Budget uncertainty in the Congress has kept the Boeing C-17 line open for years

Few days ago, I read in the weekly Aviation Week the following article, Boeing Blames Budget Uncertainty For C-17 Line Closure Timing, where Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, is quoted saying:

“… you quickly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue to spend money to keep that line open, given all of the other budget constraints. So, the fact that we are facing sequestration and uncertainty in the budget drove the timing of our decision.”

If anything, I would say the contrary: budget uncertainty in the Congress is what has kept the Boeing C-17 line open for the last years (coupled with international sales).

To understand that, it is important to remember that the C-17 program initially called for the acquisition of 120 aircraft. This number was later increased to 180 aircraft, and that the US Air Force had been requesting in its yearly budget requests zero aircraft per year since long ago. Only maneuvers in the Congress had been including in the final Defense Budget more C-17 units until the final 223 which were delivered (the last one in September 2013).

You can see an explanation of the plays that have taken place for years in the Congress in this article from 2009 in Business Week (“It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Pork!“):

The C-17 Globemaster offers one illustration of successful opposition to the Obama-Gates push for control of weapons spending. C-17s are large cargo planes produced by Boeing that cost $250 million apiece. They have been used heavily since 1993 to transport troops, tanks, and supplies. Every year since 2006, the Pentagon has said that it has enough C-17s. And every year, Congress overrules the military and authorizes funds for additional planes. In October the Senate approved $2.5 billion in the 2010 budget for 10 more C-17s, which would bring the fleet to 215.

[…]

But the real reason Congress wants more of them has little to do with military need. Boeing has built the C-17’s industrial base for political survivability.

The company has spread manufacturing across no fewer than 43 states. C-17 production lines employ more than 30,000 workers, many of them relatively well paid by factory-wage standards. Many of those jobs would be at risk if C-17 work ground to a halt.

The White House understands the challenge. “The impulse in Washington is to protect jobs back home, building things we don’t need at a cost we can’t afford,” President Obama said in August in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix. “The special interests, contractors, and entrenched lobbyists—they’re invested in the status quo, and they’re putting up a fight.”

[…]

Bond, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and 16 colleagues began circulating a letter in April urging members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to keep funding the plane despite clearly stated objections from the White House and Pentagon. In California, C-17 production employs 5,000 workers at a final assembly plant in Long Beach.

[…]

These plays by politicians to try to keep the line open despite of the military not needing more aircraft continue to exist, as a few days ago we could read about a new plan: C-17 swap, to exchange older C-17s for new ones! (while the “old” ones have only about 20 years today possibly not having logged more  flight hours than two-thirds of their life).

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