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Project on Government Oversight




Fighting with Failures Series: Case Studies of How the Pentagon Buys Weapons; C-17 Airlifter

April 20, 2001 


The C-17 is a four-engine cargo jet designed for intercontinental airlift of large "outsize" payloads to short landing strips in remote areas of the world.

Short Cuts on the Way to Acquisition:

In December of 1993, spurred by concerns about the C-17's growing cost and continuing technical problems, the Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced the program would be halted at 40 aircraft, pending further review. On the eve of a Defense Acquisition Board's (DAB) review to determine the C-17's fate, the Air Force and the C-17's contractor, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), revised a planned reliability, maintainability, and availability (RM&A) evaluation of the C-17, making it less demanding. This revised evaluation played a central role in the DAB's decision to continue C-17 procurement.

  • According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), this "less demanding RM&A evaluation might have masked reliability and maintainability problems and made the evaluation a less reliable source of information for the C-17 full-rate production decision." The evaluation fell short:
  • The evaluation failed to maintain the proper proportional mix of missions to flying hours, resulting in less stress on the aircraft than originally intended. Longer missions placed less stress on an aircraft than the intended shorter ones. The GAO estimates that the Air Force would have needed to fly an additional 90 missions in order to maintain the proper proportion of flights to flying hours.
  • By reducing the number of wartime drops from 50 to 4, a reduction of 90 percent.
  • By having the aircraft fly payloads that averaged less than one-half the weight projected in contract specifications.


  • Failing to rigorously test the C-17 before full-rate production has resulted in costly and extensive continued development and modification of already manufactured planes. According to the GAO, while production costs have decreased, costs for additional research and development, testing, and modifications after production have increased the cost by $2.2 billion.
  • Taking into account wartime landing requirements, including minimum runway strength, the C-17 falls well short of Air Force claims to have increased United States military access to 6,400 more airfields worldwide. In actuality, the C-17 increases access by only 1,400 airfields, only 3 of which are likely be used by the C-17 in the major regional continency scenarios.
  • A wet airfield drastically limits, if not denies, the C-17's ability to land on small, austere airfields with runways generally less than 4,000 feet in length. When transporting an average payload of 90,000 lbs. and a fuel tank 61.3 percent full, the C-17 requires 6,250 feet to land and 5,700 feet to take off on a wet airfield.
  • Air turbulence created by the C-17's wake when flying in close formation can cause parachutes to oscillate, partially deflate, or collapse, putting paratroopers at risk of injury and death. Flying in close formation is key to performing a mass, personnel airdrop. The army has yet to approve mass personnel airdrops from C-17's flying in close formation.
  • The C-17 does not meet exit rate requirements when dropping both paratroopers and equipment bundles. It cannot drop the required 102 paratroopers and 8 equipment bundles in a single pass over an average size drop zone. To complete a personnel equipment drop the C-17 must either reduce the number of paratroopers dropped or pass over the drop zone a second time.
  • Unable to adequately fulfill its aeromedical airlift role, officials have attempted to modify the C-17's aeromedical evacuation requirement. The C-17 is only capable of moving 36 patients, 12 short of the Army's requirement to move 48 in an aeromedical evacuation. The Air Military Command Commander has recommended that the C-17 aeromedical evacuation requirement be changed to 36 from 48 patient litters, thereby mirroring the C-17's capabilities.
  • Since its inception the C-17 has not met the Air Force's Fully Mission Capable Rate requirement. Also, the C-17's Fully Mission Capable Rate, the percentage of time the aircraft can perform all its assigned missions, fell well below the Air Force's 77.5 percent standard, oscillating between 38 percent and 64 percent.
  • Total Number of Aircraft: 134; Total Program Cost: $45.043 billion; Average Unit Cost: $232 million.

POGO's Fighting with Failures Series documents Pentagon shortcuts in testing and operational requirements that have resulted in weapons that do not work, that waste taxpayer dollars, or that are not suitable for combat.

Sources: BC-17X Public/Private Acquisition Strategy: Request For Information, United States Air Force and The Boeing Company, December 8, 2000; C-17 Aircraft: Cost And Performance Issues, GAO/NSIAD-95-26, January 1995; Military Airlift: Options Exist for Meeting Requirements While Acquiring Fewer C-17s, GAO/NSIAD-97-38, February 1997; Fiscal Year 2000 Annual Report, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, March 2001; C-17 Globemaster: Support of Operation Joint Endeavor, GAO/NSIAD-97-50, February 1997; C-17 Airframe Specifications, Boeing Company; C-17 Aircraft: RM&A Evaluation Less Demanding Than Initially Planned, GAO/NSIAD-96-126, July 1996.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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