The U.S. Senate took the first step Thursday to keep open the C-17 production line in Long Beach, calling for the Air Force to acquire enough of the cargo planes to keep the plant running until 2012.
By an 89-8 vote, senators urged the Air Force to order 42 additional C-17s and provided a compromise that would allow the military to cut its acquisition rate from 16 planes a year to six.
The amendment to a defense spending bill is not binding and does not require the Pentagon to keep the C-17 program alive.
The Air Force has scrapped plans to order more of the planes because of budget constraints. If approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the decision would force Boeing to close the state's last major airplane manufacturing plant in 2008 and lay off most of its 6,500 workers.
"I think this amendment comes at a critical time, expressing the desires of the Congress," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said the Air Force had been constrained by a budget crunch. With the high cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast, annual defense spending is expected to rise by 2% to 4% in the coming years, compared with double-digit growth in the last five years.
The Air Force "couldn't find the money" to add to its C-17 fleet, Thompson said. "It basically said, 'Give us more money to buy C-17s.' And I think Congress will follow the lead."
Pentagon officials declined to comment. Boeing said the Senate measure was an "important vote of confidence."
The Senate amendment must still be reconciled with the House's corresponding defense bill, which does not include the C-17 provision. Ultimately, the Pentagon will make the final decision about the C-17's future.
The amendment was offered by Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), both of whom represent states where C-17 parts are manufactured.
Watchdog group Project on Government Oversight decried the Senate amendment, calling it "just another gift" to a defense contractor. "Congress is looking out for the defense industry, but not the needs of our military," said Eric Miller, senior investigator for the group.
Boeing has built 145 C-17s since 1993 and the last of the four-engine jets, which cost about $175 million apiece, is scheduled for delivery to the Air Force in 2008. The C-17, nicknamed the Globemaster III, has been a workhorse in transporting military personnel and heavy equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in carrying food and medical supplies throughout the Gulf Coast region after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
A Pentagon study released last month concluded that a fleet of 180 C-17s was sufficient to support military operations.
The study surprised Boeing and Congress, because the Air Force earlier had publicly supported placing an order for 42 additional C-17s that would keep the Long Beach assembly line going until 2012.
In introducing the amendment, Sen. Talent questioned the study's conclusion and cited past remarks by Air Force generals who said at least 222 C-17s were needed to meet growing airlift requirements.
Shares of Chicago-based Boeing rose $1.39 on Thursday to $66.10.