Senate language could take away Army’s control of JCA

Questioning whether the Army and Air Force should share the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) program, Senate defense authorizers are directing the Pentagon to assign responsibility to the Air Force for all fixed-wing airlift functions and missions.  

The language included in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2008 defense authorization bill highlights the debate over the two services’ roles and missions that has been building in Congress and at the Pentagon since Kenneth Krieg, the acquisition czar, directed the two services to enter a joint program for a smaller cargo airplane.

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The JCA program, which was intended to replace the beaten-up C-23 Sherpa and C-12 Huron aircraft, has had a rocky start, with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes controversy.

Senate authorizers are directing the secretary of defense, acting through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to make the Air Force responsible for fixed-wing support for the Army’s logistics on the battlefield.

The language accompanies a shift of $157 million from the Army’s budget request for the JCA to the Air Force’s budget line in the Senate’s version of the 2008 defense authorization bill.

The Senate panel’s directive language and money transfer could affect the JCA program with the Army no longer part of the acquisition and operation of the aircraft.

Today the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB), which is slated to verify the program, will decide which service will lead the program and the number of aircraft each service will receive, according to a Pentagon official. The DAB also is expected to validate the contractor selection made by the JCA program office in early May. An official contract announcement will be made at the beginning of June.

Two teams are vying for the contract. One consists of L-3 Communications, Alenia North America and Boeing and is offering the C-27J Spartan. The second team is made up of Raytheon and the European Aeronautics Defense Co., offering the C-295.

The transfer of money from the Army to the Air Force is not immediately expected to affect the program’s schedule and the contract award. However, the Army has expressed an urgent need for the JCA, while the Air Force is not planning to buy it until 2010. The money the Army has requested for the new cargo aircraft comes out of the cancellation of the Comanche helicopter program.

Last year, Senate defense authorizers slashed almost the entire Army request for the JCA, citing a lack of defined requirements.

When conferees restored the funding for JCA, they put it in the Air Force’s budget line with strings attached. They directed the Pentagon and the two services to conduct an analysis on the right mix and number of intra-theater assets required for the JCA mission.

“Whatever those analyses show, however, the more fundamental question is whether this should be a joint program between the Army and the Air Force, or whether this fixed-wing, intra-theater lift mission should be assigned solely to the Air Force,” the current committee report said.

The Senate Armed Services panel has heard frequent anecdotes from Army officials about the lack of logistics support they feel has been provided by the Air Force operating the C-130 aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the report that accompanies the bill language.

“However, when invited to provide concrete examples that would give substance to the assertions, the Army was not forthcoming,” authorizers said.

Without concrete examples, authorizers said there is no way to tell whether the perceived shortage of support was due to other Air Force priorities or if Air Force operators were engaged fully in supporting the priorities of the overall ground component commander.

Authorizers added that the Army’s arguments “have a familiar ring: ‘I can’t count on it in wartime if I don’t own it all the time.’”

If the joint forces air component commander did not support the priorities of the joint forces land component commander on the battlefield, the joint forces commander would be required to correct the situation. If that is not the case, however, there would be no “persuasive argument” for the land component commander to “have his own air force.”

“The committee believes that the Air Force is better positioned to provide this type of support in wartime and in peacetime, and believes that the Army would be better served to focus its scarce resources on those missions and functions for which it is uniquely qualified and which are demonstrably under-funded,” authorizers concluded.

Earlier this year, a draft memo from the Pentagon’s Program Analysis and Evaluation office directed the Air Force to develop a plan in collaboration with the United States Transportation Command, the Army and the Navy under which the service would consolidate the acquisition, administration, operation and sustainment of all fixed-wing cargo or passenger aircraft.

The Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, told The Hill in a recent interview that it would make sense for the Air Force to be the executive agent for cargo aircraft, but if the Department of Defense were to give the entire program to the Air Force, “my immediate response would be to partner with the Army to make sure everything about the Army’s requirement is met.”

Meanwhile, the Army had little success with the JCA in the House’s version of the 2008 defense authorization bill. There, defense authorizers stipulated that funding for the program depends on the Pentagon submitting several pending reports. The House already has voted on the bill, while the Senate is slated to take it up in June.  Conference negotiations could alter final decisions.

The Army could have its funding restored when defense appropriators mark up the defense bill later this year.