Air Mobility’s Left Tackle – The C-5M Super Galaxy

Feb 12, 2024 | DTJ Online

By Bruce Busler, Director, USTRANSCOM  Joint Distribution Process Analysis Center 

Most casual sports fans who watch American football marvel at the quarterback who can run and throw to keep his team moving forward, or the wide receiver who swiftly outpaces the backfield and the capable running back who can plow through the line and cut with agility to avoid defenders. However, anyone who really knows football and can see across the entire field of play will acknowledge one of the most crucial positions is the offensive line’s left tackle. His work is often not in the camera’s view or is overlooked by those myopically watching the football, but his heavy effort on the line is what allows the offense to produce results and avoid crippling impacts that would undermine the team’s effort. You see, the left tackle has become one of the most valuable players on a team’s roster because he protects the quarterback’s blind side allowing effective passing and run plays to gain advantage without being hampered. The attributes of a capable left tackle require a large stature and exceptional strength to do his job well, and top tier left tackles command a premium salary to fill the team’s critical position.

The air mobility equivalent of the left tackle is the C-5M Super Galaxy, the largest aircraft in the US military’s inventory.

The air mobility equivalent of the left tackle is the C-5M Super Galaxy, the largest aircraft in the US military’s inventory. The C-5M is an updated version of the original C-5 modernized by Lockheed Martin with the first C-5M flight in 2010 and the last of 52 C-5Ms delivered in 2018. The upgrade included an Avionics Modernization Program (AMP), and Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP) and was intended to allow the C-5 Galaxy fleet to remain in service at least until 2040.

C-5M Super Galaxy Takeoff

C-5M Super Galaxy Takeoff (US Airforce photo)

The improved C-5Ms performance is impressive and it has set 89 world aeronautical records to date. The C-5M’s four GE CF6-80C2 turbofan engines each develop 50,580 pounds of thrust allowing the aircraft to operate with 22% more thrust, 30% shorter takeoff roll, and 58% higher rate of climb than the original C-5A/B. It can haul 120,000 pounds more than 5.500 miles the distance from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, or Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to Yokota Air Base in Japan without refueling. Without cargo, that range is more than 8,000 miles. The C-5M provides 21% of the Department of Defense’s organic strategic airlift capacity and delivers oversized cargo that encompasses many critical warfighting capabilities for delivery to airfields in the combat area of operations. One Department of Defense historian described the C-5 as being as long as a football field and as tall as a six-story building.” Its vast cargo compartment “is comparable to an eight-lane bowling alley.” It has twice the cargo capacity of a C-17 and can kneel to efficiently load large equipment from either the nose or the tail. In the Indo-Pacific, the C-17 will likely be used for a variety of missions beyond strategic airlift to include onward movement of forces and sustainment from transload locations and intra-theater lift over the “last tactical 1,000 miles.”

C-5M undergoing depot-level maintenance at Robins AFB, Georgia (US Air Force photo by Joseph Mather).

The C-5M will have to continue to carry the brunt of the strategic airlift effort for movement of large combat systems and bulky aviation support equipment, as well as priority munitions and time-sensitive sustainment to allow nimble C-17s to operate strategically and fluidly over extended intra-theater mission areas best suited to that platform. This was illustrated recently, in the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the movement of 79,000 people from Kabul airport on C-17 in August 2021, which gained world-wide attention for the high-intensity operations in Afghanistan. What was veiled in the background was the C-5M fleet doubled their normal air-lift contributions taking on much of the residual airlift workload globally, allowing the C-17 to focus intensely on the mission area that was best matched to that aircraft.

Again, in the effort to support Israel and operations in the Middle East in the Fall of 2023, C-17s were prominent in the movement of critical materials and humanitarian support where the C-17 was the most suitable platform for those missions. What was unseen was the increased use of C-5Ms to minimize the “broken glass” of delayed and deferred global airlift missions in the aftermath of injecting high-priority, short notice demands into an already constrained Defense Transportation System. When put to the test under these surge conditions in 2023, the C-5M fleet doubled the number of normal daily missions and the operational reliability actually improved in terms of required post-mission maintenance corrections. The challenge, therefore, is the perception of frequently broken aircraft coupled with episodic accounts of C-5M lack of reliability confounded with the trials of supplying and maintaining a relatively small fleet of 52 aircraft.

C-17 loading

C-17 loading evacuees from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on Aug. 24, 2021 (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen).

While strategic airlift at current levels is clearly a necessary element in the power projection context, it is evident the C-5M is operating with some injuries that undermines its ability to be a reliable player on the strategic mobility team. It is a big, complex aircraft and, like the left tackle, is oversize in its impact but also the necessary maintenance and depot-level repair to keep it in the air. Recent readiness is not where US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) needs the C-5M to be as an integral player on the strategic airlift team. C-5M aircraft fleet availability is under 40%, reflecting extended depot workflows that exceeded two-years and exhibits a mission capable rate hovering around 50%. Recent improvements in depot flow have reduced the time C-5Ms are unavailable and the Air Force’s recent addition of a third depot line should continue to improve availability. Air Mobility Command has initiated a “Drive on 55” effort to larger improved aircraft availability rates across the fleet within the next two years to a 55% level or better, which will significantly enhance confidence in the C-5M’s experienced reliability. The point being the C-5M fleet can – and must – perform at levels necessary to provide the responsive heavy-lift capability inherent in the National Defense Strategy demands, it just needs targeted investments and a reinvigorated sustainment approach to fully realize its potential. When we put the C-5M to the test and fly it on a regular basis it performs, and that should provide confidence that the necessities required to keep it healthy are not only prudent, but wise investments.

Some have opined that the C-5M, which underwent a $10B investment completed just five years ago to make it last to 2040, should be retired as an expensive and troubled weapon system. Those that know the aircraft have confidence it can continue to perform at levels necessary to last another 20 years, but it will require some Weapon System Sustainment investment and use of prudent practices such as Condition-Based Maintenance, with robust sustainment engineering to target those sub-systems that are placing drag on the aircraft’s readiness. The reality is we can’t afford to not have the C-5M as part of the strategic airlift mix. The long-distance, high-velocity effort to deploy and sustain joint forces for a potential Indo-Pacific conflict requires all the strategic airlift we can produce across a contested battlespace that is twice the airlift cycle time than that of a European scenario. Equally important, to maximize the flexibility of the entire airlift fleet, we need the C-5M to hold the line on the strategic airlift effort to use C-17s across a range of emerging missions.

Fiscal reality indicates that constraints on availability of significant resources necessary to develop a Next Generation Airlift aircraft, or C-X, will limit our ability to replace the C-5M until at least the 2040s, which is the timeframe targeted in the C-5M AMP/RERP investments to keep this workhorse contributing to the strategic airlift mission. Great football teams realize the contributions of players in the trenches, like the left tackle, are necessary to win football games and especially win in the post-season when it counts. USTRANSCOM needs the C-5M to be an effective member of the mobility team and its contribution, when we need it the most, will be consequential and the game-plan now in motion will keep it healthy with the readiness inherent in this mighty airlifter over the next decades. DTJ



Bruce Busler is the Director of USTRANSCOM’s Joint Distribution Process Analysis Center and was the Vice Wing Commander at Dover AFB, Delaware, where he flew the C-5A/B.





Share This