The two C-27J cargo planes deployed to Afghanistan have been shuttling supplies and troops all across the country for the last 11 months, but their work is being cut short.
As it prepares to cancel the program, the U.S. Air Force has withdrawn the two aircraft, replacing them with larger C-130s and contracted airlift, which service officials say will pick up the slack.
The decision to bring the aircraft back to the U.S. comes as Congress debates whether to accept an Air Force recommendation to cancel future C-27J purchases and mothball the existing aircraft.
This week, the only two Alenia Aermacchi C-27J aircraft in Afghanistan — which are being operated by the Maryland Air National Guard — left the country and will head back to the United States, an Air Force spokeswoman confirmed June 20.
Originally, C-27J aircraft were supposed to remain in theater through 2014, but the Air Force decided to bring all of the aircraft back to the U.S. before the end of July after it submitted its 2013 budget proposal, which recommends terminating the program.
L-3 Communications, which has maintained the aircraft in Afghanistan, is shutting down its operations in the country and is having its equipment withdrawn as well, an Air Force official said.
The Air Force decided to bring the aircraft back to the U.S. ahead of schedule because the maintenance contract with L-3 will expire this summer, the service official said. Keeping the aircraft in theater would mean spending an additional $20 million to $25 million in maintenance costs, the official said.
The Ohio and Maryland Air National Guard have operated the C-27J out of Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan since July 2011.
In that time, the 702nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron has flown the two aircraft on 3,200 missions, moved 1,400 tons of cargo, transported 25,000 passengers and executed 71 airdrops, according to Air Force data.
What happens next to the Air Force’s 21 C-27J aircraft has not been settled.
The service’s proposal to cancel the program has been questioned by lawmakers and the Air National Guard, the operator of all of the aircraft. Army officials have also voiced opposition since the aircraft’s primary mission is to supply ground troops.
The Air Force has argued that defense budget pressures influenced its decision to end the program. That position has been questioned by the Guard and lawmakers.
Legislation under consideration in the House and Senate has recommended freezing Air Force plans to retire C-27J and other Air Force aircraft.