The U.S. Air Force is making progress toward disposing of its fleet of C-27J Spartan tactical airlifters. The service once fought hard to get the C-27J – a twin-engined, turboprop transport that resembles a scaled-down C-130J Hercules – but now says it doesn’t need or want them. The divestiture is having an impact on Air National Guard (ANG) squadrons that had been tapped for the C-27J mission.
At issue are 21 airframes, including several still on the assembly line of Italian planemaker Alenia in Turin, all of which have been paid for. L-3 Communications is the prime contractor for U.S. sales of the C-27J in partnership with Alenia.
Finding a new home for the planes – which are being delivered from the factory at cost, without technical flaws, only a little behind schedule – is proving to be as much a challenge as acquiring them was.
Finding a new home for the planes – which are being delivered from the factory at cost, without technical flaws, only a little behind schedule – is proving to be as much a challenge as acquiring them was. On Jan. 26, 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced its intent to remove the C-27J from inventory. This was an economy move that occurred before the budget-cutting process known as sequestration took effect nine months later. If this “divestiture” truly is economical, it is taking a long time to show results.
It now appears that seven C-27Js each will go to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), although only the USSOCOM part of the arrangement has been decided and announced. To transfer the aircraft outside DoD the department must declare them “excess materiel” and under existing law will then be able to make the transfers “without reimbursement.” Almost two years after the decision was made to dispose of the planes, this statutory declaration hasn’t been made yet.
To understand the ongoing saga of the little airlifter that’s so difficult to dispose of, it’s necessary to look back at the history of the U.S. armed forces and the C-27J.
The C-27J was already on offer to the U.S. market when the U.S. Army in 2005 began looking for a Future Combat Aircraft (FCA) to replace its C-23 Sherpa fleet to provide “direct support” (meaning closer to the front lines than a C-130J would operate) to soldiers on the ground.
The first C-27J slated for U.S. military use made its maiden flight on June 17, 2008.
Lockheed Martin initially was the prime contractor, teamed with Alenia. The C-27J, an improved version of the Alenia G.222 which had been operated by the U.S. Air Force as the C-27A, received its “J” letter suffix to put it in parallel with Lockheed’s C-130J. The “J” remained after the partnership dissolved and L-3 Communications replaced Lockheed.
The U.S. Air Force entered the picture in 2006 and joined with the Army to transform FCA to a Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA). On June 13, 2007, the Pentagon announced selection of the C-27J to fill the FCA requirement. The plan was for the Army to acquire 75 aircraft to go to Army National Guard units while the Air Force would get 70 for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the ANG. The first C-27J slated for U.S. military use made its maiden flight on June 17, 2008.
For a time that year, the Army and Air Force operated a joint training center at the ARNG facility at Warner Robins, Ga. In May 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates transferred the C-27J program from the Army to the Air Force, ending hopes that the Spartan would directly replace the Army’s 42 C-23B/C Sherpas. The planned purchase for the Air Force rose to 78 but, by early 2010 dropped to 38. When the 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio ANG in Mansfield welcomed its first C-27J on Sept. 17, 2010, the plane had “U.S. ARMY” painted on both sides of the rear fuselage, but the Army was no longer participating in flight operations.
The 179th wing’s 164th Airlift Squadron sent two C-27Js to Afghanistan in 2011. It was a four-month-plus deployment, fully successful, and the only time Americans took the C-27J into harm’s way. While the aircraft and airmen were overseas, the decision was made to scuttle the fleet.
When the 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio ANG in Mansfield welcomed its first C-27J on Sept. 17, 2010, the plane had “U.S. ARMY” painted on both sides of the rear fuselage, but the Army was no longer participating in flight operations.
The C-27Js are gone, now, from Mansfield and from Baltimore, Md., where the other ANG C-27J airlift squadron has disbanded. Except for three planes at Pope Field, Fort Bragg, N.C., all U.S. C-27s are in “Type 1000” storage in near-airworthy condition at the Air Force’s Arizona “bone yard” or still in Turin. Dozens of Guardsmen who trained to fly the C-27J are jobless or have been shifted to other duties.
What Happens to the C-27Js Now
Here’s a look at the three likely users of surplus C-27Js:
USSOCOM: Two successive leaders at SOCOM, current boss Adm. William H. McRaven and his predecessor Adm. Eric T. Olson, have argued for an MC-27J gunship to introduce flexibility into the air-to-ground mission now performed by the AC-130U Spooky and AC-130J Ghostrider. Alenia, in partnership with ATK, has proposed an MC-27J Stinger version that employs the GAU-23 roll-on/roll-off 30mm gun system on a pallet, and, last June, demonstrated this configuration to SOCOM officials at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The demonstrator airframe (which is actually an earlier C-27A model, serial no. 90-0170) is expected to conduct the first firings of the cannon while slaved to an electro-optical/infrared sensor early next year. Officials haven’t confirmed that the USSOCOM Spartans will become gunships; they have said USSOCOM will receive the three aircraft now at Pope plus four coming from Turin.
USSOCOM has not confirmed that it will convert its C-27Js into gunships. The command has also considered using the C-27Js to replace its fleet of C-41As (CASA 212-200 Aviocars) that support training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. The C-27J may be significantly larger than is needed for this mission.
Officials haven’t confirmed that the USSOCOM Spartans will become gunships; they have said USSOCOM will receive the three aircraft now at Pope plus four coming from Turin.
U.S. Coast Guard: If it can acquire C-27Js at no cost, the Coast Guard says it can save up to $800 million by cutting its planned purchase of 36 HC-144A Ocean Sentry rescue/patrol aircraft (its version of the EADS/Airbus Military CN-235) while retaining the 18 already paid for (of which, 15 have been delivered). Before leaving office in June, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, at the urging of Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), approved the transfer of 14 C-27Js to the Coast Guard. Subsequently, the Coast Guard requested all 21 planes. It’s unclear whether this action amounted to anything more than expressing willingness to be a recipient. Planemaker EADS claims its HC-144A can be maintained for half the operating cost of a C-27J. It’s unclear whether the C-27J can accommodate the Missions Systems Pallet (MSP) that enables the HC-144A to carry and use equipment like the IDS Command and Control (C2) System – yet the MSP is essential to the HC-144A’s mission. The C-27J is not equipped with the search radar, electro-optical and infrared cameras that are integral aboard the HC-144A.
USFS: The C-27J is seen as suitable for the service’s aerial needs, including fire-fighting, dropping smoke jumpers, and hauling passengers and cargo. The service paid $54,000 for a report that concluded the C-27J could carry 1,850 gallons of retardant if 3,200 pounds of unneeded equipment, including flight deck armor, were removed. The report suggested the C-27J could be quickly converted from one USFS mission to another. Legislation to turn over C-27Js to the service is currently dormant; it appears doubtful whether, in the fire-fighting role, the C-27J can meet the USFS preferred target of 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. A larger issue is whether the Forest Service should continue to rely on contractor-owned, contractor-operated aircraft to fight fires. Supporters of the USFS who would like to see a change to a government-owned arrangement see the C-27J as a way to make the change happen.
Since the easiest solution from a bureaucratic point of view would be to keep the C-27Js in DoD, other possibilities could materialize before the Coast Guard or USFS receive any airplanes. The U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute demonstration team, for example, needs to replace its two C-31As (Fokker F-27s) but has no money for new aircraft.
C-27J Spartan Specifications
Type: Three-crew tactical airlifter (two pilots, one loadmaster)
Powerplant: Two 4,640-hp (3,.46 kN) Rolls-Royce AE2100-D2A turboprop engines
Performance: Maximum speed 374 mph (602 km/h); cruising speed 362 mph (583 km/h); service ceiling 30,000 feet (9144 m); range 2,650 miles (4260 km)
Weights: Empty weight 37,479 lb (17000 kg); maximum takeoff weight 67,241 lb (30500 kg)
Dimensions: Wingspan 94 feet 2 inches (28.70 m); length 74 feet 6 inches (22.70 m); height 31 feet 8 inches (9.64 m); wing area 880 sq ft (82 sq m)
First flight: June 17, 2008