assumes the use of KC-l0 aircraft as part of the two-MTW strategy. Department of Defense. JCS, Mobility Requirements Study-05 (U), Jan 01, Executive Summary, J-4 (Secret) (information extracted is unclassified) [Online] Available: SIPRnet, 17 Jan 01.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Boeing's concept B-767 tanker/transport [Online] Available: and Lockheed Martin's [Online] Available:

(32.) CRAF is a three-stage activation plan for contracted air carriers to augment the nation in time of war or national emergency. Activated by CINCTRANSCOM, each level of CRAF, from Stage I to Stage III, commits increasing numbers of assets and requires activation approval from the Secretary of Defense, Moving U. S. Forces: Options far Strategic Mobility.

(33.) MRS-05, Executive Summary, J-12.

(34.) "Commercial C-17 Buys Would Stabilize Cost, Enhance Reserve Air Fleet," Inside the Air Force, 22 Dec 00, 2.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Mobility Applications, and USAF, "The First with the Most," Air Force 2025 Final Report, Aug 96, Chap 2, Airlift 2025 [Online] Available:, 10 Feb 01.

(37.) "A Clamor for Airlift," Air Force Magazine, Dec 00, 26.

(38.) Before aircraft are developed, a mission-needs analysis is required by law, and AMC would become involved in such a process. Currently, there is no such process for the future strategic airlifter as it is too far into the future to even be considered yet. For an in-depth discussion of the legal requirements of the mission-needs analysis process, see DoD Acquisition Reform [Online] Available:, Deskbook Quick Link to keyword mission-needs analysis.

(39.) Currently, there are no warfighting CINC IPLs for US airlift capabilities. The United States faces a chicken or egg argument in this regard in that the CINCs will not ask for a capability that does not exist and the acquisition community will not ask for a weapon system the CINC does not need. As a result, the defense community must see some real paradigm shifting to make a new technology come to fruition; or they need a war, an accident (like the Secretary Brown crash), or other significant global event to show the new need. See Merrill. Gregory, "User concerns like C-17 vortex problems in airdrops or ease of loadability got overlooked."

(40.) Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000, Acquisition Priority List.

(41.) John Tirpak, "Airlift Reality Check," Air Farce Magazine, Dec 99, 36.

(42.) New World Vistas, Mobility Applications; Executive Summary, v; and Table ES-1, vi.

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) William S. Cohen, Department of Defense. Quadrennial Defense Review, Washington DC, May 97, Sec II, 4.

(45.) This is priority number 14 of 27 on the Air Mobility Strategic Plan 2000 Acquisition Priority List.

(46.) Air Force 2025, Chap 2, 3.

(47.) "Airlifters Rise to Greater Challenges," 70.

(48.) E-mail with Maj Glenn Rousseau, former GATM program manager and senior analyst for strategic mobility, who worked at AMC/XP 1997 to 1998, 3 Oct 00.

(49.) US Air Force, various aircraft fact sheets [Online] Available:, 10 Feb 01.

(50.) Lt Col David W. Allvin, Paradigm Lost: Rethinking Theater Airlift to Support the Army After Next, Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, Sep 00 [Online] Available:, 10 Feb 01.

(51.) Ibid. Added weight reduces fuel, cargo capacity, and hence, range.

(52.) Bill Sweetman, "A Rising Imperative: More Demands for Airlift," Jane's International Defence Review, Feb 98, 29.

(53.) The concepts portrayed in the following paragraphs are merely the visions of aircraft manufacturers. The DoD, Air Force, and AMC have not put forward the research, development, training, and execution dollars to explore the possibility of such future airlifter concepts. "Everyone is taking a 'wait and see' what happens in the commercial sector with these platforms. It's not that we are against something new; it's more that we have to prioritize our investments in the health of the current fleet and finish the acquisition of the C-17. I don't see room for either the blended-wing body or the joined-wing design until they have proven themselves in the commercial marketplace." See Merrill.

(54.) Craig Hoyle, "You Call ... We Haul." Jane's Defence Weekly, 16 Feb 00, 50, and Fulghum, 51.

(55.) Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company [Online] Available:

(56.) Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company. Advanced Mobility Aircraft: Tanker/Transport [Online] Available:, 9 Nov 00.

(57.) Ibid.

(58.) Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company.

(59.) Ibid.

(60.) Before aircraft are developed, a mission-needs analysis is required by law, and AMC would become involved in such a process. Currently. there is no such process being performed for the future strategic airlifter as it is too far into the future to even be considered yet. For an in-depth discussion of the legal requirements of the mission-needs analysis process. [Online] Available:, Deskbook Quick Link to keyword mission-needs analysis.

(61.) Sweetman, "Airlifters Rise to Greater Challenges," 66.

(62.) New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century, Mobility Applications Vol, and "Airlift 2025: The First with the Most."

(63.) To date, the C-17 direct-delivery capability has been used very rarely and is still not an operational concept in operation plans (or concept plans) being published today. The C-17 deployment of Task Force Hawk to Tirana, Albania, and to Bale Dogle airfield in Somalia are two examples of the capability being used to date. The Tirana mission, as part of Operation Allied Force, was extremely successful and could not have been done by any other US airlift aircraft. This fact alone opens the possibility to future employment of the C-17 direct-delivery capability.

(64.) Allvin.

Lieutenant Colonel Manske is a student at the Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies. At the time of the writing of this article, he was a student at the Air Command and Staff College. As of 1 July 2002, he will be the Air Force special assistant to the commander in chief, US Joint Forces Command/Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, Norfolk, Virginia.
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Author:Manske, Chad T.
Publication:Air Force Journal of Logistics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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