Air Force mandate -- airlift: But does it pack the muscle for the job?
"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.