Most new weapons systems are in the fleet for a few years before they deploy, giving pilots ample time to fly while allowing most of the kinks common to newly acquired assets to be worked out. That’s not likely to be the case with the C-27J Spartan, one of the first airframes in Air Force history acquired solely for the Air National Guard.
Seven Guard wings are designated to fly the C-27J, but the program was definitely still ramping up as of the end of January. The Air Force had received six aircraft, with two more due for delivery in the coming months. Sixteen pilots and 16 loadmasters were certified. Also as of the end of January, eight more pilots and eight more loadmasters were going through the training pipeline at Robins AFB, Ga.
Even though the program remains in its infancy, the C-27 mission is still a priority in Afghanistan. The high operational tempo in theater is taxing the Army’s aging helicopters, which are significantly slower and smaller than the new fixed-wing aircraft. Combatant commanders are looking to the Air Force for help.
The C-27J is a propeller-driven tactical airlifter often referred to as a "mini-Herc" because it has a similar cruise performance to the C-130 with slightly less range and cargo-carrying capability. It was originally intended as a joint Army-Air Force combat aircraft, with the Army as the program lead, but the Pentagon made an about-face in its 2010 budget request, giving the aircraft and the "last tactical mile" mission to the Air Force alone, while reducing the buy from 78 to 38 aircraft.
The Air Force handed the reins over to the Air National Guard, which is now feeling "a lot of pressure" to deploy the first Spartans this spring, officials said. But in order for this to happen, there are many obstacles that need to be tackled, including rewriting doctrine and flight publications, originally designed for the Army, to conform to Air Force instructions.
"Our two greatest challenges are bringing out a brand-new weapon system [and] training for that, and the other one is implementing that weapon system overseas," said Lt. Col. Todd K. Thomas, commander of the operations group under the 179th Airlift Wing at Mansfield Lahm Airport in Ohio. The Ohio ANG wing was first to receive the new aircraft in August and it—along with an Air Force crew from Baltimore and two Army crews from Oklahoma and Georgia—was expected to be the first to deploy with it in March.
Putting the Airplanes Together
Like any new aircraft, the C-27J has experienced its share of growing pains. The avionics packages "aren’t quite up to speed," Thomas said, and the Mansfield crews are constantly "finding out different equipment on the airplane is not working as advertised."
The entire fleet was grounded in December after a routine inspection found metal shavings in the fuel cells of all eight aircraft, including the two in predelivery. As of late January, it wasn’t yet clear what caused the problem, but "there is an assumption" it was something left over from the manufacturing process since that is the apparent common thread, said Col. Gary L. Akins, lead of the C-27 integration team. All six operational aircraft were cleared to fly as of mid-February, although two C-27s at Mansfield remained grounded for routine maintenance issues.
"Who would have thought we would have the entire fleet, although small, have to go through the same piece of maintenance work … at the same time? It’s kind of hard to fault anybody for not having all the spare parts right there," Akins said in January.
Spartan manufacturer Alenia, based in Italy, and US-based L-3 Communications told officials they are "confident" they can solve the problem and are working to "make sure it doesn’t happen again," Akins said.
The issue has caused the Air Force to take note of another challenge—spare parts—so officials are in the process of building up a stockpile of spares to take downrange while sending more parts to home units, he added.
Synergy of the Beddown
The grounding also has slowed training and put more pressure on an already tight deployment deadline. Mansfield officials said the wing ideally would like its pilots to accumulate an average of 100 flying hours in the C-27J before deploying, although they acknowledge that might not be possible because of the grounding. Still, even that number is a significant departure from the flight hours accumulated during nearly four decades of flying C-130s.
The 179th AW made its last C-130 flight on Aug. 12, 2010, just days before accepting the first C-27J into the Air Force inventory. Officials there are drawing on those years of experience to make sure the upcoming deployment is a success.
"We have people in our unit who have been here for years. We have crews and staff that have done this pretty much their whole lives," Thomas said. "What we have to fall back on is our experience and our situational awareness, the way we fly, and the way we carry on flight operations. ... That’s the one thing we can count on right now."
Col. Gary A. McCue, the wing commander, said his crews would be ready to deploy in March, but he acknowledged the aircraft’s capabilities may still be limited. The head-up display, or HUD, was decertified as of January. Though that would not prevent crews from deploying, it would prohibit them from conducting airdrops or tactical maneuvers such as assault landings until the HUD is fixed, he said. Representatives from Alenia visited the Ohio base in December and are working on a fix for the HUD as well. "We hope it’s quick," but we can go either way, McCue said. "We are on the razor’s edge right now, and we are the unit to do it. We have all the experience necessary. We’ve flown [tactical airlift missions for] 36 years. If anyone can do it, this unit can, and [we can] do it safely."
The Air National Guard is not only working to bed down a new aircraft, it’s also taking on a new direct support mission. Unlike most Air Force assets downrange, which are assigned to air bases such as Bagram or Kandahar in Afghanistan, the C-27Js will be embedded directly with Army aviation brigades or divisions. Deployed C-27J crews, therefore, will receive their assignments directly from an Army commander—an arrangement that has only been done once since the Vietnam War.
From October to December 2009, the 179th sent two C-130s to Tikrit Air Base in Iraq, an Army-run outpost. At the time, the buzzwords were "synergy of the joint force beddown," said Lt. Col. Robert Dunlap, executive officer of the 179th AW. The idea was to take out a piece of the administrative puzzle and put full control of assignments in the hands of the Army colonel in charge of the aviation brigade, ensuring "time sensitive" or "mission critical" supplies could be moved immediately. The deployment was to be used as the template for future C-27 missions.
"Initially everybody thought it was going to be very, very difficult," said Thomas. "I won’t say it didn’t come with enormous challenges, but it was well-received. … By the end of the 60 days, we had incredible buy with both sides because the Army was getting a great capability and at the same time we were building our own little mission."
That relationship continued Stateside during the multiservice operational test and evaluation period, which concluded last summer. Air Force and Army crews worked together as they attempted to determine the aircraft’s capabilities in an operational environment. Akins said none of the issues that came up in the testing would preclude fielding the airplane, but he said the service intends to conduct some follow-on tests after the final report on the MOT&E is released in late January or early February.
"Some [of the additional testing items] may be able to be accomplished in a day or two," Akins said. None will "preclude us from flying the airplane, but to ultimately have a good long-term system and have all the accurate data, we need to do a little bit more testing."
The location of that testing had not yet been determined as of late January, but Akins said one of the things officials will look at will be aeromedical evacuations. More than 20 airmen took part in tests at Scott AFB, Ill., in June 2010 to ascertain whether the aircraft allows for medical personnel to evacuate ambulatory and littered patients quickly and safely. Akins said the additional tests will be designed to ensure all the equipment is fully compatible with the aircraft.
Officials also intend to look at the aircraft’s digital map system, which is similar to the one in the C-130J, he added. "We have to make sure that all the software is compatible for [incorporating the system on the aircraft]. It’s not just plug-and-play. We need to make sure ... there are no performance issues, and then if all goes well, get certified for flight," said Akins.
There are going to be many lessons learned as more aircraft enter the fleet and the first crews return from deployment. One quality of life issue that has yet to be determined for C-27 units is the deployment battle rhythm.
The aircraft will fall under Army command while deployed, and soldiers typically have a much more rapid deployment-to-dwell time ratio, so C-27 crews aren’t likely to fall into an average air and space expeditionary force (AEF) construct. "It’s going to be a little more fluid than normal, but hopefully, within about two years, we can get to a level of normalcy in the tour length and find something similar to an AEF rotation cycle," Akins said. "It may ultimately fit into one, but we haven’t figured that out yet."
Long term, the Air Force intends to add two more wings to the preferred basing plan. Air Force leaders from top brass down to unit commanders say they also hope to one day see an active component associate with the C-27. The National Guard gets its funding from the active duty and without some active duty buy-in, there always will be concerns about the long-term health of the fleet, especially with the flattening budgets of future years.
"I think that most of us who wear this uniform would tell you that whenever it’s inherently an only-Guard mission, we don’t do it as well as if it’s a combined mission with our Air Force," Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in September 2010. "And so, [we are] trying to figure out a way by which the Air National Guard is in total ownership of this, [because] it never does us any good. We are not equipped. We are not sized. We are not resourced properly to do it all in any single area."
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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