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Air Force, Army to purchase small cargo aircraft

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 30, 2006) -- By 2010, both the Army and the Air Force may be flying the same aircraft to provide airlift inside places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Secretary of Defense has given approval for the Army and the Air Force to work together to purchase those aircraft. The Army has been calling it a "Future Cargo Aircraft," while the Air Force calls it a "Light Cargo Aircraft." But ultimately, those names will be gone in favor of "Joint Cargo Aircraft." And it won't just be the name that is the same.

The Joint Cargo Aircraft will be a small aircraft developed for both the Army and the Air Force. It will be smaller than the Air Force's C-130 Hercules, but larger than the Army's C-23 Sherpa. Most likely, the aircraft will be a variant of an aircraft already available in the civilian sector, and the manufacturer will modify it for military use.

"What we are not going to do is go out and build, from the bottom up, a new airplane and take six or seven years to get it in the field," said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation. "We are looking for something to fill this capability gap now. We have issues with the airframe we have."

Purchasing an aircraft already being manufactured by a contractor would ensure a lower cost acquisition and a speedier delivery of the capability. Both the services agree the selection will be based on speed, range, capacity, and the ability to land on unimproved runways or in more austere locations.

"We have always focused on the same goal – to provide the combatant commanders with the tools they need to do the mission, and in the process of developing new capabilities, be good stewards of our taxpayer’s money," said Brig. Gen. Andrew S. Dichter, Air Force deputy director for joint integration. "By adopting a common platform, we believe we are doing just this."

Both services say they expect delivery of the aircraft to the Army to begin in 2008, with "source selection," that is the choice of the manufacturer, to be made by December 2006. The Air Force should take delivery of its first aircraft in 2010.

There have been discussions about the purchase of nearly 150 of the aircraft, though that number could change based on any number of factors, including what is determined to be the unified commanders' requirements.

"At this point, there is general agreement the Army will proceed with about 75 aircraft," General Dichter said. "The Air Force will pick up, using the Army's initial requirement, to round out the fleet at about 145 aircraft. Ongoing studies (will) further refine the requirement. The acquisition authorities are the ultimate decision makers, however."

For years, the Army has used the C-23 Sherpa, the C-12 Huron and the C-26 Metroliner to provide "organic" intratheater airlift.

"Intratheater" means inside a theater of operations. For example, anything meant to fly exclusively inside Iraq today would be intratheater. "Organic" means exclusive to a service -- the Army using Army aircraft to move Army supplies and people between Army units is considered organic.

The Army uses the Sherpa and other rotor-wing assets to move goods "the last tactical mile," the final distance between far out Army depots and the troops scattered in the field in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, General Mundt said.

The Army's Sherpa fleet is getting old, though. At the same time, the aircraft is no longer meeting the new demands of the Army mission. The plane is not pressurized, for instance, so it has altitude restrictions. In addition, the aircraft has a short range that makes it difficult to get into the Southwest Asia theater of operations.

General Mundt said that because the aircraft isn't pressurized, it cannot be used for medical evacuation missions. Additionally, the aircraft is not large enough to carry a standard Air Force cargo pallet. So pallets need to be broken down and reconfigured for use on the Sherpa.

The Air Force also needs new lightweight intratheater airlift. The Air Force has used the C-130 to do intratheater airlift for over 40 years now. But the aircraft is often too large for some aircraft movements today in support of the global war on terrorism.

The aircraft is frequently not carrying capacity loads, especially when something is needed immediately. There is a significant cost associated with loading up a C-130 with just one pallet of supplies, or 10 people to move when it can carry almost five times that amount. A smaller plane would be ideal to move small amounts of cargo and personnel with the kind of immediacy needed.

"In our experience in Afghanistan, where we have dispersed strongholds of U.S. forces, we don't have a good infrastructure with highways and roads and safe travel," General Dichter said. "That caused us to pause and look at how we do business and ask, 'Is there something here for both our services?' Yes, we see a place for the Air Force to embrace this mission and be part of it."

Evidence of the Air Force's need for light intratheater airlift capability came during Hurricane Katrina support efforts in and around New Orleans. Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley realized the Air Force would have been able to put to good use an aircraft that can move a small amount of cargo a short distance from unimproved runways. In the case of Katrina, of course, it wasn't unimproved runways, but damaged runways -- those covered with water and debris from the storm.

"Our senior leaders see a need for these aircraft," General Dichter said. "That is based on the commitments we have around the world. We are also sensitive to what we saw with Hurricane Katrina disaster relief and the emerging role of U.S. Northern Command and the homeland defense mission."

The Army and the Air Force had been working separately to develop a small-capacity, intratheater airlift capability. But the Department of Defense asked the services to work together to develop the capability jointly. By October, the services will realize that cooperation when they stand up a Joint Program Office in Huntsville, Ala., to address their similar needs.

Both services agree they look forward to develop this Joint capability.

For the Army, it means they will maintain and improve on their ability to move Army supplies out to the very troops that will use them: providing munitions, supplies, and personnel support to soldiers scattered out to the farthest reaches of the global war on terrorism.

For the Air Force, it means improved responsiveness, flexibility and quality of service to the joint warfighter by pushing supplies out past established, improved runways. It means a new ability to do light cargo and personnel movements inside a theater of operations, and during humanitarian missions in the United States. And, it means doing those things at a cost far lower than what is now possible with the C-130 or the C-17.