Disappearing Into Thin Air

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Air Force

Thursday’s budget details contained several sky-high decisions worth noting:

— New unmanned aircraft aren’t necessarily cheaper and/or better than old – and Battleland means very old – manned aircraft. (Interesting how the military seems to be able to go back to the future with reconnaissance aircraft, but not fighters or bombers.)

— Budget scrubs like this can prove useful in sanding away the rhetoric and getting down to real needs – which apparently never included a new $2 billion cargo aircraft program that was triggered by the Afghan war – six years after it began – and has just been killed – at least three years before it’s over.

— The Air Force will choose bombers over cargo planes every time, although it’s a dearth of airlift that’s usually cited as the bottleneck in war planning.

The Pentagon killed the Air Force’s Global Hawk Block 30 spy drone (that’s just one variant of the unmanned aircraft, which played a role in the confusing accounts over its fate earlier in the week). “We had hoped to replace the U-2 with the Global Hawk, but the Global Hawk became expensive,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said. “That’s the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment.”

Global Hawk builder Northrop Grumman predictably wasn’t pleased. Its drone “provides long duration persistent surveillance, and collects information using multiple sensors on the platform,” the company said. “In contrast, the aging U-2 program, first introduced in the 1950s, places pilots in danger, has limited flight duration, and provides limited sensor capacity.”

Imagine how the poor U-2s feel. Flown for the first time in 1955 — the program only became public in 1960 when Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union during the chilliest days of the Cold War – the U-2 fleet must feel like a Baby Boomer forced to postpone retirement due to a shrinking 401k.

The Pentagon also killed the Air Force’s C-27J program, designed to bring cargo and personnel to isolated airstrips in Afghanistan. The program is a prime example of what can happen when there’s too much money sloshing around. The Pentagon says its “base year” – when the program began – was 2007, and its first flight was in 2008. Check your calendar – not only is that in the fairly recent past, it was more than five years into the Afghan war.

The C-27J is produced by a team led by L-3 Communications, along with Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica. L-3 – why one buys an aircraft whose prime contractor is a communications company has always puzzled Battleland – got a Pentagon contract in 2007 to build 78 of the planes for the Air Force and Army. The Army eventually bailed out of the $4 billion program, leaving the Air Force to buy 38 of the planes for $2 billion.

Says the C-27J team:

The C-27J was selected by the Department of Defense in 2007 to fulfill Army and Air Force requirements for a medium-lift, intra-theater airlift aircraft. The primary mission of the C-27J is to deliver time sensitive/mission critical supplies the “last tactical mile” and the aircraft is perfectly suited to delivering cargo and supplies to forward tactical units in remote, austere locations and land or take off from short unimproved runways that are not accessible by other means.

Not quite. This is how the Pentagon explained its decision Thursday to end the program:

The new strategic guidance emphasizes flexibility and adaptability. The C-27J was developed and procured to provide a niche capability to directly support Army urgent needs in difficult environments such as Afghanistan where we thought the C-130 might not be able to operate effectively. However, in practice, we did not experience the anticipated airfield constraints for C-130 operations in Afghanistan and expect these constraints to be marginal in future scenarios. Since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower, we no longer need — nor can we afford — a niche capability like the C-27J aircraft.

That bit — since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower – is especially striking, given the C-27J’s nickname is Spartan.

What’s also especially striking is how late in the game the Pentagon decided it needed this capability – and how quickly it came to realize it was wrong. Both decisions reflect too much cash floating around to force the Pentagon to make tough decisions. “Achieving the $487 billion in cuts was sufficiently doable that it didn’t require really hard decisions…Unless you force them into it, those hard decisions just don’t get made,” retired Marine General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Reuters. “Everybody buys everything they want.”

Finally, the Pentagon has decided it has enough airlifters, but not enough bombers. There’s a perpetual tug-of-war among the Air Force’s bomber, fighter and airlift communities for aircraft, and the money needed to buy them. Cargo planes tend to get the short end of the stick because they lack the glamor, such as it is, of their kinetic counterparts.

“Air mobility studies have…shown significant excess capacity in the U.S. airlift fleets,” said the Pentagon’s justification for cutting the airlift fleet released Thursday, apparently because of its decision to no longer support two near-simultaneous wars at once.

Interestingly, that logic doesn’t seem to apply to the bomber fleet. “We did protect the bomber force in its entirety in this budget,” Carter explained. “As we consider our force as it applies to the Asia-Pacific region and to the Middle East, bombers play important role in there. That’s the reason for protecting the bomber force.”