The Saga of the Spartans

Aug. 28, 2014

The Coast Guard and Army Special Operations Command now have 21 new or low-time C-27J Spartan light cargo airplanes in their fleets, provided at no charge by the Air Force, which spent more than $567 million to buy the aircraft. The Spartans were transferred from USAF to its fellow services as “excess” materiel only a few years after USAF made impassioned arguments to Congress that it needed the turboprops to fill critical missions supporting the Army and homeland defense missions.

How USAF came to give away new airplanes, at a time when the service is cutting force structure and personnel to live within its means, can be chalked up to simple math. The Air Force argued that it made no sense to keep the C-27Js when budget forecasts showed it wouldn’t have the people or funds to operate them.

The case serves, however, as an object lesson in the wasteful effects of sequestration and, broadly, America’s inability to create a long-term defense spending plan.

The C-27J experience also taught USAF some important lessons that may apply in the coming months, as it tries to convince Congress to permit retirement of the A-10 Warthog, the U-2 spyplane, or perhaps other platforms, too, if sequestration goes forward.

The C-27J program started out with good intentions. In the early 2000s, the Army needed a replacement for its aging fixed wing C-23 Sherpas, which it used for light transport, and also to relieve pressure on its CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which were pulling heavy duty hauling freight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The C-23s were becoming unsupportable due to their age, and the Chinooks were being pulled from other urgent duties, wearing out before their time, and were becoming costly aerial trucks. The idea was to have an airplane that could carry urgently needed cargo the “last tactical mile” to a fast-moving front, and at an affordable operating cost.

The Air Force was eyeing a similar requirement, believing its C-130 Hercules tactical transports to be overkill for the mission. Anecdotes about C-130s flying with a single pallet to forward airstrips were common among cargo pilots at the time. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper said in 2004 that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan supporting far-flung ground units suggested the need for a “light transport” like the C-7 Caribou he flew in Vietnam.

His successor, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, agreed, saying in 2005 he was thinking about an aircraft capable of carrying one or two pallets of cargo or 30 people for such an application.

In 2005, Pentagon acquisition chief Kenneth J. Krieg directed the Air Force and Army to explore merging their separate light transport programs into the Joint Cargo Aircraft program. Within a year, the two services agreed their needs were similar enough that they could jointly buy the same airplane, with some individual tweaks. They signed a memorandum of agreement that laid out how the airplanes would be bought, supported, and used.

Six Missions

The chosen platform would perform six missions. In order, they were: last tactical mile resupply, medical evacuation, airdrop, aerial resupply, troop transport, and the domestic “homeland security” role.

This last one was partly a response to the experience with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, after which a consensus emerged that such an airplane would be useful in bringing urgent relief supplies to a devastated area if only austere landing strips were available.

The Army had the lead on the project, but both services staffed the source-selection team.

Following a competition, the C-27J—built by a team of L-3 Communications and Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica—was chosen in June 2007. If all options were exercised for a planned 78 airplanes, the contract would have been worth $2 billion.

Some regarded the C-27J as the “Baby Herc,” or a junior version of the C-130, because it used the same engines and similar avionics as the C-130J but on a smaller platform. Lockheed Martin, which makes the C-130J, had been heavily involved in developing the C-27J and in fact had viewed the airplane as a smaller, more easily managed alternative to the C-130 for nations that couldn’t afford or didn’t need the bigger airplane.

The C-27Js started delivering first to the Army and later to the Air Force. A permanent joint pilot and crew training facility was established at Robins AFB, Ga., after L-3 Communications trained the first pilots at its facility in Waco, Texas.

For the Air Force, the C-27J was unique in that it was the only aircraft ever bought to be used exclusively by the Air National Guard. All previous Guard airplanes either had Active Duty force counterparts or were hand-me-downs.

The operating concept was also new: Instead of consolidating C-27Js at a few bases, they would be parsed out in groups of four to seven Guard operating locations.

This allowed more Guard units that had lost a flying mission under the base realignment and closure process to retain or regain a flying mission and gave state governors an agile transport asset to call on in the event of a domestic disaster.

It soon became clear, however, that it would cost less if the C-27Js were consolidated under a single service, with a single logistics and support tail.

The Army wasn’t enthusiastic about potentially ceding the last tactical mile mission to the Air Force and taking C-27Js away from division commanders who liked having them at their call. A turf war between the two services ensued. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates initially sided with the Army, but he cut the planned buy of 78 Spartans to just 38 airplanes.

With dollars drying up, though, even the Army decided it had to trust USAF to do the cargo job.

In May 2009, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. told reporters the frontline support air mission was needed but Army aviators “do not have to fly the planes.” He also allowed that flying fixed wing aircraft was not an Army “core competency.”

A deal was struck between Casey and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, acting under pressure from Bradley M. Berkson, the Pentagon’s program analysis and evaluation chief.

“I certainly didn’t have a doctrinal claim” on the mission, Schwartz said in a June interview. “I was trying to be pragmatic. And we both—George and I—ultimately came to the conclusion that this was an Air Force mission, … provided we would do it the way the Army desired.”

Schwartz said Casey agreed “there was a reasonable argument for consolidated management” of the Spartan fleet and mission, “and I gave George my commitment that … we wouldn’t walk away from the promise.”

The promise was that the Air Force would respond to any urgent Army request for transport—be it helicopter parts, food, ammo, medical supplies, or medical evacuation—swiftly and without reservation. This mission was called direct support, or DS.

The Air Force conducted a two-month experiment from October to December of 2009, in which it tested and validated the DS concept. The Ohio Air National Guard took two C-130s to Iraq to perform direct support for frontline Army units, embedded with the Army’s 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. One of the aircraft was tasked for a daily flight and the other was kept on standby alert to respond to an urgent request for cargo. Though this was intended as rehearsal for the C-27J concept, only two Spartans were in USAF hands at the time, and both were in test, so the C-130s were used as stand-ins.

Schwartz told the House Armed Services Committee the following February that the experiment was a great success, demonstrating “the command and control, the orientation, and the capacity to provide direct support, should that be what the joint force commander requires.” Army leaders expressed satisfaction as well.

“We have demonstrated to our Army brothers and sisters, as well as others, that we will be there,” Schwartz told the HASC. “We can do this.”

In August 2011, USAF followed up the Iraq experiment with an actual deployment of two C-27Js, flown and maintained by Air Guard crews, to Kandahar AB, Afghanistan.

For 11 months, the two airplanes—flown first by the 179th Airlift Wing and then by the 175th AW—racked up 3,200 missions, moving over 1,400 tons of cargo, and more than 25,000 passengers. Guard crews reported being favorably impressed with the airplane.

Immediate Questions

Even before they deployed, though, airmen were concerned the C-27J was not sustainable. The Fiscal 2010 defense budget—in which the C-27J was cut from 78 to 38 airplanes—sent the service reeling. The Pentagon was slated to lose $487 billion of anticipated funding over the following decade, before sequester virtually doubled that figure.

“The terrain changed,” Schwartz said. “At the time, we were expecting at least no growth,” or a flat budget, but got “a sizable decline” which forced heavy debate internally “about how to make the best use of the remaining dollars.”

Schwartz said the deal Casey and he struck in 2009 was based on a sense of reality that changed radically just a year-and-a-half later.

Congressional delegations were already hot about Gates’ cut of 40 airplanes from the C-27J program, which meant some Guard units might not get a post-BRAC replacement, or “backfill” mission after all. The entire Connecticut delegation wrote to Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter demanding he restore the airplanes, and the state hadn’t even gotten any yet.

Schwartz said the need to equip the Guard, the homeland defense mission, and the wish not to alienate Congress were heavy on his mind.

“I made that argument, personally,” that maybe the Air Force should accept some cuts elsewhere in order to keep the Spartans, Schwartz explained. However, “it was hard to sustain that argument against other imperatives.” The Air Force had a mandate from Gates to build to 65 combat air patrols of remotely piloted aircraft and was still far from that goal; it needed to fund the new Long-Range Strike Bomber; and it had to keep the KC-46 tanker on track, Schwartz said.

Plus, it wasn’t entirely up to the Air Force. Schwartz noted that OSD also worked on the plan.

With the Fiscal 2013 budget, USAF announced it would not only terminate the JCA program but retire the aircraft already in hand. In budget testimony, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley chalked up the move to scarce dollars and said the C-130 experiment in Iraq had proved that the Hercules, though perhaps more aircraft than needed, could still perform the on-call direct support mission for the Army. Hercs could fulfill 90 percent or better of Army needs—and do so without introducing another new logistical supply chain and personnel training pipeline.

The two C-27Js deployed to Afghanistan were recalled prematurely because to keep them flying in the combat zone would have required renewing or extending a support contract for them.

Schwartz said the C-27J reversal was “painful for me, personally, because I had given [Casey] a promise that the institution could not keep. … We went to the 11th hour with the C-27—it wasn’t an early casualty, it was a very, very late casualty, but it was a casualty.”

Other funding avenues were considered. One was to ask Congress to put enough money back in the budget to operate the C-27Js, but that request went nowhere.

“It was relatively small dollars,” Schwartz said, but “it was pretty clear” that if Congress offered money to keep the C-27J going, “it was going to come from something else that we had a higher preference for.”

Another possibility was to request it in the OCO, or overseas contingency operations, account—the war appropriation—but USAF leaders felt “the era of getting money out of OCO, … that window was rapidly closing, and it would not be a long-term, sustainable position,” Schwartz said. “I think we were a little bit naïve, maybe a little too principled, in trying to do what we thought was both the economic and the prudent thing.”

The issue was not closed yet. There were differences of opinion about just how much the C-27Js actually cost to operate per hour, versus the C-130s. Much of the higher cost burden of the C-27Js was due to the basing concept of stationing them in fours all around the country. Had they been consolidated at fewer bases, it would have been a closer call, Schwartz said at the time, but a lower operating cost would not have offset the price of a whole new logistics tail.

Congress was “generally hostile” about the whole thing, Schwartz said. Not only were various Guard units worried they would permanently lose a flying mission, but state governors feared they might not have their own resources to call on.

“Naturally, states wanted to have their own Hercs and not depend on other governors,” Schwartz explained, “just like [ground] maneuver units wanted their own C-27s. Or at least the assurance of their own C-27s.”

Ultimately, though, Congress accepted USAF’s numbers and agreed to the C-27J’s early retirement.

Some Guard units that were meant to get Spartans—or lost them—got C-130s, while some got an RPA mission. It was never the Air Force’s intention to bait and switch the Army out of the fixed wing transport mission, Schwartz insisted, laying the blame for the C-27 fiasco at the feet of the nation’s inability to set and stick to a long-term defense spending plan.

The services need “a predictable topline and something that allows us to [take] the longer view—apparent to Capitol Hill and the staff—rather than triage, which is sort of what we’ve been doing,” Schwartz asserted.

The Air Force is now seeking permission from Congress to retire its A-10 close air support aircraft fleet, substituting other aircraft already performing much of the CAS role in Afghanistan while also having capabilities for missions the A-10 can’t perform. The service also wants to rapidly phase out the U-2 spyplane, migrating its functions onto the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

The service has warned that if sequester resumes in Fiscal 2016, the KC-10 tanker fleet could also be a victim. Even though the KC-10s are younger than the KC-135s, USAF has argued, it is more cost-effective to delete the logistics tail for a 60-airplane fleet of KC-10s and to simply consolidate with the far more numerous KC-135s.

Schwartz offered high marks for the way that the current Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James have presented their case.

“They successfully navigated treacherous internal waters,” Schwartz observed, partnering with the Guard and Reserve “in a way that we did not successfully achieve.”

Schwartz said what has worked in the past is appealing to the “elders” in Congress, “who ideally have a larger sense of how things should be” and can often exert great influence over the inevitable “constituent interests involved” with the more junior members.

He also suggested that it might be a bridge too far to do the vertical cuts the Air Force wants to do as rapidly as it proposes. The A-10 fleet has been reduced before, he noted, and perhaps a more “incremental” approach would be easier for Capitol Hill to bear.

“The lesson for me is, even in budget-constrained environments, that the Congress is unlikely to … kill something in one cycle. It’s a process.”