Air Transportation: USAF Throws Contractors At The Angry Army

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May 31, 2012:  The U.S. Air Force is trying to get rid of its twin-engine propeller transports and is running into resistance from customers (the U.S. Army in Afghanistan) and Congress. To keep the army happy, the air force is hiring civilian contractors to bring in their own twin-engine transports and make deliveries to the many small army airfields in Afghanistan that cannot support the larger C-130s.

The air force is planning on selling off 13 recently acquired C-27J two-engine transports but Congress is not happy with this. The air force points out that they have to cut their annual budget by at least $10 billion and the cuts have to come from somewhere. Since the U.S. is withdrawing most of its forces from Afghanistan in two years, there will be little need for twin-engine aircraft after that. So let contractors fill in until then, while the air force gets rid of the few C-27Js it already has.

The C-27J situation was a little more complex than that. Four years ago the U.S. Army received the first of an expected 78 C-27J two-engine transports. This came after years of convoluted bureaucratic battles with the U.S. Air Force. A deal was made 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 three years ago 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. Now the air force has cancelled most of those C-27J orders, on account of poverty and loss of interest.

The C-27J was to replace elderly U.S. 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 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. While the C-27J costs less than half as much to operate, per hour in the air, there was just not that much demand for such a small transport. 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. Six years ago 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.

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 air force 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 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 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 deal was worked out. This forced the air force to tolerate the army owning over sixty 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 sale, to anyone but the U.S. Army.

In the future the air force plans on hiring contractors and their twin-engine transports, if there is again a need to supply small army air fields.

 


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