The U.S. Army is not prepared to fight to keep the C-27J cargo aircraft program alive should an Air Force recommendation to cancel the program be finalized by senior Pentagon officials.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was briefed in October on options to address the Air Force proposal.
Since then, the Army backed off the option to reacquire the program, according to a second service official. An Army spokesman declined to comment on the move since the budget has not been finalized.Army aviation officials proposed Odierno insist the Air Force continue conducting direct support missions of critical Army supplies, and the Army National Guard recommended transferring C-27J procurement money and the mission back to the Army, according to a service official.
At the same time, the decision is likely to set up a fight between the Air Force and Air National Guard since a number of Guard wings gave up aircraft over the past few years in anticipation of receiving C-27Js.
The debate between the parties over the future of the C-27J, built by L-3 Communications and Alenia Aeronautica, has intensified in recent weeks in advance of the Pentagon finalizing its 2013 budget proposal, expected to determine the fate of the program.
The Air Force recommendation to cancel the once-joint program in its draft 2013 funding plan has become a hotly contested issue.
Certain lawmakers have voiced opposition to canceling the program, including the entire Connecticut congressional delegation, which wrote Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urging him to "reject any recommendation to terminate the program or reduce the current [Air National Guard] beddown plan."
The Connecticut air guard has been slated to receive the planes but the Air Force has yet to purchase the aircraft for the wing. Other Air National Guard units are flying the C-27J.
Air and Army Guard officials say the C-27J is the best U.S. aircraft for delivering critical supplies and troops to hard-to-reach places on the battlefield. As the Pentagon's budget shrinks, the officials say it can conduct the so-called direct-support mission at a fraction of the cost of the four-engine C-130.
The C-27J is cheaper to fly than the C-130J and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Bartman, the assistant adjutant general for air in Ohio. Flying one cargo pallet or 10 soldiers in a C-130J costs about $7,100 per hour, while the C-27J can accomplish the same mission for $2,100 per hour.
"It's not to say that the C-130J cannot accomplish the same mission as the C-27J; however, the C-27J is a much more cost-effective, 'right-sized' platform moving forward in the current budget environment, and also gives the Army the greatest amount of flexibility in fixed-wing airlift," Bartman said.
While the Chinook can accomplish the same mission, it is not the best use of the twin-rotor helicopter, according to a former Army division commander.
"We flew some of our CH-47s on routes that should have been fixed-wing routes at a cost in lost combat assault sorties and extended use of the CH-47," the former commander in Afghanistan said.
Since the August deployment of two C-27Js to Afghanistan, the 179th Air Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard has "removed the burden" of forward operating base resupply from the CH-47 fleet, the official said.
The 179th's C-27Js have flown more than 900 sorties, moving more than 6,900 people and almost 400 tons of time-sensitive, mission-critical cargo. Though the C-27J became an Air Force program, the Army's requirement to have organic, direct support airlift did not change.
The Air Force intended to buy 38 C-27Js. National Guard wings in Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and Mississippi are supposed to split the first batch. Other aircraft are set for wings in Connecticut, North Dakota and Montana, but they have not been funded.
The adjutants general from six of those states wrote Carter on Nov. 30 urging him not to cancel the program. A decision to cancel the effort would "negatively impact the National Guard and will weaken our national and homeland defense," they wrote.
The one-time Joint Cargo Aircraft program was turned over to the Air Force in 2009. At the time, Gen. George Casey, then-Army chief of staff, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief, struck a deal in which the Air Force would receive the C-27J aircraft, but would fly under Army parameters.
The decision was met with skepticism in Army and Air Force ranks. The Air Force typically flies fully loaded cargo planes between hubs, while the Army uses the C-23 Sherpa to move small numbers of troops and equipment to forward locations. The Air Force pledged to fly these "direct support" missions using the C-27J and C-130.
Now under a substantial budget crunch, Air Force leaders have proposed eliminating the aircraft from the service's inventory and conducting the mission with C-130s.
The Army, which led the Joint Cargo Aircraft program, originally intended to replace the C-23 with the C-27J. When it turned the program over to the Air Force, the decision to retire the Sherpa was not reversed, even though many aircraft can fly for another 20 years, one Army National Guard official said. ■