Lockheed C-5 transport once again tries to edge out its competition by a nose

At Lockheed's vast indoor city of multistory scaffolding and lights here, more than 6,000 people work at piecing together C-5 transports, behemoths whose tail stabilizers stand six stories high. A plane with a history of problems, Lockheed's C-5 is once again embroiled in a battle for survival as the Air Force seeks to upgrade its airlift capability. It's competitor: McDonnell Douglas's C-17.

The C-5 was designed and built during the the mid-1960s. It remains the largest airplane in the free world. The 81 planes the Air Force purchased then came in with more than $2 billion in cost overruns and required $1.4 billion in adaptions to strengthen weak wings. The Pentagon converted its fixed-price contract for the planes into a ``cost plus'' contract in order to help Lockheed avert bankruptcy.

In the late 1970s, the Pentagon identified what it considered to be a crucial gap in its airlift capacity. It needed, it said, both strategic airlift capacity to bring forces into distant battle theaters and tactical airlift to haul equipment close to the battlefield.

The C-17 was designed in 1979, primarily as a strategic airlifter, at a time when the Pentagon was concerned about having the proper kind of airlift capacity for its new Rapid Deployment Force. C-17s are designed to land at smaller, more austere airfields than the C-5s. Although the C-5 can carry more than the C-17, the smaller plane can carry the same kinds of tanks and helicopters that the C-5 can haul.

The C-17 won the Air Force's 1981 competition for adding airlift to its fleet. But that didn't settle the matter. Lockheed came back with an unsolicited offer, and after a prodigious lobbying effort, won the contract in 1982.

Now, as Lockheed is filling its '82 order of 50 C-5s, the Air Force is set to flesh out its airlift capacity with the C-17.

McDonnell Douglas is beginning to set up its tooling and mockups for building 210 C-17s. The Air Force must decide on whether to buy them by this October.

But Lockheed has come back in another attempt to nose out the C-17. The company again made an unsolicited offer in January to build another 12 to 24C-5s in place of the McDonnell Douglas plane. The Air Force rejected the offer, but the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law is likely to force the Pentagon to look over its options again.

As in 1982, the massive C-5's advantage is not necessarily its intrinsic merit, but rather that it is there. In '82 the C-5 won because it was already in production; new deliveries could begin in a relatively short three years. Now, the C-5 appears to be getting another shot, because it is cheaper to add more orders that keep the production lines going than to start production of new C-17s.

Some military analysts, such as Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, are pushing for more C-5s.

He says he hopes the Air Force spurns the C-17 once again, not because it is less capable than the C-5, but because the C-17 would replace both the larger C-5 and smaller tactical airlifters such as McDonnell Douglas KC-10s.

Filling the immediate airlift gap with C-5s and KC-10s, both of which are already in production, says Dr. Holmes, would cost 5 percent less over the planes' life cycle than using C-17s.

The cost of the C-17 program, he says, will wind up killing any prospect of developing an advanced tactical airlifter.

Further, the C-17's ability to land and maneuver at airfields close to the action may be moot, says Holmes, because a C-17 is still worth nearly $100 million a copy. ``Frankly, I don't expect the Air Force to risk a C-17 at a forward airfield the way they say they would,'' he says.

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