Air Transportation: USAF Learns to Accept the C-27J

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June 27, 2006: After months of deliberations, the U.S. Army and Air Force appear to be right back where they began in their search for a new, two engine, medium range transport, to move smaller cargoes to even smaller airfields. The prime candidate is now the C-27J (a joint U.S./Italian upgrade of the Italian G-222). This 28 ton aircraft can carry six tons for up to 2,500 kilometers and land on smaller airfields than the C-130 can handle. The U.S. Air Force bought ten C-27Js, but took them out of service because it was cheaper to fly stuff in the larger C-130. However, the aircraft is a favorite with many other air forces. The C-27J draws on technology from the C-130J program, and uses the same engines, propellers and electronic items.

Last year, the U.S. Army and Air Force have agreed to replace the C-23 two engine transports the U.S. Army National Guard operates, with 145 new aircraft of approximately the same capability. The air force will 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.

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, the Army National Guard is allowed to operate 44 of the two engine C-23 aircraft. This is 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 twenty 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 have proved invaluable in getting priority army cargos where they are needed. But there's a war going on, and the army has 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 the current deal was worked out. The new transport was supposed to be a militarized version of an existing transport (CN-235, C-295 and C-27J were most often mentioned, along with the current the navy C-2.) What all these aircraft had in common was greater capacity (about half the C-130s 20 ton load), and the ability to fly higher than the C-23s 20,000 foot maximum altitude (which prevents it from being used in Afghanistan).

The air force now sees more need for an aircraft smaller than their current C-130, although in the late 1990s they rejected the C-27J because it was cheaper to move cargo on the C-130. But then came the war, and the reality of small air fields, small cargoes and the need to get stuff there on time, not at the lowest cost. So now the air force will not only operate these two engine transports, but will tolerate the army owning about sixty of them as well. All because there's a war going on, and wars are great for quickly settling peacetime squabbles that seem to never end.

 


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