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Research Questions

  1. Which modernization paths will be the most cost-effective for the Air Force's C-5, C-17, C-130, and KC-135 fleets?
  2. Which avionics upgrade programs are ongoing or planned for these fleets, and what is the timeline for their completion?
  3. How does the cost of these programs compare to the costs of noncompliance with airspace modernization mandates (e.g., denial of access, decreased fuel-efficiency)?
  4. To what extent will noncompliance affect these fleets' wartime missions?

Legal mandates for airspace modernization, certification requirements, and minimum aircraft capability and equipment standards aim to improve the efficiency and safety of air traffic, particularly within the world's busiest airspace. Mandates drive changes in technical and operational standards, but they can also deny access to premium altitudes, routing, and even airports for noncompliant aircraft. Aircraft modernization ensures continued access to fuel-efficient cruising altitudes and congested airspace, but these future benefits require an upfront investment in avionics upgrade programs. In a fiscally constrained environment, such decisions must take into account the quantifiable future costs that would be avoided by upgrades, weighed against the costs of modernization. Building on 2009 RAND work examining the cost-effectiveness of modernizing the U.S. Air Force's KC-10 aerial refueling tanker, this study extended the analysis to the C-5, C-17, C-130, and KC-135 fleets, evaluating the cost-effectiveness of modernizing these aircraft for compliance with forthcoming communication, navigation, and surveillance/air traffic management mandates. It found that, overall, the Air Force operates these aircraft in regions where some important future mandates will not be met without modernization, but the cost-effectiveness of upgrades depends to a great extent on fuel prices and the characteristics of missions conducted by each aircraft type.

Key Findings

Planned Avionics Modernization Programs for Large Mobility Aircraft Are Cost-Effective

  • The study found that ADS-B Out avionics upgrade programs for the C-5, C-17, and KC-135 fleets will net nearly $6 billion in cost avoidance over the remaining service lives of these aircraft.
  • Similar modernization of the C-130 will be cost-effective only if the upgrade can be accomplished for no more than $1.5 million for the C-130H and $1.3 million for the C-130J or if fuel prices increase to $3.50 or $4.00 per gallon, respectively.
  • Ongoing modernization programs are cost-effective for the C-5 and C-17. The C-130H's program is not cost-effective. The cost-effectiveness of ongoing C-130J modernization depends to a great extent on fuel prices.

The Air Force's Wartime Deployment of These Fleets Would, in Many Cases, Be Affected by Noncompliance with Forthcoming Mandates

  • Specifically, the C-5 and C-17 would be less effective in their wartime missions unless current modernization programs were completed and ADS-B Out modernization was completed prior to 2020, when the mandate for this surveillance capability takes effect in the United States.
  • C-130 wartime missions would not be affected, and the fully compliant KC-135 would also maintain its current level of wartime effectiveness.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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