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Lt. Gen. Bill Welser, right, commander of the 18th Air Force, talks with Larry Jecklin, left, the 726th Air Mobility Squadron transfer program manager, during a tour at Spangdahlem Air Base on Thursday. Welser visited Spangdahlem on the way to the Middle East.

Lt. Gen. Bill Welser, right, commander of the 18th Air Force, talks with Larry Jecklin, left, the 726th Air Mobility Squadron transfer program manager, during a tour at Spangdahlem Air Base on Thursday. Welser visited Spangdahlem on the way to the Middle East. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — The Air Force must boost its fleet of cargo and tanker planes to continue providing U.S. troops across the globe the airlift they need, a top general said Thursday.

The war on terrorism and operations around the world have taken a heavy toll on the planes, forcing maintenance crews to work hard to keep the fleet flying, said Lt. Gen. Bill Welser, commander of the 18th Air Force, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. However, the service will need to buy more aircraft to maintain the breakneck pace, which isn’t expected to let up any time soon.

“Literally, I could fill all of the airplanes that I have every day with the customers that we have,” Welser said. “And if you see the missions that we’re flying around the world, you’d see that we could use more capability.”

Welser, who oversees the operations side of Air Mobility Command, made his comments after visiting Germany on Thursday before heading to the Middle East to meet airmen supporting the war on terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the military airlift operation has been busy moving troops and cargo. As of March 14, the Air Mobility Command has flown nearly 40,000 missions, moved 2.3 million troops and carried 1.2 billion tons of cargo, according to Headquarters Air Mobility Command statistics. That puts the war on terrorism right up with the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 and the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91.

Although the Air Force has added about 50 new C-17 planes to the inventory, the service has been phasing out the C-141 StarLifter and has had to lean on the older, increasingly unreliable C-5 Galaxy. The military has relied on commercial air carriers to help fill gaps since 2001.

More tankers top the list of needs. The aging fleet is due for an upgrade, but a $23 billion plan to buy and lease new Boeing tanker aircraft was dropped after a contracting scandal.

“We need a new tanker,” Welser said. “I quite honestly don’t care who provides it, but we need some new tankers.”

The Air Force could also use more C-130J aircraft, he added. The Air Force in February grounded 35 C-130s worldwide because of cracks in the center wing box. The Bush administration is looking to cut programs such as the C-130J to save $5 billion from the 2006 defense budget.

“Clearly, the Air Force needs an airplane that can perform that mission,” Welser said of the C-130. “So we’ll leave it to the people in Washington, D.C., to acquire those that we need. But we have to maintain a certain level of airplanes.”

On Thursday, Welser toured construction projects that will expand Spangdahlem Air Base’s runway and parking area and build a new passenger holding area, fire department and maintenance facility. The base will begin receiving cargo planes after Rhein-Main Air Base closes later this year. Spangdahlem will handle any overflow traffic from Ramstein Air Base.

Cargo planes could begin landing at Spangdahlem as early as this summer.

“I see, as we move forward, [Spangdahlem] becoming a very, very important location for strategic mobility,” he said.


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