KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The C-27J transport aircraft just made its theater debut, but it may be a cameo.
Despite a fervent defense by the crews that fly the aircraft and legislators whose states stand to lose jobs from its demise, the Air Force is trying to cut the program just eight months after the twin-propeller mini-cargo plane made its first combat flight. Meanwhile, C-27 crews supporting the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan are trying to carry out their mission, though they worry the outcome of the debate could mean the closure of their Air National Guard base in Mansfield, Ohio.
On Friday morning, a C-27J took off from Kandahar Air Field amid the muted pastels of a crisp desert sunrise. Crossing craggy, sun-baked mountains with barely a village visible, the crew was headed toward a common customer: a remote Special Forces base, where resupply by road is too risky.
Onboard were three pallets of wood needed for construction, a load that fills the C-27 but would be impractically small for the much larger C-130, which can haul significantly more. Shortly after the plane descended to about 1,000 feet, the bay doors opened, Master Sgt. Dennis Folk cut a fabric fastener, and the pallets rumbled out of the plane in a cloud of dust before disappearing under billowing canopies.
It’s just this kind of drop that proponents say the C-27J is made for — small cargo the aircraft can transport more cheaply than its larger cousin, the C-130, while freeing up CH-47 Chinook helicopters to transport troops to the battlefield, rather than hauling supplies, as they’re often called on to do.
The Air Force now says the plane is a luxury it cannot afford in this era of cost-cutting, despite the fact that the government signed a $2 billion contract to produce the planes, which saw their first combat missions in August.
The Air Force says it has spent just under $1 billion on the program so far. For now, it looks like the C-27J will make its last combat flight this summer.
“The timing of the DoD (cost-cutting) Strategy and the effects of the Budget Control Act drove the timing of this decision,” according to a written reply to Stars and Stripes’ questions sent by Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy. “The Air Force remains fully committed to the direct support mission for the United States Army and others going forward.”
Much smaller than the C-130, the C-27J is 74.5 feet long with a 94-foot wingspan. It flies with a crew of four and can take 28 passengers without cargo. The planes were designed as a “direct support” aircraft for the Army, to ferry small loads of cargo and troops, often on an emergency basis, and to access bases with runways too small for a C-130.
One goal was to free up Chinooks for air assaults, in which troops are dropped into hostile areas far from U.S. bases, often for multiday missions.
“Everyone compares [the C-27J] to the ‘130,’ and it’s really not (the right comparison),” said Lt. Col. Todd K. Thomas, squadron commander for the C-27J crews working in Afghanistan. “This mission was really to reduce the number of CH-47 blade hours.”
The Air Force does use the C-130 comparison, saying that aircraft can take over the C-27J mission, though they acknowledge the smaller plane can land on shorter runways.
A numbers game
Cost was a big part of the Air Force’s equation, and there are a lot of disparate numbers on the C-27J floating around.
According to figures from the Ohio Air National Guard, whose crews fly the C-27Js, the aircraft cost about $2,100 per hour to fly, as compared with about $7,000 for the C-130 and more than $9,000 for a Chinook.
Thomas, citing the Guard report, says the cost savings are clear.
“It is obvious, even if you’re not a math major,” he said.
The Air Force says per-hour flying costs are closer to $9,000 for the C-27Js. The two are about $200 million apart when estimating lifetime costs for the plane.
These facts are hotly disputed, though, both on the ground in Afghanistan, in Internet forums and in Congress, where members from Ohio and Michigan are fighting for the aircraft. Those states, which are slated to host the aircraft, stand to lose hundreds if not thousands of jobs if the program is scrapped.
Whatever the costs, though, the Pentagon spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars on a program they apparently didn’t need. “Five years ago,” Cassidy wrote, “the decision to pursue the acquisition of C-27J aircraft was based on well-defined operational requirements developed by the Army and the Air Force, and approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. The C-27J was determined to be an ideal fit for the mission of supporting the Army in their ‘last tactical mile,’ and for a number of intratheater airlift roles as a complement to the Air Force’s C-130 fleet.
“In light of reduced intratheater airlift requirements resulting from the new DoD strategic guidance and today’s challenging budget environment, the Air Force made the difficult decision to divest the C-27J.”
The mission goes on
The mood’s a bit glum among the C-27J crews of the 702nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, who refer to the C-27J dispute as “that business in D.C.,” and the airmen who work with the planes vigorously defend their usefulness.
“The C-27, it is made absolutely spot-on for direct support, the sensitive mission,” said Thomas.
Others raised the question of the efficiency of partially full C-130s taking the small loads the C-27Js currently fly, often on an emergency basis.
“You don’t need a C-130 to haul one pallet and six people,” Folk said.
For now, though, Thomas’ crews try to stay focused on the daily grind of flying people and supplies around a war zone.
“They’ve kept a good attitude,” Thomas said. “That’s a challenge to come in day in and day out and hear all that stuff at home.”