Steps toward canceling the C-27J are getting underway even though two powerful senators have asked the Pentagon to maintain the status quo until Congress passes legislation saying otherwise. (Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen / U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Air Force is moving ahead with plans to shutter the C-27J cargo plane program, despite the fact Congress has not yet approved the budget proposal that requested the termination.
Training for Air National Guard pilots who were supposed to fly the plane has stopped. And the Air Force, which had planned on delivering C-27Js to a Guard unit in Battle Creek, Mich., instead will store the planes at a contractor facility in Waco, Texas, where they will undergo finishing work, according to industry sources.
Canceling plans to move the C-27Js to Michigan will ultimately save money, Air Force officials said. If Congress overrules the Air Force’s proposal to cancel the program, the service will be able to rapidly reverse course, the officials said.
Yet the steps toward canceling the C-27J are getting underway even though two powerful senators have asked the Pentagon to maintain the status quo until Congress passes legislation saying otherwise.
“While we understand that doing so may help the department achieve more ‘savings’ than might be otherwise realized, the department should avoid taking actions that would restrict Congress’ ability to consider and act on the fiscal year 2013 budget request,” Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, respectively, wrote in a March 19 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The two senators also asked the Defense Department to “not take actions to implement decisions that would be difficult or impossible to reverse by anticipating congressional approval of what may turn out to be very contentious proposals before the committees have had an opportunity to produce bills reflecting their responses to the fiscal year 2013 budget request.”
During a March 20 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley pledged to Levin that the Air Force would not make force structure changes until Congress reviewed the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget request.
“[A]m I correct in believing that you’re not going to be making the force structure changes that were proposed in the 13 budget request until the congressional defense committees have had a chance to mark up that 13 budget request?” Levin asked.
“That’s correct, Mr. Chairman,” Donley replied.
Senate staffers have since asked the Air Force “to describe how what they’re doing complies with the promise from the secretary,” one aide said.
The Air Force will not exercise six contracts related to the C-27J program, a service official said. If the contracts are awarded and Congress approves canceling the program, the Air Force could be stuck with termination liabilities. The Air Force will not move aircraft and equipment to Michigan unless Congress tells them to continue the program.
“The letter [from Levin and McCain] does not say you can’t do anything,” the aide noted. “The letter says don’t implement decisions that would be difficult or impossible to reverse.”
Air Force officials said the service’s actions could be undone quickly.
“The ‘stop work’ orders for C-27J related bed-down activities at Battle Creek are prudent actions to preserve taxpayer resources while the Congress considers the President’s 13 budget proposal,” an Air Force spokeswoman wrote in an email. “These actions suspend work and are readily reversible should the Congress direct the DoD to continue the C-27J in 13 and beyond.”
The Air Force’s recommendation to end the C-27J program — built by L-3 Communications and Alenia Aermacchi — was one of a number of decisions that involved Air National Guard force structure. The active-duty component does not fly the cargo aircraft, which is used to resupply troops in Afghanistan.
Other decisions included moving aircraft out of the Guard and into active duty. The decisions have been unpopular in Congress since they touch many lawmakers’ districts. The Guard’s lobby is also bolstered by states’ governors, who have mobilized in opposition to the decisions.
The Air Force’s 2013 budget proposal recommends retiring 227 aircraft, including C-130s, C-5As and A-10s. Removing the aircraft, many of which reside in the Guard, from service will help the Pentagon achieve a $487 billion reduction in planned spending over the next decade.
Over the next five years, the Air Force must shed $54 billion from its budget.
Panetta has warned, as recently as last week, that if Congress does not approve the Pentagon’s proposed program terminations, lawmakers will have to take that money from higher-priority initiatives.
Not approving the program cancellations could negate a new military strategy and hollow the force, Panetta said at an April 16 briefing at the Pentagon.
“That could mean less money to buy high-priority ships or acquire the next-generation aircraft,” he said.
Defense committees in both chambers of Congress have been contemplating legislation that would block Air Force cuts to the Air National Guard, congressional sources said.
The House Armed Services Committee begins its markup of the 2013 defense authorization bill this week.
Several lawmakers whose districts stand to lose aircraft or personnel voiced their opposition to the Air Force’s proposed force structure cuts during an April 17 hearing, when the House Armed Services Committee gave noncommittee members the opportunity to propose legislation for the authorization bill.