Procurement: USAF Has A Yard Sale

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March 6, 2012:  Big budget cuts for the U.S. Air Force means big bargains for American allies. The air force is going to sell off 13 recently acquired C-27J two-engine transports and 18 RQ-4 Block 30 UAVs. The air force wants to raise cash to buy the new F-35 fighter-bomber and selling off (rather than mothballing) unneeded aircraft seems the way to go.

Earlier this year the air force stopped buying the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV. Ten of the 31 Block 30 models ordered were cancelled. None of the planned Block 40 aircraft will be built. For the past few years the air force and the manufacturer (Northrop Grumman) of the RQ-4 have been feuding over design, cost, and quality control issues. The latest issue was the unreliability of the new Block 30 models. The air force finally made good on its threats. While the air force is unhappy with the latest RQ-4 designs, the U.S. Navy and foreign nations are not. There is plenty of demand.

The C-27J situation was a little more complex. Four years ago the U.S. Army received the first of an expected 78 C-27J two-engine transports. This came after years of 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.

The C-27J was to replace elderly 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. 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 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 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.

 


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