Air Force puts kibosh on funding for Army's new cargo aircraft

A Senate panel’s decision to slash almost all funding from the Army’s request for a new cargo airplane is sending defense contractors into a tailspin.

The cut also reveals possible tension between the Army and the Air Force, which the Pentagon directed to work together on the program.

The two services had similar needs for a new cargo airplane to be used within a theater of operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pentagon acquisition czar Kenneth Krieg directed the Army and Air Force to establish the Joint Cargo Aircraft program. They are expected to sign a memorandum of agreement within the next few days.

But the Army, which has been pushing the project for more than a year, has been left with a headache.

The Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), cut $109 million from the Army’s request of $113 million for the aircraft to replace its aging C-23 Sherpa and C-12 Huron, which are smaller than the C-130 and C-17 workhorses.

According to a source familiar with the subcommittee’s authorization process, the panel’s staff preparing for the 2007 markup asked the Air Force about its request for the procurement. The Air Force responded that “it is nowhere near buying the aircraft,” said the source, which was taken as a go-ahead for the substantial funding cut.

“The problem is it was not the Air Force’s money; it was the Army’s” that the panel cut, the source said.

The Army has an “urgent need” for the aircraft; it was supposed to receive its first one in 2008. The Air Force is waiting until 2010. The Air Force’s request for what it calls the Light Cargo Aircraft (which will become the Joint Cargo Aircraft, or JCA) is about $15 million for 2007.

The subcommittee did not talk to the Army about the JCA account. “The Air Force hung the Army out to dry,” the source said.

The Air Force committed, when the JCA became a joint project, to guarding the Army’s 2007 request. The Air Force did not want to comment on the ongoing defense authorization process.

In its release of the 2007 defense authorization mark, the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the program requirements for the aircraft were not “fully defined.”

Adding salt to the Army’s wound is the fact that the money requested for the cargo aircraft is left over from the service’s cancellation of the Comanche helicopter program. The money saved from the Comanche was intended to fund other Army immediate needs.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a veteran Senate Armed Services Committee member and chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, is trying to come to the Army’s rescue.

“I was sorry that the Airland Subcommittee cut $109.1 million from the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) program,” Sessions said in an e-mail statement to The Hill. “Most of the money in question was for the Army, which established its set of requirements to replace an aging fleet of aircraft, including the Sherpa and C-12.”

Sessions added that the Air Force has not yet provided its JCA requirements, as noted in the Jan. 30 memorandum of understanding signed by Gen. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff. The memorandum stated that the Air Force requirements for the JCA would be made available in 90 days.

“I look forward to working with Senator McCain and House conferees to restore JCA funding” in the 2007 national defense authorization bill, Sessions said.

Mobile, Ala., would provide a site for final assembly and delivery for the aircraft, depending on which contractor wins the contract. Other states such as Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia could also have high stakes in the program.

Meanwhile, the House version of the authorization bill would entirely fund the Army request.

It is premature to draw a conclusion on the fate of the funding because the defense authorization process is still at an early stage. Both the House and the Senate need to bring the bill to the floor and then go to conference.

To restore the Army’s funding for the program, however, lawmakers need to find offsets because money cannot simply be added to the bill. Defense appropriators in both chambers still have to mark up their bills.

“The JCA provides the Army with a niche capability to tactically transport time-sensitive and mission critical supplied for the soldiers in the battlefield,” said Lt. Col. Carl S. Ey, the Army’s spokesman for the program.

To resupply its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army now uses Chinook helicopters and land vehicles. But using those, the Army puts its soldiers at risk much more than using appropriate cargo aircraft, he added.

A senior Pentagon official said that if the Army does not receive its funding request it will pull back its request for proposals from the industry.

Vying for the contract are a team of L-3 Communications, Alenia North America and Boeing offering the C-27J Spartan; a team made up of Raytheon and the European Aeronautics Defense Co. (EADS), offering the C-295; and Lockheed Martin, which came late into the game with its C-130 J short-fuselage version. All three aircraft have been used extensively around the world.

“Once Lockheed did that, on the Senate side there could have been the feeling that the capability already existed,” said a National Guard source. “I think they were worried about starting another program.”

The JCA would go to the Army and Air National Guard. The recommendation to cut money from the program could raise ire among the states’ adjutant generals because they are already troubled by the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission decision to take C-130s from the National Guard and move them to the active Air Force, thus leaving states without their assets, a defense source said.