November 20, 2013
Credit: Alenia Aeronautica
Once the red-headed stepchild of the U.S. Air Force, the C-27J tactical airlifter has become a hot commodity in the U.S. government.
The service’s decision early this year to mothball its 21 brand-new, twin-engine C-27Js — labeling the Alenia Aermacchi transports a niche capability too expensive to sustain alongside its other airlifters — triggered an interagency squabble between the U.S. Forest Service, bent on using them as much-needed firefighting tankers, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which was intent on employing them to plug a gap maritime patrol capability.
After some wrangling, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has drafted an amendment to the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill that could resolve the dispute.
As the Forest Service and the Coast Guard made their cases, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Oct. 25 signed orders to dedicate the first seven of the aircraft to Army Special Operations Command for use in soldier free-fall training, replacing aging Casa 212s. “There is no plan to upgrade the aircraft at this time,” says Lt. Col. Darryl Gerow, requirements and resources officer for the Army’s special operations forces. However, Socom rarely operates single-use platforms, and the command previously shelved mature plans to outfit the C-27J with a gunship kit due to bureaucratic wrangling over the program at the Pentagon. It is possible the command could unearth the concept, especially in light of Italy’s decision to move forward with its own gunship variant.
However, it is unlikely Socom would push a gunship modification kit now, as it is in the beginnings of buying its AC-130J fleet and converting MC-130W Dragon Spear aircraft to the AC-130W configuration, and any competing program could raise questions on Capitol Hill.
Three of the seven have already been transferred for special operations use, with the remaining four to be delivered from Alenia, according to an industry source.
Meanwhile, officials at the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture are haggling over the disposition of the remaining 14 airlifters. Both the Forest Service and the Coast Guard have made a play for the aircraft. Some experts suggest federal regulations on the transfer of excess defense hardware give priority to military departments over other government agencies, bolstering the case made by the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. R.J. Papp says transfer of the remaining 14 C-27Js to his service would allow for cost avoidance of at least $1.3 billion for its maritime patrol mission and fill its operational need eight years faster than current plans. “The receipt of 14 or more C-27Js would allow the Coast Guard to return (maritime patrol aircraft/medium-range surveillance) capability to the West Coast,” and outfit three units, Papp says in an Aug. 13 memo to lawmakers. Maritime patrol is currently handled by the aging Lockheed Martin HC-130H and HC-144 (a missionized EADS Casa CN-235). Papp says the C-27J can provide “approximately three-quarters of the capability at half the operating cost” of the HC-130H.
But the Forest Service, which has pushed its own case for converting the small airlifters to fire tankers, has been backed by McCain, a powerful voice on Capitol Hill, making some in the Pentagon concerned the transfer will get mired in further wrangling over a deal. McCain is known for digging in his heels on matters, especially when Pentagon force structure and management issues are involved.