Fast forward forty years, to 2005. The Army, dissatisfied with Air Force airlift inside theaters of operations (especially Iraq and Afghanistan, but to some extent also in places like South America), decided to open a competition for a Light Cargo Aircraft, or LCA. They eventually selected the L-3/Alenia C-27J Spartan.
The C-27J Spartan is an modernized version of the Alenia G.222 short haul airlifter. The basic G.222 airframe has been updated with the modern Rolls Royce AE2100 engines with improved six-bladed props, giving it greater fuel efficiency and a higher cruise speed. The avionics have also been updated to modern “glass cockpit” standards.
The Army was pretty pleased. Big enough to carry a useful load, capable of airdropping personnel and supplies, and yet small enough to operate right up to the front lines, the Spartan was just the thing to replace the Army’s aging fleet of C-23 Sherpas, C-26 Metroliners, and some C-12 Hurons. It would also ease some of the strain on the CH-47 Chinook fleet, freeing those critical assets to support those places that couldn’t be serviced by fixed wing aircraft. So far, so good.
But right about the time the Army started making progress on this major acquisition program, the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, GEN T. Michael Moseley, announced that hey! the Air Force also wanted to start a competition for a new light cargo plane. Not surprisingly, their requirements were awfully similar to the Army’s. And not surprisingly, in a cost-saving measure, the DoD directed the services to combine the competition and seek procurement of one type of aircraft. The Joint Cargo Aircraft was born, and it was something of a given that the C-27J would be selected. It was, and in 2007, a $2 billion dollar contract for 78 planes was signed. Deliveries began the next year.
Of the first contract for 78 aircraft, 40 were supposed to go to the Army (actually, various Army National Guard units) and the remainder to the Air Force (again, actually to various Air National Guard units). But almost immediately, the Air Force began lobbying for control of the entire fleet, under the rationale that a single manager made more sense. The Army struggled to maintain control of its slice of the program, but in 2009 lost, and the Air Force gained control of the entire program. Not only did they seize control of the program, the promptly cut the buy to 38 aircraft. Later, the contract was trimmed again to 21 aircraft. The Air Force story was they would make up the shortfall by more closely integrating C-130 operations to support the Army.
Now comes news the Air Force is considering terminating the program early. Only 13 aircraft have been delivered so far. Alenia has scrapped plans to build a final assembly plant here in the US.
So once again, the Army, who had hoped to buy as many as 125 Spartans, gets hosed by the Air Force.
The Army and the Air Force look at the in-theater airlift mission from different perspectives. The Air Force is into centralized planning and control. From the Air Forces earliest days, they learned the lesson that the greatest way to leverage airpower’s inherent flexibility is to operate under centralized control. With limited airlifters, and global airlift responsibilities, centralized planning for airlift makes sense. Every AF airlift mission is tasked and monitored at Scott AFB, in Illinois (Hi, Phat!).
But the Army isn’t concerned about worldwide airlift. Theater commanders (and their deputies for logistics) are more concerned with having an asset at hand that can fulfill mission critical/time critical airlift right now in support of ground forces.
The operational paradigm is likely different as well. Rather than deploying a squadron of airlifters to theater for six months, individual airlifters would deploy on specific mission sets, being tasked via Scott AFB in response to requests from within the theater, and eventually returning home.
The Army, on the other hand, would likely activate a National Guard battalion of Spartans, deploy them in theater for six months to a year, ride ‘em hard and put ‘em away wet, and then redeploy the battalion stateside, to be replaced by another battalion in rotation. That way, there would be a half dozen or so airlifters on scene to handle any “hot potatoes” that crop up.
Differences in operational philosophies aside, it’s been clear for several years the Air Force has been acting in bad faith from the start. Every step of the way, they’ve shown their entire purpose in involving themselves in the C-27J program has been calculated means of denying the Army access to the aircraft. Shame of the Air Force.