The U.S. Air Force has said that it will cancel the C-27J program. (U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Air Force — stung by accusations that it’s inflating the cost of flying the C-27J cargo plane as an excuse to cancel the program — is playing damage control.
The service went on the offensive last week after a captain with the Ohio Air National Guard made the case that the actual cost to fly the Italian-built plane is significantly lower than the Air Force has been claiming.
Meanwhile, the Army and Air Force continue to debate exactly which service should be in charge of such aircraft during combat operations.
The briefing by Guard Capt. Dave Lohrer has gone viral within the defense community, so much so that Lohrer was summoned to Washington last week to brief congressional defense committee staffers on his analysis.
The Air Force maintains the total life-cycle cost of the C-27J — built by Alenia Aermacchi — is $308 million per aircraft. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz used the number as recently as Feb. 28 while addressing congressional lawmakers. Lohrer argues the number is closer to $100 million.
The Air Force has not been able to explain the numbers in Lohrer’s briefing, Kevin Williams, deputy director of the Air Force’s studies and analyses, assessments and lessons learned directorate, said at a March 16 briefing at the Pentagon.
Williams speculated that Lohrer might have been using outdated data that threw off his computations.
“That then becomes the basis for kind of like in a math problem where you have a wrong number on the first step of your process and that error ripples through everything else,” Williams said.
The Air Force argues the quad-engine C-130 can carry more troops and supplies longer distances than the smaller, twin-engine C-27J. The fiscal 2013 budget request, if enacted, would terminate the program. The service is still deciding what to do with its existing C-27s, which could be maintained, transferred to another service or sold to a foreign country.
The Air Force claim is not only counter to Lohrer’s briefing, but also to an analysis by the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) group, which shows that over 30 years it would cost the Air Force $270 million to fly one C-27J at 400 hours per year using a reserve component crew. This is compared to $163 million for the C-130H, using the same parameters.
But Lohrer contends that it would cost the Air Force about $105.9 million per C-27J, provided the planes were organized in squadrons of similar size to the C-130s. Under that arrangement, CAPE says it would cost $166 million per C-27J.
Asked how the Air Force and CAPE came up with different estimates, Williams said: “You take the $308 [million] and you can make some changes about life cycle so instead of 25-year, you could compute a 30-year. It’s going to drive it down because it lasts longer.”
Lohrer’s analysis questions the Air Force plan to use an additional 53 people to support the C-27J. But Williams said those additional people were included in Air National Guard documentation.
“There’s an assertion in the report that personnel was somehow inflated by the Air Force. Those personnel numbers were the Guard’s numbers,” Williams said. “We’ve got the source document where the Guard provided them.”
Williams also questioned the flying-hours cost referenced by Lohrer as well as depot cost estimates.
The Air Force “normalized operational cost per flying hour” for the C-27J at $9,000 per hour, Williams said. For the C-130H, the per-hour rate is $10,386; for the C-130J, it is $9,111.
Army, Air Force Negotiations
Meanwhile, the Army and the Air Force continue to negotiate how the Air Force will provide critical airlift support to the Army in a way that is agreeable to both services in the aftermath of the C-27J cancellation. The debate includes designating who’s actually in charge of that aircraft.
The Army says the best way to operate during combat is to give the ground commander tactical control of the Air Force aircraft so that he can quickly task them as needed. To do this most efficiently, the Air Force aircraft and crew would be co-located with the Army unit on the ground.
The Air Force’s preferred way of doing business is to keep tactical control with an Air Force commander, with the Army commander able to assign flying sorties from the general airlift pool.
The latest memorandum of understanding (MoU), signed by both service chiefs Jan. 27, leaves the door open to both options. While the document represents a compromise, many in the Army are questioning the Air Force’s commitment to doing the mission.
Responding to skeptics, Schwartz has repeatedly said the Air Force will perform this mission or “die trying.”
For many, the transfer of the C-27J program from the Army to the Air Force and the resulting angst it has caused among the services is just the latest round in a fight that is as old as the Air Force itself.
A retired Army aviation official compared it the Peanuts cartoon series, saying the Army is Charlie Brown and the Air Force is Lucy. Just when the Army — the kicker — thinks it’s going to get support, the Air Force pulls the football back, he said.
Following the Army’s 2009 withdrawal from the C-27J program and the transfer of the plane’s mission to the Air Force, the two services hashed out a plan for the Air Force to provide time-sensitive direct airlift support to the Army. At the time, the Air Force agreed to give the Army tactical control of the aircraft and decided to try out the concept of employment in Iraq.
There, the Air Force’s 164th Airlift Squadron performed airlift missions, using C-130s, at the direction of the commander of the Army’s 25th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB).
The Army commander was able to directly task C-130 aircraft and airmen to the missions he deemed critical, relieving Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which are more expensive to operate, according to a briefing from the Army’s office for operations, plans and training (G-3/5/7). The CH-47s were then more efficiently used for missions that required vertical airlift.
When the first two C-27Js were deployed to Afghanistan last summer, they were under the tactical control of the commander of the Army’s 159th Combat Aviation Brigade in the southern part of the country. Members of the 179th Air Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard and Army Guard crews from Georgia and Oklahoma flew the planes. Army Guard pilots were trained on the aircraft when the program was still joint.
Because the Army CAB commander had tactical control of the aircraft, he was able to “dynamically re-task” missions, meaning change them at the last minute to address higher-priority needs. According to the Army briefing, 52 percent of planned C-27J sorties in Afghanistan changed within the 96-hour scheduling cycle.
In an early draft of the Jan. 27 MoU, the Army’s tactical control of the Air Force squadron and its aircraft was removed, causing the Army’s G-3/5/7 office to recommend the Army not sign it.
“G-3 non-concurs with the currently proposed MoU as it is written,” the G-3/5/7 briefing says. “Even though the current expeditionary airlift squadron is achieving a measurable level of success [tactical control] to the CAB commander, a change to this command relationship would drastically reduce the flexibility and the habitual relationship that underpins the current success.”
According to an Army aviation official, the first draft of the MoU was rejected by the Army and the Air Force and sent back for revision.
“There was a lot of negotiating to reach a final deal that the Army and Air Force felt comfortable with,” the Army aviation official said. In the end, an agreement was reached that the Army staff supported. So Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno signed it, the official said.
During a Jan. 27 budget briefing at the Pentagon, Odierno said, “We’ve been working this for a few months. It’s important to us that we have direct support to our units out in Afghanistan and wherever we might deploy. It’s a concept actually we tested while I was the commander in Iraq, and I thought it was a very successful test. So I’m comfortable with that. So we’ll mitigate the loss of the C-27. I’m not sure we’ll be able to completely mitigate it, but that will help at least, as we’re deployed, to mitigate that problem.”
The final MoU affirms the benefits of giving the senior Army aviation authority on the ground tactical control of the aircraft and having the Air Force’s expeditionary airlift squadrons co-locate with the Army combat aviation brigade.
However, the document adds that “the combatant commander/ Joint Force Commander may apportion sorties from the general support airlift with [the tactical control] retained by the [Commander of the Air Force] Forces.”
By leaving both options for providing direct support on the table, the services are giving the commander in the field the choice to decide what is best, the Army aviation official said.
For others in the Army, providing both options is cause for concern.
Several Army officials who reviewed the MoU said it provided the Air Force room not to perform the mission as the Army intended to support it.
One Army aviation official said the Air Force could now meet the terms of the MoU using a C-130 unit located at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to support an Army CAB flying daily missions in Kandahar, making it difficult to respond to emergencies.
By keeping the planes in the larger pool, the Air Force can task them more efficiently than if they were sitting on a runway waiting for a mission, an Air Force official said.
The debate will only continue as the Army and Air Force review the 2009 concept of employment, with the goal to “incorporate lessons learned from combat experience in providing direct support and [time-sensitive/mission-critical] intra-theater airlift into joint doctrine,” the Jan. 27 MoU says.