The C-27 truth vacuum

No one seems to have the full picture of the Air Force's embattled junior airlifter, and Congress is skeptical.

Did the Air Force’s leadership appreciate the hornet’s nest it was kicking over by proposing to ice its entire fleet of C-27J Spartans?

It has seemed completely unprepared for the backlash it has faced over the decision. Anyone can say anything about how much the twin-engine airlifter costs to fly, whether it’s more efficient than the four-engine C-130, how many airmen it requires, or anything else. Last week it was confusing; this week it’s a truth vacuum.

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz how the costs broke down for the propeller-driven cargo planes. Schwartz had some numbers handy: It costs about $9,000 per hour to fly the C-27J, it’s a little higher to fly the C-130J, and it costs about $10,400 to fly the C-130H.

Whoa whoa whoa, said Portman — those numbers were new to him. “This is incredibly confusing,” he said. “When we had a private conversation about this, none of these data points … were available.”

The Air Force had chosen to stick to round numbers in previous hearings, citing the 25-year lifecycle cost. A briefing prepared by an Ohio Air Guard captain that has disputed the Air Force’s justification for killing the C-27J cites the reimbursable cost per hour to fly the C-27J, C-130J, and C-130H.

In a meeting at the Pentagon with reporters and defense analysts on Friday, Kevin Williams, a retired Air Force colonel who is one of the service’s leading analysts, disputed the data used by the Ohio Guardsman. He said it was more accurate to use the normalized cost per flying hour, which is where the $9,000 figure came from. Of course, the normalized cost per flying hour gets cheaper the more you fly the aircraft, making it the easiest to bend based upon 25-year projections.

“Frankly, it’s been a dizzying six weeks going through these numbers,” Portman said. He suggested that the Air Force was trying to make the numbers in this situation be what they needed to be to justify a decision that had already been made. What an idea!

Schwartz muddied the waters further: The C-27J’s cost per flight hour might be lower, he said, but it’s got contracted maintenance, as opposed to the “organic” maintenance the Air Force can keep up with its C-130s — in other words, airmen repair the Hercs but contractors work on the Spartans. That, combined with a “strategic-level discussion” about the number of fleets the Air Force should maintain, informed the decision to mothball the little planes, he said.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told Portman that the C-27J is “nice to have,” but given that it satisfies a “very narrow piece” of the Army’s missions, it has to go. He and other top Air Force leaders say they can get supplies to troops downrange with precision air drops from C-130s, so the bigger bird doesn’t have to land on the shorter, rougher airfields where the C-27J was built to operate.

Portman, who wants to protect the Ohio Air National Guard’s C-27Js stationed in Mansfield — literally right across the street from the old prison where “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed — remained skeptical. He consulted data from Afghanistan that he said showed 65 percent of the time, C-130s were flying in theatre with just one pallet of cargo, and that the rest of the time, they only had two. Doesn’t it make sense, he argued, to use a smaller airplane to move just-in-time necessities such as helicopter parts, as opposed to a bigger, heavier and thirstier C-130? He did not add that it can also save wear and tear on Army CH-47 Chinooks, which the Army brass once hoped would get some relief from the C-27Js.

It is what it is, Donley and Schwartz said, but the bottom line is that they believe the C-130s are “more flexible” and that these budget projections were about where to take additional risk. The Herc can take enough of the “niche” the Spartan now fills that the Air Force can make it work, they believe.

Lawmakers, so far, are not sold. Worse, from the Air Force’s perspective, they are mad. Nothing irks members of Congress more than when they feel they’re not being fairly dealt with, especially when the administration is controlled by the other party. Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker sharply questioned Schwartz and Donley’s decision to ax the Block 30 Global Hawk, only months after saying it was a necessity.

“We need to be able to rely on what this committee is told,” he said. “Now we’re told, ‘the requirements have changed. The assumptions have changed. We’re told ‘never mind’ what [then-top weapons buyer and now Undersecretary of Defense Ash Carter] said.'”

Even Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, questioned the Air Force’s forthrightness in his opening statement:

“The Air Force had established a requirement, validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, for 38 C-27 aircraft to provide direct support to Army ground forces,” Levin said. “Again, all were going to the Guard. No one forced the Air Force to join what was a joint program with the Army, and then take sole ownership of it. 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.”

Ultimately Levin and other congressional lawmakers want the final say; he asked Secretary Panetta in a letter, and Schwartz and Donley at Tuesday’s hearing, to do nothing on force-structure or downsizing unless and until Congress gives its assent. The Air Force leaders agreed. So the C-27J question and all the other proposed reductions may look very different by the time they happen — if they do. staff writer Michael Hoffman contributed to this report.