LOS ANGELES – The Air Force has scrapped plans to order additional C-17 cargo planes, a decision that could bring Boeing Co. a step closer to shuttering California’s last major airplane manufacturing plant in 2008, Pentagon and defense industry sources said Thursday.
Boeing has about 6,500 employees at the Long Beach plant where the four-engine jet – a workhorse in transporting military personnel and heavy equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan war zones – is assembled.
But with the Pentagon facing a budget crunch, the Air Force recently told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that it cannot afford to buy any more C-17s beyond the 180 it has ordered, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition they not be identified because the discussions are classified.
Boeing has built 145 C-17s since 1993; the last of the $175 million planes, nicknamed the Globemaster III, is scheduled to be delivered in late 2008.
The Air Force recommendation came after a confidential report concluded that a fleet of 180 C-17s would be sufficient to support military operations, according to Christopher Bolkcom, defense analyst for the Congressional Research Service, who read an unclassified version of the study. The review “says we got what we need,” he said.
Rumsfeld has not made a final decision on the C-17 program. But several defense industry analysts believe he is likely to go along with the recommendation. Rumsfeld has called for cutting traditional weapon systems to make the military more agile. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.
The study caught Boeing by surprise because the Air Force had publicly supported placing an order for 42 more C-17s. That would have kept the Long Beach assembly line going until 2012.
Boeing was fairly confident of receiving the additional orders because the C-17 has been used widely for military and humanitarian missions and has support in Congress.
If the C-17 production line closes, it would mark the final chapter in southern California’s golden era of aviation, which began when industry pioneers such as Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop and Howard Hughes took advantage of the temperate weather and a talented pool of engineers to design their new flying machines.
Boeing’s vast Long Beach complex was built in 1941 by Douglas Aircraft Co. and thrived for decades. Popular commercial airliners, including the DC-3, DC-8 and DC-10, were made in Long Beach.
If it doesn’t get any more orders, Boeing is likely to maintain only skeletal staffing in Long Beach to make repairs to the existing C-17 fleet.