One hawkish U.S. House Republican is pressing senior Pentagon officials to reverse course and keep its C-23 Sherpa cargo plane fleet operational until a replacement is fielded.
The small, 1980s-era twin-engine aircraft first entered the U.S. military fleet in 1985, and has been primarily used to resupply Army tactical units. After years of drama that led to the Air Force securing control of a program to field a replacement, the C-27J aircraft, the Air Force canceled the program as annual defense spending slows.
Some House Republicans oppose the Pentagon’s plans to shutter the C-23 fleet, saying the lack of a replacement tactical airlifter will “[add] additional risk to our national security and states ability to respond to natural disasters, border security and other emergency operations,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., states in a letter that will be sent to Army Secretary John McHugh next week.
“We respectfully request your immediate attention to ensure that the C-23 Sherpa fleet remains operational until another suitable, fixed-wing option becomes available,” states the letter, obtained by Defense News. “The Department of Defense’s decision earlier this year to retire a significant portion of certain air assets without suitable replacements, has caused growing concern due to the growing capability gap in military airlift capacity.”
The Sherpa fleet is operated by the Air National Guard (ANG) and is used in both overseas combat missions and when the ANG performs domestic tasks, such as natural disaster relief efforts.
The fleet’s presence at ANG bases is important to members of Congress for political and economic reasons. The more platforms at a given base, the more military and private-sector personnel are based there, and that is good news for that local economy. That is why lawmakers regularly fight tooth and nail to reverse any Pentagon proposal to retire entire fleets of planes, ships and vehicles.
There are no C-23s based in Hunter’s southern California district, but some are based in other areas of California. Sherpas are based in Fresno, Calif., and are used “for delivering and recovering aviation parts throughout the 13-state region,” Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said Nov. 1 in an email. “This aircraft also supports active duty units including the Navy SEAL teams,” he added.
Kasper called the California National Guard’s C-23s “critical to the state.”
The House-approved version of 2013 Pentagon policy legislation contains language that would delay any move to retire the C-23 fleet. A summary of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of that policy bill does not mention the Pentagon’s C-23 plans; if the Senate passes its version in coming months, a conference committee would be charged with deciding whether to include the House language in a final version of the bill.
A continuing resolution that would keep the federal government funded through late March preserves funding to keep the Sherpa fleet operational, but the Pentagon would not be required to do so without the kind of specific language included in the House-passed policy bill.
In May, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said as Pentagon budgets shrink, Congress must allow the military to retire older airframes that are expensive to keep in combat shape.
Air Force officials terminated the one-time Sherpa replacement, C-27J, because service leaders said in an era of declining budgets, the cost to purchase and operate those new planes was too steep. Air Force officials say they can do the tactical resupply mission with C-130 aircraft. Army leaders, at least in public comments, have backed the decision.
GOP lawmakers are not alone in questioning the C-27J move.
“No one forced the Air Force to join what was a joint program with the Army, and then take sole ownership of it,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said earlier this year. “No one forced the Air Force to testify that they needed to pursue the C-27 because the C-130 could not meet requirements when the committee questioned why the Air Force couldn’t rely on the C-130 fleet and instead had to start the C-27 program. Now the Air Force says that the C-130 is perfectly fine for meeting the direct support mission.”
Levin would inevitably be part of any House-Senate negotiations over whether to require the Pentagon to keep the Sherpa fleet operational until a replacement plan is in place.