Takeoff: The US Forest Service and Coast Guard have shown interest in acquiring C-27J Spartans from the Air Force. (AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has assigned seven C-27J Spartans to US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), but has not decided the fate of the Air Force’s remaining airlifters.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the decision on Oct. 28, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.
Three airlifters at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., will be transferred to SOCOM by the end of this month, Stefanek said. Four more are in production and are scheduled for delivery directly to SOCOM between December and April 2014.
Designed by Italian firm Alenia Aermacchi, the C-27J is a tactical transport designed for use on small, rough airfields. The Air Force initially planned on fielding 38 of the cargo planes, before deciding that they were too expensive to operate. That decision set off a firestorm of controversy in Congress, where members were eager to make sure local Air National Guard units received the platforms.
Altogether, the Air Force has paid for 21 C-27s. With the seven SOCOM planes assigned, 13 aircraft are being stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), known as the “Boneyard,” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. One more aircraft will end up there after undergoing work at an L-3 facility in Waco, Texas.
The Air Force is maintaining those C-27s under “Type 1000” storage, which requires the planes be kept in near-active condition. The goal is that when a decision on their destination is made, they can be quickly spun up and delivered.
The US Forest Service and Coast Guard have each submitted a letter of interest in acquiring the planes to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).
To give planes to either the agency, OSD needs to declare the planes “excess” materiel. According to Section 1091 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, any transfer of excess materiel “shall be without reimbursement.”
New Sales Abroad?
Finding a stable US operator would likely help sales of the Spartan abroad, according to analysts.
“The imprimatur of a US customer, especially a military one like SOCOM or the Coast Guard, counts for a lot in the export markets,” said Steve Grundman, a Lund Fellow at the Atlantic Council and principal of Grundman Advisory.
In particular, the SOCOM move could provide a shot of credibility for the Spartan and spur further international sales, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group.
“SOCOM doesn’t take things casually,” Aboulafia said. “It is an endorsement of the plane’s capabilities.”
The plane’s reputation could be particularly boosted if SOCOM decides to modify the planes into the MC-27J gunship configuration, Aboulafia said. That configuration, a joint development between Alenia and ATK, adds a 30mm cannon and dual-console mission management system to the plane.
Aboulafia sees less impact to the market if the planes end up with the Coast Guard or Forest Service.
More than going to a specific service, it is important to see the aircraft in the sky, according to Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
“From a presentation point of view, having aircraft parked in the desert certainly doesn’t look good, it’s much better to have something flying with a credible customer,” he said.
Marcus Weisgerber in Washington and Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.