Barack Obama came to office promising to "fundamentally transform" America. As President, he has done so with most obvious and dramatic effect in the government's take-over of more and more of the private sector of the U.S. economy. Almost entirely lost in the hue-and-cry precipitated by such actions as the stimulus bill, ObamaCare, student loans and financial "reform," however, are Obama initiatives that threaten an arguably even more momentous transformation: Changing the United States from "the world's sole superpower" to a nation that may require the permission, or at least the help, of others to project power and defend its interests around the globe.
The backbone of America's power-projection capability is its ability to get to a fight "the firstest with the mostest." In today's world, that requires two things: airlift and aerial refueling. Currently, the United States has an unmatched ability rapidly to move heavy military equipment by air around the world. But a mainstay of our airlift fleet is made up of the 59 C-5As that are over 40 years old. Twenty-two of these huge planes are expected to be retired in the near future. At present, it seems likely the rest will soon follow as they become prohibitively costly to maintain and operate.
The only American candidate for replacing the loss in rapid transport capacity associated with sending the C-5As to the boneyard is the C-17, a substantially smaller but modern and highly capable strategic airlifter. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is determined to prevent Congress from approving any more production of C-17s under threat of veto if lawmakers do as they have in the past and put in unrequested funds for additional airlifters.
Since India is expected to place an order for ten C-17s within the next six months, the U.S. industrial base for heavy airlifters could theoretically be maintained for several more years. But without an additional order of five more C-17s for the American armed forces in 2011, there would be a gap in production. This would, at best, entail a suspension and restart that would cost an estimated $6 billion. More likely, reopening the line would prove not to be an option due to the loss of suppliers and skilled workers during the hiatus.
In the event the United States does allow its heavy airlift industrial base to disappear, it would have only two alternatives to simply accepting a dramatically reduced ability to bring U.S. forces to bear - whether for combat purposes or those associated with humanitarian and disaster relief: Rely upon European or Russian suppliers to make up the shortfall.
Frank Gaffney Jr. is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and author of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World .
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