The Senate approved a measure Thursday that would keep open the production line for Boeing's C-17 transport plane. An amendment to the defense-authorization...

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WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a measure Thursday that would keep open the production line for Boeing’s C-17 transport plane.

An amendment to the defense-authorization bill, sponsored by Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would authorize the Air Force to purchase up to 42 new C-17s and create a new structure for the Pentagon to assess the need to build more lift aircraft.

The C-17 program appeared in danger after a recent draft of the Defense Department’s Mobility Capa-

bilities Study recommended buying no C-17s beyond the 180 planned. With the last of the C-17s scheduled for delivery in 2008, production would start to wind down as soon as next year.

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“The C-17 is the finest military transport in the world,” said Talent, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This amendment is crucial to ensure that the United States has the airlift we need to deploy and sustain our forces overseas.”

Most of the C-17 is built in California, but several components are assembled at Boeing’s St. Louis-based defense unit.

The C-17 is the primary aircraft used to carry troops to the battlefield.

The planes haul some of the military’s heaviest equipment and have been deployed for special-operations missions, training and humanitarian relief, including responses to the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va., called the C-17 a workhorse that has been valuable for the military.

“Without additional C-17s, it will be very hard for the Air Force to meet its obligations to the rest of the nation’s military,” Thompson said.

“The Air Force doesn’t want to stop production because it isn’t very happy with its existing aircraft and it thinks it will need more C-17s, but it can’t afford to keep producing them.”

But a government-watchdog group, Project On Government Oversight, called the amendment pork.

“This is just another gift to a defense contractor, the latest attempt by Congress to force the military to purchase weapons it doesn’t even need,” said Eric Miller, the group’s senior defense investigator. “Congress is looking out for the defense industry but not the needs of our military.”

The Senate is expected to approve the defense-authorization. The bill will then go to a conference committee with the House, where lawmakers will press to include the C-17 measure.