The Coast Guard is looking to benefit from the Air Force’s retirement of the C-27J Spartan transport aircraft.
Twenty-one of the aircraft were set to be decommissioned at the end of the fiscal year. The National Defense Authorization Act carved out seven for the Forest Service for firefighting activities.
That leaves 14 potentially available for the Coast Guard, said Vice Adm. John Currier, the service’s vice commandant, during a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing.
They would serve as search-and-rescue aircraft, along with the new HC-144A Ocean Sentry, built by EADS North America.
The original HC-144A program of record called for the acquisition of 36 aircraft. The current budget crunch and the availability of the surplus C-27Js has brought that plan into question.
“We would be forced to take a strategic pause in that acquisition in fiscal year ’14, and subsequently we would have to reexamine the affordability of the [HC-144A] aircraft vis-a-vis the whole acquisition,” said Currier.
Canceling the remainder of the HC-144A procurement has the potential to save anywhere between $500 million and $800 million for the Coast Guard, whose budget for this fiscal year was $1.1 billion less than the $2 billion recommended for its acquisition, construction and improvements account.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., supported the Coast Guard’s pursuit of the C-27J as a cost-effective alternative. “Potential savings of three-quarters of a billion dollars is pretty significant,” he said.
The C-27J was rapidly acquired during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to replace the Army’s fleet of antiquated C-23 Sherpas, which were designed for short missions and smaller runways. The Army-Air Force Joint Cargo Aircraft program selected the Italian-designed Alenia aircraft with the intention of procuring 100 of them. The Defense Department eventually handed complete control of the program to the Air Force, which drastically cut their numbers. The Air Force has now deemed them unnecessary and too costly to operate.
The plan has the endorsement of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as well as her Defense Department counterpart Chuck Hagel, according to Currier.
The Spartans could be converted to search-and-rescue aircraft much faster than it would take to have the remaining HC-144A aircraft funded and delivered, said Currier. It is also relatively easy to transfer surplus aircraft from one military branch to another, he added.
Fifteen of the HC-144A aircraft have been delivered since 2009.
The logistics and maintenance cost of operating two different search-and-rescue aircraft was one of the few concerns raised during the hearing.
Garamendi said: “I know there’s going to be some kickback coming from whoever doesn’t have that contract to manufacture the remaining 18, but I think we can handle that.”
Guy Hicks, an EADS North America spokesman, pointed out that DHS recently recognized the HC-144A as its acquisition program of the year.
“In today’s tight budget environment, the U.S. Coast Guard needs programs that deliver what’s been promised and that are cost-effective to operate,” he said in an email to National Defense.
He estimated the direct maintenance and fuel costs for the HC-144A were half of the C-27J.
“The HC-144A Ocean Sentry is an indispensable asset not just because it can do the mission, but because it is highly cost-effective to own, maintain and operate — a critical consideration for any asset the Coast Guard takes into its inventory,” he added. Photo Credit: Defense Dept.