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The military transport dogfight

To many members of Congress, the intense lobbying now underway in the House for a new military transport plane may be viewed simply as the great ''Boeing vs. Lockheed battle.'' At stake, however, is more than just a lucrative new $20 billion defense contract - and the fortunes of two aircraft manufacturers. The issue is whether lawmakers will exercise the restraint essential to bringing the Pentagon's budget under control and reducing federal deficits.

What type of cargo aircraft should the Pentagon buy to transport its new rapid deployment force to potential crisis areas such as the Middle East? The Reagan administration has proposed purchase of 50 new C-5 jet transports built by Lockheed. Despite that recommendation, the Senate earlier this year turned down C-5s and instead voted to buy the most cost-effective wide-bodied commercial aircraft - either the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 or, as most senators realized was in fact the case, the Boeing 747.

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The full House, which is expected to take up the issue in late July, should move very cautiously on the aircraft decision. The House Armed Services Committee has already come down on the side of the C-5.

Not surprisingly, there are solid technical arguments in favor of both the C- 5 Galaxy, the largest cargo aircraft in the skies, of which 77 have already been built, and the Boeing 747, which is perhaps the most popular wide-bodied commercial aircraft now flying. But there is a big disparity in cost. The C-5s would cost in excess of $100 million per aircraft. A new 747 would cost around $ 58 million. A used - and subsequently modified - 747 would run about $12 million plus the market value of the aircraft.

The C-5, despite its support from Air Force officials, has had many problems. It was the massive cost overruns of the original C-5 program that almost led to the bankruptcy of Lockheed. The overruns came to light after the testimony of A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a defense analyst who was fired for having spoken out as he did, thought he was later rehired. The plane has also had difficulties involving its wings. The modification program for the wings will cost over $1.4 billion.

On the plus side, the C-5 is a larger cargo aircraft than the 747. But given its problems over the years, lawmakers are justified in asking whether modifying 747s would not be just as effective. One possibility would be to lease existing 747s. Meantime lawmakers could consider eventually developing a new cargo aircraft, the C-17, which would be built by McDonnell Douglas. A C-17 program was favored by the Joint Chiefs until the Reagan administration proposed buying 50 C-5s.

Whatever course of action it takes, Congress should move slowly in funding a new cargo aircraft program at this time. The nation does not need another massive defense program leading to enormous cost overruns.

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