Air Force Special Operations Command wanted 16 C-27s to turn them into gunships. (KATSUHIKO TOKUNAGA / COURTESY OF ALENIA AERONAUTIC)
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Six months ago, Air Force Special Operations Command thought it had a solution to its gunship problem.
AFSOC was slated to pick up 16 C-27 Spartans and turn the light cargo planes into nimbler little brothers of the legendary AC-130 Spectre, according to budget documents obtained by Air Force Times.
Now, the deal is off because Army funding for 40 of the Italian-made C-27s has been stripped from the fiscal 2010 budget, according to a defense official familiar with the decision, first reported by The Hill newspaper. The Army intended for the Spartan to replace its aging C-23 Sherpa.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has laid out changes to several major weapon programs that he wants to make but hasn't mentioned the Joint Cargo Aircraft program, a $3 billion partnership by the Army and the Air Force to buy the C-27. Congress must sign off on Gates' recommendations.
One budget document shows that U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine special ops units, wants the Spartan so desperately that it finagled a way to get the plane before the Army and the Air Force.
SOCom arranged to get two C-27s in fiscal 2011 as part of the Army buy and agreed to pay the Army back in fiscal 2015, according to the budget memo, dated in October.
The command would not comment on the budget memo, but spokesman Maj. Wes Ticer denied command officials had even settled on the Spartan.
"Although several airframes are under consideration, no specific aircraft type has yet been programmed for this purpose," Ticer wrote in an e-mail, responding to questions from Air Force Times.
According to a report on U.S. Special Operations Command's needs, the AC-27 was listed as a top priority for AFSOC.
The growth of SOCom by two new special forces groups and the aging problems with the two dozen AC-130s required rapid deployment of a new "precision fire capability," analyst Roger Carstens, a former Army special operator, wrote in a paper titled "The Future of Special Operations Forces."
In a series of briefs to Carstens, AFSOC was less coy about its desire for the plane.
"Both the USAF and SOCom have approved the AC-27…," Carstens wrote.
U.S. Special Operations Command is backpedaling because its buy occurred outside the procurement process, according to a source familiar with the details.
"It was a wink-and-nudge deal," the source said.
One defense official familiar with the deal seriously doubts Congress cut the Army's funding because of political pressure from states expecting the 40 planes to be assigned to their Army National Guard operations. Many of the planes would go to districts at risk of losing their Guard missions because of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission decisions.
"I don't think any of it is a done deal," the defense official said. "I think there is a lot left to be done with decision making in that program."
Guard leaders have talked up the Spartan as a panacea to airlift problems in Afghanistan. The Army relies heavily on aging CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to ferry troops. Guard leaders have said the Spartans would carry more gear faster into forward operating areas and austere runways, easing the wear and tear on the Chinooks.
The Army still wants the planes.
"We still have a requirement for the capabilities that the JCA provides," Brig. Gen. Walter Davis, director of Army Aviation, told the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee at an April 23 hearing.
Davis did not address questions about the reports of the Army program being cut.