Cover: Reducing Long-Term Costs While Preserving a Robust Strategic Airlift Fleet

Reducing Long-Term Costs While Preserving a Robust Strategic Airlift Fleet

Options for the Current Fleet and Next-Generation Aircraft

Published Jan 31, 2013

by Christopher A. Mouton, David T. Orletsky, Michael Kennedy, Fred Timson


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Research Questions

  1. What alternatives are available for recapitalizing the current intertheater airlift fleet as it ages over the next several decades?
  2. Which options are the most cost-effective?

The current strategic airlift fleet will be reaching the end of its service life in the next few decades, which has raised concerns about the cost and possible budget spike that would result from the need to recapitalize that fleet. This monograph presents the results of a cost-effectiveness analysis to determine the best way to recapitalize the USAF intertheater (strategic) airlift fleet. The authors examined a broad range of aircraft alternatives, including existing and emerging technologies, and permutations of USAF plans for the current fleet with a view to meeting projected requirements while minimizing life-cycle costs and smoothing out spending peaks. The expected demand for airlift was modeled against the capabilities of each alternative aircraft to form a set of alternative fleet compositions to meet that demand. The authors then estimated the cost for each of the options to determine those that were the most cost-effective. The most cost-effective option involved a highly advanced conceptual design, which represents significant risk. The next most cost-effective options hedge this risk by starting with commercial derivatives as aircraft retire, followed later by a highly advanced aircraft.

Key Findings

For the Current Fleet, Several Options Are Cost-Effective

  • Continuing the Reliability Enhancement and Reengine Program for all the C-5Bs, making them C-5Ms, is cost-effective.
  • Doing the same to some of the C-5As is also cost-effective, assuming the resulting availability is the same.
  • A C-17 service-life extension program costing less than $35 million to $95 million would be cost-effective, depending on the follow-on aircraft option that is chosen and available.

For the Follow-On Fleet, the Most Cost-Effective Option Relies on a Conceptual Design, but Hedges Are Available

  • A highly advanced conceptual design blended-wing body aircraft is the most cost-effective option, but carries technological risk.
  • The next most cost-effective option would be procurement of a commercial-derivative aircraft for bulk cargo followed by later procurement of an outsize and oversize-capable aircraft.
  • A mixed fleet of a commercial-derivative aircraft followed by a new oversize and outsize-capable military airlifter hedges against technological risk.


  • Although an advanced technology aircraft may be the most cost-effective option to recapitalize the strategic airlift fleet, it also carries significant technological risk. Therefore, procurement of a commercial derivative airlifter for bulk cargo, followed later by procurement of a new design outsize-oversize airlifter is recommended. This option is both cost-effective and minimizes annual budgetary spikes.

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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