The hot button topic of fielding a replacement for the USAF’s 20-year-old VC-25A fleet has appeared once again in the Pentagon’s aviation plans. During a time of startling fiscal uncertainty, where the White House has chastised the use of private jets by corporations to no end, allocating billions of dollars to replace the pampered flying White Houses America already owns seems fairly, well to put it best, tone-deaf.
Many factors go into evaluating the need for a new Presidential airlift fleet. The VC-25A is based on a late-model 747-200. The VC-25A, based on the late 1970′s vintage 747-200, was really part of the first generation of 747s, albeit with motor upgrades and other newer (at the time) systems. At the time of their procurement, America’s dawn of the jet age fleet of vintage VC-137s was aging and simply not large enough to accommodate an ever more “networked’ White House. Although the 747 airframe was an ideal candidate for the future Air Force One, many were concerned that the USAF was buying “old technology” by not waiting a short period of time to field the larger and updated -400 version of the famed Jumbo Jet. Regardless of this advice, the Reagan Administration pushed forward with acquiring two VC-25As based on the older 747-200 design, and by the late 1980′s Boeing was assembling America’s new flying pride and joy up at their Everett Washington plant.
Today the VC-25s are some two decades old, and under the DoD’s current plans they would be replaced all most certainly with the 747-800i by the beginning of the 2020′s. This means the VC-25As will be 30 or so years old once they are drawn out of front-line service. Although not young by any means, these aircraft will still be fairly adolescent when it comes to 747 flying hours and quality of maintenance. The VC-25 does not fly near the frequency or yearly hours of an airline or cargo 747. Further they are meticulously maintained throughout their careers as they carry the most special of cargo. In other words, I find it hard to believe that the current fleet of presidential flyers will be anywhere near the end of their service lives when they are replaced in what will be a very expensive fashion.
No matter how well you maintain an aircraft, as they age more things need to be done to them in order to keep them in the air. This results in more hours of maintenance per flight hour which affects availability and cost of operation. I can understand that the current aging VC-25 fleet is being tougher to manage in relation to the President’s almost every other day use of the aircraft (172 times in 2010 alone, a non Presidential campaign year!!!). The jets need downtime and often the aircraft are flown together, especially overseas, as spares or alternative egress aircraft. Yet the USAF wants three new aircraft to replace the two VC-25s currently on hand. This is counterintuitive as an argument because the main reason you would want to replace two aging aircraft is to have a more manageable fleet of fresher aircraft. Instead, by requiring three brand new jets to replace two aging ones the DoD is either saying that currently two aircraft are not getting the job done, or they are saying that they want more jets to make their lives easier and so that they can simply have more aircraft. Sadly this is the wrong way to go about getting what some see as a luxury during these tough economic times.
If the USAF is having a very hard time keeping aircraft available for the President’s almost constant use than what should happen to solve this issue is the following: An audit should be done on the usage of the presidential executive fleet, as well as all other Special Air Mission (SAM) aircraft operated by the 89th Airlift Wing, who fly the majority of the Andrews AFB based executive transports including the C-20, C-32, C-37, C-40 and the C-25. From this audit we can find out exactly who is using these aircraft and for what. If we find that these aircraft are being used on non-essential missions than maybe its time that we curtail use of these aircraft for things such as vacations or non-diplomatic missions. Further, we should look at exactly what type aircraft are being used for what mission in relation to their users. Does the First Lady need a C-32 or a C-40 to fly to LA for a weekend vacation? Why not use a more efficient Gulfstream sized C-37 and have all non-essential personnel (if there are truly any others) fly commercial. Further, if some limitations on the use of Air Force One for the President are not put into place then the aircraft will continue to be used more and for less important missions. Maybe flying the C-32 (often known as Air Force Two and based on 757 airliner) instead of the VC-25 domestically for many missions would be both more cost-effective and take the pressure off the VC-25 fleet, thus lengthening it’s service life. If these aircraft require communications and further defensive countermeasures upgrades to be effective in that role than do so as that is much more cost-effective than buying a new 747-800! Once this study has been completed present it to Congress for review and see if some kind of reasonable limitations cannot be put into effect to preserve airframes and lower operating costs.
Secondly, the USAF should put forward a comprehensive plan for replacing the VC-25 and a case as why they need to do so. Let the American people and the press have access to a declassified version of this dossier so that such an expense can be justified. For instance, the USAF states that the VC-25 is having trouble providing enough electricity for all the special systems onboard. This seems to be a stupid reason for replacing a perfectly good airframe. Other aircraft derived from commercial aircraft with less powerful stock electrical systems and high power radars and hundreds of square feet of electronics have been modified to handle high power demands. That is like selling your car because it needs a new alternator. This type of frivolous justification is what gets the USAF in trouble in the first place. Further, since they now require three brand new aircraft to do what a pair of two decade old aircraft are currently doing, then just purchase a single 747-800i outfitted as Air Force One to begin with and stretch the existing two VC-25′s life as long as possible. This way the DoD will not have to gather up billions for a blanket buy of multiple aircraft, they can introduce one, work out the kinks, and when the most problematic VC-25 is worn out just buy another one. By doing it this way the USAF can get a brand new aircraft to prove it’s worth before buying more, take the pressure off of the middle-aged VC-25 fleet, and spread out procurement of all three replacements over a much longer period. Everyone wins, including the tax payer.
The DoD has lost repeatedly by going after “want it all right now” solutions to very expensive problems. By introducing a single new Presidential transport in the near term and then phasing in two other examples over the longest period possible would be the right answer at the right time. Further, utilizing not just the Presidential airlift fleet, but the whole Special Air Mission fleet more wisely would save money and airframe life over the long run. Simply put, its hard to comprehend why that corporations in major debt who understand the great benefits of private air travel are chastised for owning and operating time-saving private jets while the bankrupt government’s fleet of lush VIP air taxis only grows larger and gets more heavily used.