The C-27J Spartan tactical transport could fall under the budget axe, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz acknowledged in Capitol Hill testimony on Nov. 2.
Schwartz was speculating about tough decisions he might have to make if a cost-cutting calamity befalls the Department of Defense. Draconian budget cuts could come through a process called “sequestration” if Congress’s supercommittee of fiscal decision makers – as expected – fail to agree on how to address the nation’s debt and deficits.
Schwartz said during testimony with the other Pentagon service chiefs that he might be forced to eliminate hundreds of aircraft and thousands of airmen. Observers in Washington give the nation’s top airman high marks for candor at a time when the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, are arguing that defense spending should be exempted from any mandated federal budget reductions.
The C-27J program, which is intended for and has the support of the Air National Guard (ANG), is big enough to yield savings if it is trimmed but not of sufficient size to have garnered a lot of supporters on Capitol Hill. Some view it as “foreign,” since finished airframes roll out of an assembly plant in Turin, Italy; plans dating to 2008 to build a manufacturing facility in the United States were put on hold. That happened because a “program of record” for 78 planes was reduced to 38 in 2009, making a new aircraft plant – and promised U.S. jobs – no longer economically viable.
Once called the Future Cargo Aircraft (FCA) when it was an Army program to replace C-23 Sherpa transports, the C-27J became the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) and subsequently became an Air Force-only program. “That was two years ago, so I’ve got personal skin in this,” Schwartz told the House Armed Services Committee. Critics argue that while its Army-only purpose may have had merit, once it changed hands and joined the Air Force the C-27J became an aircraft in search of a mission. The solution, then, was to position the plane in the ANG, which has long been in danger of having more hometown bases than aircraft to occupy those bases. This has resulted in a typical C-27J wing now having as its full complement just four C-27J airframes.
Last June, eight senators addressed a letter to Schwartz and National Guard bureau chief Gen. Craig R. McKinley quoting states’ adjutants general – the top Guardsmen in each state – as requesting an increase from four planes to five at each base and a total “buy” of 42 instead of 38. The senators represent, and were quoting officials of, the eight states where C-27Js are, or will be, bedded down. Despite their concern, the C-27J is thought not to have generated widespread interest in Congress. A budget-minded Washington critic said that the C-27J is a convenient giveaway amid today’s fiscal constraints because, “They don’t want ’em, don’t need ’em, but can hold them out as sacrificial lambs while crying about the loss of airframes.”
The current program is listed as costing $3 billion. L-3 Communications is the U.S. prime contractor, while Italy’s Alenia is the designer and maker of the aircraft. The program has been largely free of the technical glitches and cost overruns so familiar to defense experts.
Because it is a follow on to the earlier and now-retired C-27A, Schwartz’s predecessor Gen. T. Michael Moseley wanted the plane to be the C-27B, consistent with the military designation system (MDS) administered for all services by the Air Force. That idea died when Schwartz took office in August 2008 and the industry term C-27J has become the military’s official nomenclature as well.
The Ohio ANG’s 164th Airlift Squadron recently deployed two C-27Js to Afghanistan. In a telephone interview last year, Col. Gary McCue, commander of the squadron’s parent wing, acknowledged that he had been tasked to mount a deployment even before attaining initial operating capability (IOC).
With 21 C-27Js now in operation or completing final assembly, the issue facing Schwartz is whether to proceed with the remaining 17 in the current program. That may seem a modest decision. However, it would upset powerful ANG supporters in Washington. So it is not without risk that Schwartz becomes the only member of the Joint Chiefs to name a specific item of hardware that might take hits if sequestration occurs.
Also in their Nov. 2 testimony, Schwartz confirmed that the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft will be retired in 2014 or 2015, but only if the RQ-4 Global Hawk is ready to replace it. All of the service chiefs acknowledged that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is under intense scrutiny. In earlier remarks, Schwartz appeared to imply that the Air Force’s F-35A version might survive while the Marine F-35B and Navy F-35C might not.
With the government in need of a new continuing resolution merely to stay in business after Nov. 18, and with the supercommittee’s debt plan due at Thanksgiving, all of the members of the Joint Chiefs will be under pressure to “name names” when they propose economies. By daring to name the C-27J, even if only acknowledging it as a possibility, Schwartz has taken an important step forward.
Time will tell whether it leads anywhere.