Airlift Confusion
Thursday May 03rd 2007, 12:39 am
Filed under: The Industry, Up in the Air

The growing urgency to replace old airlifters and cargo helicopters has resulted in conflict rather than unity among military services that nevertheless tout a “joint” vision for future airlift.

In the early years of the Iraq war, the military’s scheme for getting supplies from the United State all the way to forward-deployed ground troops was fairly standardized. Urgent or lightweight supplies were ferried across the ocean in strategic airlifters – Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxies and Boeing C-17 Globemasters – while heavier, less urgent materials went by sea. Once consolidated at a secure overseas “aerial port” such as in Kuwait, supplies were broken down, repackaged in smaller batches and ferried into Iraq in the holds of Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. From in-theater supply hubs including Anaconda, near Balad, and Al Taqqadum in the west, Army Shorts C-23 Sherpa planes and Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters or Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions, hauled the most critical supplies. But the majority of material made its way to the troops by way of mile-long ground convoys that traveled only at night and with heavy escort. Despite precautions, the men and women manning these convoys suffered hundreds of fatalities during the “convoy war” phase of the conflict in 2004 and 2005.

These days there are fewer ground convoys and therefore fewer casualties among drivers. The burden of hauling the displaced supplies has fallen to the helicopters, Sherpas and C-130s flying to forward airstrips. Even C-17s have gotten into the intra-theater airlift game in addition to flying trans-ocean routes. But there’s no free lunch: due to increased use, aircraft are wearing out at accelerated rate, and need replacing, bad. There are no fewer than six separate programs or concepts underway for new lift aircraft, two of them “joint.” But their fates are far from clear, and for now there are more questions than answers as far as tactical airlift is concerned.

Case in point: the Army-Air Force “Joint Cargo Aircraft.” To ease the burden on large Air Force airlifters, in 2005 Pentagon acquisitions czar Kenneth Krieg told the Air Force to join an existing Army program to replace that service’s non-pressurized, small-load C-23s. The Army Future Cargo Aircraft was supposed to serve as a more robust, more powerful solution than the Sherpa for getting supplies across the “last tactical mile,” to use a term that’s popular inside airlift circles. With the Air Force aboard, FCA became JCA: the Joint Cargo Aircraft. As envisioned in 2005, JCA would deliver an initial 70 Air Force and 75 Army airlifters of a common type for a total cost of around $5 billion. But no sooner had the J replaced the F in the program than the two services began squabbling over requirements. One result is a pair of contenders offering very different platforms, albeit both with two engines. A Raytheon-led team including EADS and CASA is pitching the C-295, which is smaller and less powerful but more fuel-efficient on an individual basis than its main competitor, the C-27J from L-3 Communications and its partners Alenia, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

Which team comes out on top when the Pentagon announces the JCA winner this spring might come down to which service gets its way: the Army is said to prefer the -295, the Air Force apparently favors the -27J. The Air Force has the benefit of being the military’s major airlift agent, but the Army is the lead service on JCA, so it’s not clear which service has more clout on the subject. But we’re about to find out: the JCA decision is due soon, and the fallout from the decision could be extensive as the Army and Air Force go head-to-head over a mission that once belonged mostly to the air service.

Read the whole story in the latest issue of Defense Technology International. And watch the video to see just one of the things the new JCA will do:

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[…] In a rare fit of good sense, the Air Force is considering adapting its forthcoming “Joint Cargo Aircraft” — basically a souped-up C-27 — into a gunship armed with a 30-millimeter cannon, the Air Force Association newsletter reports. “The aircraft might be just the right size for Air Force Special Operations Command, which might need to take a light gunship with it to austere combat zones.” It would presumably supplement the larger AC-130 Spectres armed with 105-millimeter guns. […]

Pingback by War Is Boring 09.26.07 @ 5:18 am

[…] With insurgent attacks making road convoys in Iraq more dangerous than ever, there’s been a push to haul more supplies by air to forward bases. With that in mind, the Army decided to replace its ancient, lightweight C-23 Sherpa cargo planes with bigger, more powerful “baby C-130s.” The Air Force, desperate to shore up its ailing airlifter fleet, hopped on board the program, and this year the services jointly picked the Alenia C-27J Spartan for the role. It’s a rugged, reliable airplane, and it’ll do wonders for short-range airlift. […]

Pingback by War Is Boring 10.17.07 @ 1:04 am

[…] Military journalist David Axe (May 3/07) – Airlift Confusion. Neatly sets out the way airlift worked at the beginning of the IRaq war – and why that has broken down. […]

Pingback by Joint Cargo Aircraft: We Have a Winner (defense procurement, military acquisition, defence purchasing) 10.21.07 @ 12:06 am

[…] Other questions remain: […]

Pingback by War Is Boring 02.20.08 @ 5:06 pm

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