Air Transportation: U.S. Army Air Force Takes A Hit

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November 19, 2011:  The war on terror may still be underway, but in the United States military budgets are being cut because fewer troops are overseas. Some programs are being sharply cut. For example, three years ago, the U.S. Army received the first of an expected 78 C-27J two-engine transports [PHOTO]. This came after years of bureaucratic battles with the U.S. Air Force. A deal was agreed to that would get the army 78 C-27Js and the air force 70. At one point the two services were to operate the C-27Js jointly, but two years ago, budget cuts found the C-27J program vulnerable. Now only 38 are to be bought, at about $30 million each, and the air force reserve (the Air National Guard) will operate them.

The C-27J replaces elderly C-23s, and provides more small transports for delivering cargo in tight spaces. The C-27J (a joint U.S./Italian upgrade of the Italian G-222) is a 28 ton aircraft that can carry nine tons for up to 2,500 kilometers and land on smaller airfields than the C-130. The U.S. Air Force bought ten C-27As in the 1990s, but took them out of service because it was cheaper to deliver stuff via the larger C-130. However, the C-27J is a favorite with many other air forces, and draws on technology from the C-130J program (using the same engines, propellers and electronic items).

It was only five years ago that the army and air force agreed to replace the aging C-23 two engine transports the U.S. Army National Guard operated. The goal was to obtain 145 new aircraft of approximately the same capability. The air force would get about half these aircraft and the army the rest. But both services would establish joint maintenance and support facilities, in order to keep the costs down. That plan called for as many as 207 C-27Js over the next decade. The first C-27J was delivered on time and on budget three years ago and the air force considered turning some of its C-27Js into gunships. But then a worldwide economic recession, and calls for massive cuts in the military budget meant that a lot of programs were going to be quickly shut down or sharply cut.

The strangest part of this whole affair is why the Army National Guard was operating those C-23s in the first place. According to half a century of agreements and Pentagon turf battles, the army should not be able to operate two engine transports. But because of a special deal, forced on the military by Congress, the Army National Guard was allowed to operate 44 two engine C-23s (a freight version of the British Shorts 330 passenger airliner). The 12 ton C-23 can carry up to 3.5 tons of cargo, or up to 30 troops. But the C-23s are over 25 years old, and efforts to get a replacement, especially a larger and more numerous replacement, initially ran into air force opposition. After all, the air force has 500, 75 ton, C-130s. But in Iraq, the army C-23s proved invaluable in getting priority army cargoes where they were needed, often to places the C-130 could not land. With a war going on, the army had lots of recent evidence of how difficult it is for army commanders to get a C-130 for some urgent mission. The army originally asked for 128 C-23 replacements, but the air force protested, and a deal was worked out. This forced the air force to tolerate the army owning over sixty C-27Js. All because there was a war going on, and wars are great for quickly settling peacetime squabbles that seem to never end. But when the Iraq fighting suddenly died down (after the 2008 defeat of al Qaeda there), the C-27J became vulnerable, the order was sharply cut and the air force got control of the new transports. Then again, with all these budget cuts, it's the air force that has to buy the C-27Js and pay for operating them.

 


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