Army poised to win fight over cargo aircraft

The Army has won the months-long battle to maintain its control over the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA), a program it is sharing with the Air Force.

That conclusion comes as Senate and House defense authorizers were expected to put their final signatures on the 2008 defense authorization conference report on Wednesday evening, ending, at least for now, the controversy over the program.

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Senate authorizers, questioning whether the Army and the Air Force should share the JCA program, had directed the Pentagon to assign responsibility to the Air Force for all fixed-wing, intra-theater airlift functions and missions.

That decision came amid an intensifying debate over the two services’ roles and missions ever since former Pentagon acquisition czar Kenneth Krieg directed the two services to enter a joint program for a smaller cargo airplane.

But the Senate authorizers’ position ran into staunch opposition in the House as well as in the Senate, inciting National Guard supporters to lead a concerted campaign against the Senate provision. They feared that a transfer of responsibility would significantly delay the program or even lead to its cancellation.

The Army and Air Force National Guard are slated to fly the C-27J, the aircraft selected for the JCA program.  
Had the Army lost responsibility for the program, more Air National Guard units would have flown the C-27J in support of homeland defense missions. But Army supporters argued that the Air Force did not have the necessary staffing or processes in place to take over the program in a timely manner. Had that takeover occurred, the Army argued, it could have wound up delaying the program by at least a year.

Gen. Michael Moseley told The Hill last month that he would not foresee any changes in the program if the Air Force had fully taken it over.

The Army has an immediate need for the C-27J, slated to replace the beaten-up Sherpas and C-12 Huron aircraft, while the Air Force is planning to start buying the new planes in 2010.  

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who led efforts in the House to nix the Senate language, hailed the conferees’ decision.

He and other lawmakers, including Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), objected to the fact that there had been no open hearings or discussions before the Senate made a decision influencing roles and missions.

“We have redeemed the process because this is not the way to make decisions: behind closed doors without an opportunity to comment,” said Courtney, who had an Air National Guard unit on the line in the JCA debate.  

In the Senate, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) led the campaign to eliminate the authorizing provision. Both chambers’ efforts received strong support from scores of lawmakers.

JCA supporters may still run into one hurdle that could delay the program. House authorizers included language in their bill that would make funding for the JCA dependent on the Pentagon’s submission of several reports to the House Armed Services Committee by December. At press time Wednesday, it was unclear how much of that limitation was maintained in the conference report.

House and Senate appropriators fully funded the Army’s request of $157 million for the C-27J, while they halved the Air Force’s request for $21 million in the research and development budget line.