The C-17 has been in production for 25 years, with 279 Globemasters emerging from Boeing's (and once McDonnell Douglas') historic Long Beach factory. Yesterday, the final aircraft had its wings mated to its massive fuselage, ending not just the production run of the C-17, but the 72-year-old plant that produced it.
Although the quad-engine transport found some export success later in its production life – with Canada, Australia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, India, and NATO's heavy lift wing receiving copies – the demand for large transport aircraft has softened as defense budgets around the globe retract. Add in the fact that out-sized cargo transport can be purchased by the hour from commercial vendors, including operators that fly the larger Soviet-designed An-124, and the high operating and sustainment costs of owning the C-17 begin to look like a waste.
When it comes to the USAF, the C-17 may be a victim of its own success. The jet is so effective at its job that more units aren't required to "take up the slack" for the USAF's aging transport fleet.
In many ways, the C-17 was the perfect aircraft for the last 15 years of conflict in the Middle East, with its ability to take large loads into and out of combat zones, even on short and less than perfect runways. But that capability came at the price of high-fuel usage while cruising.
Still, the C-17 remains one of the most versatile aircraft in the USAF's inventory. And with very early C-17s already being retired, what could replace it when its service life ends?
Aircraft like the Airbus A400M Atlas have similar capabilities when it comes to the C-17's skills at getting in and out of small and semi-prepared airfields, but it doesn't have the Globemaster's heavy lifting capabilities, speed or massive cargo hold.
Currently, there is no Western replacement for an aircraft that can carry an Abrams tank into a war zone on one day and the Secretary of Defense the next. Some think a mixed fleet of 747-8Fs and A400Ms could largely do the C-17s job more economically, but there's no guarantee the 747-8F will be in production for all that long. It also doesn't ahve the C-17's ramp, which makes loading and unloading easier when the necessary infrastructure isn't available.
Maybe an upgraded An-124 Condor, with western engines and a high degree of automation, could replace a portion of the C-17 fleet and all of the C-5 fleet, with C-130XLs or A-400Ms filling the tactical airlift gap left by the C-17.
That kind off-the-shelf solution seems enticing, but considering current relations with Russia, such a scheme may not be feasible in the future. Although Ukraine, where the An-124 has been built, could offer the design without Moscow's approval.
Still, that's not the kind of situation buyers want to deal with when spending hundreds of millions of dollars per aircraft and betting on its strategic airlift abilities in the future. Not to mention, having the USAF buy and operate a Soviet-originated design would be truly unprecedented.
This conundrum is precisely why many have called for the subsidization of the C-17 line and the improvement on the design to keep it viable for years to come. In some ways, it's already happened. Congress ordered more C-17s than the USAF asked for, but doing so any more, under the tightening budget aftermath of sequestration, may taste too much like pork even for Congress's liking.
By the 2030s much of the C-17 fleet will be approaching the end of its planned service life, while a portion of the C-5 fleet will remain in service past 2040. It's almost guaranteed that the C-17 will have its service life extended, but exactly how long an extension is plausible is open to debate. Maybe a new airlifter, potentially a stealthy one capable of a range of other missions, will take its place. Something along the lines of the Senior Citizen/Speed Agile concept is possible, and with that in mind, maybe the C-17s replacement – or at least a partial and more clandestine one – has already flown in secret.
Regardless of the possibilities of exotic stealth transports or an ex-Soviet aircraft's export potential taking the C-17's place, America will tread blindly into a new reality where it doesn't have a strategic airlifter in production. The C-17 has been the backbone of America's global presence, rapid reach, and ability to affect everything from humanitarian aid and natural disaster situations in the Caribbean to peer state warfare in the vastness of the Pacific.
In the process, another one of America's iconic aviation production facilities, one that has punched out over 15,000 aircraft from World War II on, filled with over 2,000 highly skilled workers who have built an fantastic product for America and our allies, will close once and for all.
Then again, we could always buy an inferior knock-off from China...
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com