Washington — "Remember what Gen. 'Shy' [Army Chief of Staff Edward C.] Meyer said: 'Without the Air Force's airlift, I have to whistle for a taxi.'" At the moment Gen. Robert C. Mathis, the Air Force's new vice-chief of staff, recalled these words, on the afternoon of April 24, surely the longest day in the recent memory of US military men -- the day of the aborted US hostage rescue mission in Iran -- some 140 US volunteers were stymied in their further progress in Iran's great desert.
They were, in fact, stuck without a taxi. . . .
Four of their helicopters and one of their C-130 transport planes were disabled, leaving them just enough airlift capacity in a remaining C-130 to make it home, taking their five wounded with them but leaving their eight dead behind.
This reporter, who sat with General Mathis at that moment, knew nothing then of the mission or its tragic outcome. He wondered why General Mathis, during a long discussion of the growing Soviet missile threat, the Air Force's problems in retaining its trained, and its priority MX missile and airlift programs, seemed distracted at times. General Mathis soon received an urgent call from his superior, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Lew Allen Jr., ending the interview.
The Iranian operation had ended, a failure. A new chapter in US strategic history, where airlift is of supreme importance, had begun.
Airlift, all the Air Force's leaders say, is now a top priority for conventional forces that may have to move rapidly to remote parts of the world, like the Persian Gulf.
To meet needs not met by improving and "stretching" the carrying capacity of existing C-130, C-141, and C5-A Galaxy transports, the Air Force has asked leading aerospace firms to submit designs for a new "CX" wide-bodied transport plane. The CX should be able to airlift the men, heavy tanks, and other equipment needed for the 150,000-man Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) that President Carter has asked all the armed forces to develop together by 1985.
At MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., headquarters of the RDF joint interservice task force, Army Gen. Volney Warner, who commands the US Readiness Command (RedCom), explained the CX requirement.
A conflict in the Indian Ocean or Southwest Asia area, where the US now stands on the brink of embroilment, would, General Warner said, involve "horrendous logistics."
Every fighting man out there, he explained, would have to be supplied, somehow, with "12 gallons of gas, and as many gallons of water and oil," each day that he either fights or waits to fight.
To meet this need, 100 or more new CX planes, along with needed sealift and new stocks of prepositioned equipment aboard floating bases and on Indian Ocean shore bases, are "absolutely essential," General Warner said.
The need to carry such heavy equipment as the Army's new XM-1 Chrysler tank and its family of smaller, related combat vehicles, artillery, and helicopters for intercontinental distances will make whatever design is accepted "a rather hybrid airplane," adds General Mathis.
"In addition to that," General Mathis says, "we would like to be able to land it at relatively short airfields," which the C-141 cannot do.
"We plotted out the airfields of the world by size. . . . As you come down in size, or in length, or in width, or both, the number of airfields rises almost astronomically.
"Obviously, if you could pick a particular spot you wanted to go to and you could land that airplane, carrying the cargo from the states, relatively close to where it's going to be used, it's better than landing it at an airfield back somewhere and then trying to get it up front to the combat area."
At the mid-Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, the C-5A Galaxy cargo plane can and does get in and out. But the Air Force hates to risk the Galaxy in exposed, forward areas, as the CX, once it exists, will be called on to do.
The USAF's airlift assets now include 304 military (70 C- 5A and 234 C-141) aircraft and 373 civil aircraft, according to General Jones's report. In a war emergency it also can call on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). The US civil airlines have committed 123 long-range cargo and 250 long-range passenger planes to CRAF.
Wide-body Boeing B-747 and DC-10 freighter planes could carry oversize military equipment. Smaller DC-8 and B-707 cargo planes can move cargo like ammunition, rations, and repair parts. The Iran rescue mission of April 24 demonstrated again what was already learned in Vietnam: The Hercules C-130, despite its advancing age, is still a reliable "workhorse" that can carry fuel, troops, and all manner of equipment to even a makeshift, non-airfield like the remote strip of Iran's salt desert.
All in all, the officers and airmen of the USAF appear best satisfied with the fighter and attack aircraft inventory and programs. The F-15 Eagle fighter is the lead plane for air combat and is considered better than any existing Soviet fighters. The Air Force plans, through 1983, to procure 729 of the planes.
The far more complex F-16 air-superiority fighter is intended for close-in, visual combat and is being coproduced by four NATO allies, with a total buy for the USAF planned at 1,388 planes. The Fairchild A-10 attack plane, already in service in NATO, is intended for use, says General Jones's report, "in countering the heavy armor of the Warsaw Pact," in ground attack and close support actions.
The E-3A AWACS "flying radar" planes, (the Air Force wants a total of 34 and NATO allies have already ordered or plan to order 18) already have had their baptism of fire in Israeli battles with the Syrian Air Force. The plane can "stand off" hundreds of miles and manage an air, ground, or sea battle by remote and sonar devices.
According to Air Force Secretary Hans Mark, the rising costs of airplanes in this age of rapid inflation defy the imagination. "At the end of World War II," he told an audience of electrical and electronics engineers recently, "a P-38 (of which we had just produced 10,000) cost approximately $200,000.
"The equivalent machine today, an F-15 (of which we are now producing fewer than 1,000), costs close to $20 million. Economy of scale clearly plays some role in the price difference, as does general inflation. But these phenomena alone cannot account for that factor of 100. Furthermore, the lead time to create the F-15 was a decade, whereas the P-38 was ready to fly less than two years after the first contract was signed -- although it took some more time to work out some of the problems associated with its unique configuration."
Air Force Chief of Staff Allen disclosed recently that last year only seven out of 15 larger-scale, tactical Air Force deployments had actually taken place. (A visitor to Langley Air Force Base, Va., recently discovered that, to meet more forward requirements in the state of global readiness the Air Force now must maintain, only about half of the permanently based fighters were in a state to fly.)
Rocketing fuel costs, including a more than 100 percent increase in jet fuel prices since the first of this year, are another severe constraint on the Air Force, with a requirement for several billion dollars in supplemental fuel costs in the coming year. "The percentage of our total operations and maintenance fund going for fuel has risen tremendously," says General Mathis.
"So while we have cut back as far as we can cut on flying hours, the fuel cost has gone way up. It's a larger percentage of what we are spending for operations and maintenance -- a $36 millionm increase every time we get a 1-cent fuel price rise."
All the Air Force personnel, from airman to four-star general, with whom this reporter was able to speak, agreed on one thing: The Air Force's main problem in maintaining its readiness is the same as the other uniformed-services: retaining trained people.
More and more, trained men and women are lured into civilian life by the sure promise of higher pay and the comforts that military service does not offer -- especially as airline pilots, crewmen, or in ground maintenance and the ever more complex science and profession of avionics, the delicate instrumentation of modern jet aircraft.
The Air Force, as its leaders say repeatedly, has trained top-quality pilots, "just as fine as we require," in General Mathis's words. "The same is true of junior maintenance people, though we do have a problem in getting engineers."
"As to pilots, and to some extent navigators, over the past few years, whereas we used to retain a large fraction of those for at least 20-year careers ," General Mathis said, "today it looks as though we're losing about 70 percent by the 11th year. If you get into strategic airlift it's over 80 percent. . . . Their skills are those of an airline pilot, of course."
Air Force figures show that only about 30 percent of fighter pilots are lost. One of them explained, "It's a different type of flying, an interesting type. People who fly fighters generally enjoy what they're doing. . . . But we are losing too many of them, too."
One factor, explained a senior West Coast flying officer, is "the wives."
"When there's a differential of several thousand dollars between what you earn in the service, and what you can earn outside in airlines or aerospace industries," he continues, "a wife, especially if she's working [one estimate is that 70 percent of Air Force wives do work], she'll push her husband to take that fat civilian job, if he isn't already so inclined."
"When I was with the Tactical Air Command," recalls General Mathis, "we interviewed a number of young men who were getting out of the service to find out why. These people were involved in the maintenance of the avionics test equipment of the F-15 airplane, a very critical skill. We had about 56 in a row that got out. I asked a young captain to interview the people that he could get hold of, and he found 25 of them to interview.
"Their prime reason was economic. They were E-4s and E-5s, the equivalent to the old buck sergeant, with a total income around $10,000 or $11,000 a year. The average [civilian] salary of these 25 people was about $20,000 a year" when they got out.
The Air Force leadership endorses the Nunn-Warner amendment, now before Congress, as a step toward signaling USAF personnel that Congress and the nation do care about their plight. It provides, among other things, better travel and housing allowances and a 25 percent increase in flight pay (though Pentagon manpower chief Robert Pirie advocates a 50 percent flight pay hike).
"The housing allowance question is especially critical," observes General Mathis. "Right now, if you have to live in Del Rio, Texas, you get the same housing allowance as someone who lives in Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, Calif. The costs are quite different, and that's a big problem."
As one young officer at MacDill Air Force Base explained, the so-called "8 -to-5 Air Force" means that Air Force men and women have to take outside jobs to make ends meet.
"This," acknowledges General Mathis, does tax readiness. "A crew chief I heard about -- perhaps he was hypothetical -- who works on a $15 million airplane, works hard and long all day. But at 5 o'clock he's gone. He has, in fact, gone to the commissary to bag groceries. His pilot comes over to buy groceries at the commissary. He comes out of the commissary and has this crew chief carry these groceries to the car, and then gets a tip from the pilot. Isn't that demeaning?"
The commissary system, according to Pentagon figures, now is taking in about personnel are notified on each base that food stamps are among the services available, if they qualify and need them -- although many people in the Air Force, as in other services, are ashamed to have people know that they're on food stamps.
The conventional Air Force of the 1980s, said one officer high in the logistics branch here, "is a superb outfit, staffed with trained and dedicated men and women, with the best airplanes in the world. It cannot stay that way indefinitely unless there is a whole new attitude toward compensating its people."