The roads in war torn Iraq and Afghanistan are some of the most treacherous thoroughfares in the world. Routine military convoy missions have quickly turned deadly in the flash of an improvised explosive device (IED).
Used in roadside and suicide car bombings, IEDs "have caused over 60 percent of all American combat casualties in Iraq and 50 percent of combat casualties in Afghanistan, both killed and wounded," according to a report by the Congressional Research Service last August.
The United States military has been using intra-theater airlift to limit that threat. Air Force officials told Congress last spring that C-130 flights alone were replacing an average of 3,500 trucks per month. But to reach locations inaccessible to the Hercules, the so-called "last tactical mile," the U.S. Army has relied mainly on the C-23 Sherpa twin turboprop — an aircraft that is "inadequate for many of today’s military missions," said John Caraway, product director of the Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) program, based at the Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Ala.
The C-23 "does not have the required payload (and) range and is not interoperable with Air Force aircraft," Caraway said in an interview. The cargo limitations of the C-23 have forced the Army to take CH-47 Chinook helicopters away from their primary assault missions to resupply troops at remote, front-line positions. Along with resupply, the Chinooks also fly in reinforcements and take out injured personnel.
The plan is to correct the situation with the C-27J Spartan medium transport, selected last June as the JCA to serve both the Army and Air Force. Built by an industrial team led by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems Group, based in Greenville, Texas, the C-27J is more robust than the C-23 as well as the C-26 Metroliner and C-12 Huron transports, while still capable of short takeoffs and landings (STOL) at austere locations. The aircraft’s advanced avionics have more in common with the new C-130J Hercules than with the aging Sherpa.
An advanced version of the Alenia Aeronautica G222, the twin turboprop C-27J won the JCA contract by defeating the smaller Raytheon and EADS-CASA C-295 military transport and then fending off a contract protest late last year by the losing contractors. The C-27J won despite a 15-percent higher price tag than the C-295, at $2.04 billion for 78 aircraft over five years, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Shortly after the contract award, President Bush signed the 2008 Defense Appropriations Act, fully funding the Army’s initial request of $157 million for the JCA program. The Defense Acquisition Board has green lighted the production of the 78 aircraft — 54 for the Army and 24 for the Air Force — through 2013, said Army spokesman Major Tom McCuin. Deliveries above that number will require further approval through the DoD acquisition process, noted Alison Hartley, L-3 Integrated Systems vice president of business development.
The Army is slated to receive its first C-27J this year. The first Air Force order is scheduled for fiscal 2010, with delivery likely in FY 2012, according to Hartley.
"We are running full speed to deliver the first aircraft by the end of September and the second two months later," Hartley said late last year. The initial JCA "is in final production at the Alenia plant near Turin (Italy) and will be delivered to L-3 in Waco (Texas) by July. An integration test bed aircraft is already at Waco to support installation and certification of the peculiar mission equipment, and to support other test efforts in the United States."
L-3 has been "working on several elements of the program, including avionics upgrades, in advance of the contract award to assure that our processes and products are in place for on-time delivery," Hartley said.
JCA production will be moved eventually from Italy to a facility in Jacksonville, Fla., set up and managed by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and Alenia North America.
Once in service, the C-27J will give the Army a major performance boost over the Sherpa, the aircraft it is most directly compared to, based on size and mission, Hartley said.
The Sherpa has STOL capability and a 1,000-mile operating range, with a 25,500-pound maximum takeoff weight. The aircraft is not pressurized, so it can fly at only about 10,000 feet at a top cruising speed of about 200 knots. The C-27J has a maximum takeoff weight of 70,107 pounds, cruises at 315 knots at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, and can fly 1,000 nautical miles with a 22,000-pound (10,000 kilogram) payload. The aircraft’s advertised landing ground roll is 1,115 feet; its tactical takeoff ground run is 1,903 feet.
The Sherpa can accommodate either 30 passengers, 27 paratroops or 18 patients plus two attendants in the medevac role. The C-27J can accommodate up to 68 troops or 46 paratroops, plus two loadmasters, Hartley said. In the medevac configuration, it is capable of 36 patients on stretchers and six attendants.
Unlike the Sherpa, the C-27J cargo compartment can handle full, Air Force standard 463L pallets, making its "cargo system fully compatible with the C-130," said Hartley. There is no need to break down pallets when transferring loads from Air Force cargo aircraft.
The compatibility of the C-27J with the Hercules, namely the latest C-130J version built by Lockheed Martin, is not an accident. The C-27J was created by Lockheed Martin Alenia Tactical Transport Systems (LMATTS), a joint venture of Alenia Aeronautica and Lockheed Martin based in Marietta, Ga.
The C-27 first flew on Sept. 24, 1999, at Alenia Aeronautica’s flight-test center in Turin. The aircraft was type-certified to civil Joint Aviation Regulations Part 25 requirements in June 2001, and received military type certification by Italy’s defense ministry later that year.
Alenia Aeronautica began working on the JCA program with L-3, a former Lockheed business unit, in early 2005.
The close relationship with the C-130J carries over to the Spartan’s flight deck. Based on Mil-Std-1553B data bus architecture, C-27J avionics share a common design concept and many of the same technologies of the C-130J. The aircraft uses the AN/APN-241 radar developed by Northrop Grumman to meet C-130 requirements. The low-power, color radar provides ground mapping, weather and turbulence detection, air target detection, windshear detection and a beacon mode for drop-zone identification.
The C-27J flight deck is designed for two crew with a third observer/loadmaster position behind the pilots. The panel has five, 6-by-8-inch multipurpose primary flight displays from L-3 Display Systems. These are full-color, daylight-readable LCDs that are "crew-definable" in terms of what can be displayed.
Honeywell is supplying its H-764G Embedded GPS/INS navigator, satcom components, TCAS, EGPWS and other systems. The Rockwell Collins Head-up Guidance System (HGS), with a combiner for each pilot, is standard. Flight deck lighting is compliant with Class B Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS) and is interoperable with the Army’s Class A NVIS devices, Hartley said.
Other suppliers include L-3 Avionics Systems (standby indicator), Barco (dual multifunctional control display units) and GE Aviation (some control panels).
The avionics suite is compliant with Communication Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) and Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) standards. "Being CNS/ATM compliant enables the JCA to fly more direct air routes and reduces civil operational restrictions," Caraway said. "This helps the JCA to more safely and expeditiously conduct worldwide missions in civil airspace, and more rapidly and economically deploy to tactical operating locations."
The JCA contract in the United States is expected to help boost international sales of the C-27J. Three nations — Italy, Greece and Lithuania — currently fly aircraft produced by Alenia Aeronautica, and had executed nearly 2,000 flights, achieving operational readiness "above 80 percent," Hartley said. Two other nations, Bulgaria and Romania, had C-27Js on order. The JCA-specific configuration likely will be available through U.S. foreign military sales, and the Air Force was to meet late last year with up to 40 interested nations, Hartley said.
"The JCA win means that this is a firm and successful program," declared Teal Group. "...It is more appropriate for export markets and probably wouldn’t exist in the U.S. market if it weren’t for the (JCA program)," said Richard Aboulafia, the firm’s vice president of analysis.
Battle Waged Over JCA
Money has been appropriated and the Joint Cargo Aircraft is moving forward, but the program will likely continue to face challenges.
The fate of the JCA remained in doubt until mid-November last year, when a conference committee struck a Senate-backed provision to place the program under Air Force control. Aside from ending the program’s joint status, some officials believed the Senate proposal could have killed it altogether.
"We were fearful that if it became an Air Force program it would be at best delayed and, at worst, the funding diverted to what the Air Force deems are other priorities," said John Goheen, of the National Guard Association of the United States, which pressed hard to keep the program on track.
The Senate proposal underscored the battle waged over the program below the surface. "The trouble started when the Army wanted to create its own Air Force, replacing thirty something Sherpas with 145 more capable" Future Cargo Aircraft (FCA) in 2005, said Teal Group. A year later, the Department of Defense merged FCA with the nascent Air Force Light Cargo Aircraft program and the JCA was born. Both services lauded the program at the time.
The Air Force got involved in JCA mainly "because it didn’t want the Army to take away any of the tactical airlift," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a research organization in Arlington, Va.
"The Air Force’s approach to tactical airlift remains focused mainly on the C-130s, but it was forced to develop an interest in the JCA because of concerns the Army would take away part of its mission and budget areas."
For its part, the Army has been careful to limit the scope of its airlift plans to covering only the "last tactical mile." Observed John Caraway, JCA product director, "The JCA compliments the C-130. It is not replacing or taking over any C-130 missions; it is replacing all (Army) C-23s."
The Army won the battle in Congress, but the program shrunk from 145 aircraft when a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006 to just 78. In line for only 24 JCAs, the Air Force is not expected place its initial order until 2010, said Alison Hartley, L-3 Integrated Systems Group vice president of business development.
There are some who think the JCA should go away altogether.
The aircraft would be "nice to have, but with the range of funding challenges we are facing in the budget outlook, I doubt we will be able to afford it," said Thompson.
"I accept the Army’s argument that the JCA is better suited for certain missions than any other plane they could be using. I just wonder whether that suitability is worth the billions of dollars the program is going to cost," Thompson added.
The program "doesn’t seem to be well thought out" from a long-term strategic perspective, said Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group vice president of analysis. It is a case of "the Army fighting the last war. You can put them into service overnight in Iraq and Afghanistan and they would be very useful." However, beyond those engagements, the rational for the program is unclear "unless Iraq represents the future" for U.S. military actions, he said.
On the positive side, the C-27J "will find roles out there. It may not represent the best use of limited resources, but since it’s a done deal there are certainly Army and (Special Operations Command) operators that will be pleased to get these planes," Aboulafia said.
Other platforms may compete for the JCA mission. For example, the military is already "exploring the efficacy of fielding battlefield UAVs to conduct tactical airlift of small, but valuable payloads such as blood plasma, night vision devices, ammunition, or communications equipment," Christopher Bolkcom, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, told Congress last March. Another candidate is the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which has overlapping capabilities with the Army’s requirements, Bolkom said.
By gaining initial funding, the C-27J has cleared a key hurdle. But nothing is locked in Washington, said Thompson. "Anything can change and almost everything does," he said. "The Army will walk away from the JCA in a flash if it thinks it’s in danger of losing something that is higher priority."
Air Guard Eyes Spartan
Air National Guard units are seeking their share of JCAs to replace an aging air cargo fleet.
The C-27J will "afford its crew greater protection" than the C-23 Sherpa, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, an advocacy organization representing 45,000 current and former Army and Air National Guard officers.
In the JCA, "the Guard sees an aircraft that can be used with a lot of flexibility," both in combat and domestic emergency missions, said Goheen. In situations, such as Hurricane Katrina or last year’s wild fires in southern California, the C-27J could be used to "move an assortment of troops and equipment into unimproved airfields, maybe even highways that are blocked off."
The C-27J could replace some of the flying missions the Air National Guard is losing as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round, Goheen said.
"It will be critical to the Guard’s effort to retain the experienced pilots and maintenance personnel that are very soon going to be without aircraft," he said. — Ed McKenna
Joint Cargo Aircraft Major Suppliers
Following is a list of major suppliers involved in the U.S. Joint Cargo Aircraft program, provided by L-3 Integrated Systems Group.
L-3 Integrated Systems Group: Prime contractor and systems integrator. Other L-3 subsidiaries provide display systems, contract maintenance, and simulators and training.
Alenia Aeronautica: C-27J developer and manufacturer. Its subsidiary, Alenia North America, based in Washington, D.C., and L-3 Integrated Systems are joint venture partners in Global Military Aircraft Systems (GMAS), headquartered in Huntsville, Ala. GMAS is responsible for managing logistics and training activities and after-delivery support.
Boeing Integrated Defense Systems: In partnership with Alenia North America, will establish a final assembly and production facility at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Rolls Royce North America: AE 2100-D2 engines, manufactured in Indianapolis
GE Aviation: Dowty R-391 six-blade composite propellers
Honeywell: H-764G Embedded GPS/INS (EGI); EGI mounting tray; EGPWS, TCAS, satellite data unit, high-power amplifier and high-speed data unit, Communications Management Unit, Aircraft Personality Module