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Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) Facing Uncertain Future

by: Matthew Potter
January 3, 2012

Category: Air National Guard, Alenia Aeronautica, Business Line, Companies, Congress, Connecticut, Contract Additions, Contract Awards, Countries, Department of Defense, development program, EADS, Events, Federal Budget Process, Finemeccanica, Italy, L-3, Lockheed Martin, logistics, Military Aviation, Ohio, production program, Raytheon, Restructuring, Services, States, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army | RSS 2.0

The C-27J Spartan is a twin engined light transport aircraft purchased for the U.S. Air Force from a team made up of L-3 Communications (LLL) and Alenia North America, part of the Italian defence and industrial group Finmeccanica. The C-27 is not only used by the U.S. but other countries across the world.

The C-27 was the result of a program originally called the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) which was conceived by the Army as part of their plans caused by the decision to cancel the RH-66 Comanche helicopter in 2004. The Comanche was going to be a new attack and reconnaissance helicopter utilizing many new technologies to maximize its stealth and performance. In development for almost twenty years it finally had begun serious testing when it was cancelled. The money freed up was used to by systems like the UH-60M, the AH-64D Block III, CH-47F and UH-72A helicopters.

The Army suffered from a lack of internal heavy lift for intra-theater missions unlike the Marine Corps who possessed their own C-130 transports. The JCA was meant to add this capability and relieve the pressure on the rotary wing fleet primarily being used to carry cargo in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fixed wing assets would be more efficient and economical.

In 2007 the Army and Air Force selected the C-27 from L-3 and Alenia over bids by Raytheon (RTN), who had teamed with EADS North America, offering a Spanish made C-295 and Lockheed Martin (LMT) who proposed a C-130 version. An initial contract worth about $2 billion for 78 aircraft was awarded to the winners.

The JCA was made a joint program and it was originally planned to issue it to Army and Air Force National Guard units to operate. In 2010 the Obama administration decided to transfer the program wholly to the Air Force to manage and operate. The number of aircraft was potentially reduced and only the Air Force Guard would receive it.

The first unit stood up in 2011 in Ohio where four aircraft will be based at Mansfield. In 2013 the Connecticut and the North Dakota Guard are supposed to received the aircraft.

There are now concerns that the C-27 program may be on the chopping block due to budgetary pressures. The Connecticut unit may be the first to feel this pain although the 2012 budget as submitted does contain the funding for the aircraft it may not make it into the final budget.

The C-27 is not a priority for the Air Force and new equipment for the Guard also sometimes takes hits. If the Air Force leadership is forced to sacrifice some of their funding it may be the C-27 is what is given up. It is also a small program and is primarily oriented towards non-combat missions at this time further making it easier to give up.

As the budget goes through these machinations over the next few years other programs similar to the C-27 may be on the chopping block. That does not mean they will be eliminated but they could see cuts, delays and changes to their size, missions and deployment plans. These programs will have to rely on the Congressmen and Senators who represent the states where they are made or based to protect them through trading of priorities and support.

The size of the cuts the Defense Department must make dictate that whole programs whether in development of production will have to be cut. The C-27 might just be one of them.

Photo from Blyzz’s Flickr photostream.

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