Air Transportation: SOCOM Takes In USAF Orphans

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November 14, 2013: Big budget cuts for the U.S. Air Force means ways are being sought to shed unneeded (or unwanted) aircraft. One method is to find another service willing to take the equipment off your hands. This recently occurred when the air force assigned 7 of its 21 unwanted C-27J two-engine transports to SOCOM (Special Operations Command) for use as transports and possibly gunships. Congress wants the air force to assign the other C-27Js to the Air Force National Guard, but the air force is resisting that because of cost and because it never wanted the C-27Js in the first place.

It was the army that wanted the C-27Js, and in 2008 the army received the first of an expected 78 C-27Js. This came after years of bureaucratic battles with the air force. A compromise deal had the army getting 78 C-27Js and the air force 70. At one point the two services were to operate the C-27Js jointly but by 2009 budget cuts found the C-27J program vulnerable. At that point it was agreed that 38 would be bought, at about $30 million each, and the air force reserve (the Air National Guard) would operate them. More budget cuts and more resistance from the air force led to only 21 C-27Js being delivered and the air force soon retired them.

The C-27J was to replace elderly army C-23s and provide 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 9 tons for up to 2,500 kilometers and land on smaller airfields than the C-130. The air force bought 10 C-27As in the 1990s, but took them out of service because it was cheaper to deliver stuff via the larger C-130. In peacetime the air force rarely encountered smaller air fields. 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).

The aging C-23 two engine transports were operated by the U.S. Army National Guard and were popular with army commanders, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, 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. The strangest part of this whole affair is why the Army National Guard was operating those C-23s in the first place. That was because 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 in the 1980s, 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.

As the C-23s got older, 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 of the 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 sometimes was 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 compromise deal was worked out. This forced the air force to tolerate the army owning a lot of C-27Js. This only happened 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. In the end, the air force, as the army feared, decided that it did not really need the C-27Js. Now they are up for grabs and available to anyone but the U.S. Army. SOCOM was deemed a suitable user for the C-27J and air force leaders are still negotiating with Congress about what to do with the rest of these orphan aircraft.

 


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