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Cargo Chaos: Key West’s Revenge

by hampton on May 10, 2006

The military is supposed to be one big, happy family these days. But in The Hill, Roxana Tiron reports on yet another episode of inter-service rivalry that’s costing the Defense Department big bucks and compromising capabilities.

c-23_sherpa-s.jpgToday in Iraq, the military is minimizing its convoy presence by moving the materiel and people through the air instead. In many situations, such as flying mail between FOBs, it is not efficient to use Air Force’s C-130. That’s why the military is relying heavily on its fleet of intra-theater cargo airplanes, like the Army’s C-23 Sherpa and C-12 Huron. [The Air Force left the intra-theater business when it retired the C-27 Spartans after Panama Canal handover.] However, the C-23s and C-12s are rapidly wearing out. So the Army went looking for the replacement Future Cargo Aircraft, to be fielded in 2008.

Because the Air Force had similar requirements, DoD merged the two into the now Joint Cargo Aircraft. However, there is a mismatch in institutional priorities. The Army needs the aircraft in 2008, but the Air Force, having C-130s, is waiting until 2010. So for the 2007 budget request, the Army requested $113m for the JCA, while the Air Force $15m. The Airland Subcommittee asked the Air Force about the status of the JCA program, and the Air Force responded that “it is nowhere near buying the aircraft.” Thus the subcommittee cut $109m from the Army budget. (Huh? It doesn’t make sense to me either.) Fortunately, the House did not make the same mistake. Hopefully they’ll fix the problem in conference.

This entire screwup is another sad legacy of the Key West Agreement, which divided up the skies between the Army, Air Force, and Navy. It’s time we scrap it, and start over again.

Because of the Key West Agreement, the Army and Air Force shares the air lift function, the Army intra-theater, and the Air Force inter-theater. However, in today’s non-linear battlefield, it’s difficult to tell where to draw the “theater” line. So when the Army initiated the FCA, the Air Force felt compelled to protect its turf in the air lift business by joining the program, and then delayed the program by dragging its feet on its portion of the joint requirement. I think it was instructive to note that, only after the Army has announced the request for proposal for the FCA, did the Air Force start making noise about its similar requirements, yet did not have its set of requirement ready right away. What was the Air Force rep on the JROC doing? Isn’t it his job to tell the Air Force before the Army announces its RFP?

In the 1960s, the Air Force did the same thing by appropriating the intra-theater C-123s from the Army using the same arguments, and then promptly retired the fleet. Similarly, the Air Force took over the CAS function from the Army, and has let it atrophy ever since. Just look at the ongoing attempts to sandbag the A-10 fleet. Today the Air Force flies F-16s to conduct the CAS surveillance mission for convoys in Iraq. As David Axe noted earlier, the Air Force is moving its focus toward the deep strike arena and moving away from CAS as it recasts the AF J-UCAS into a deep strike platform.

We need to abolish the Key West Agreement. Obviously, the Air Force has no institutional interest in either the CAS nor intra-theater lift functions. The Air Force needs to get out of the way and give A-10s to the Army. The Air Force needs to stop stalling JCA and let the Army buy as soon as possible. The Air Force can get in on the order later after it has completed its requirement process. Afterall, the AF is already using the C-130 to fulfill most of its intra-theater requirements anyway. The Army has a war to fight and the institutional Air Force needs to understand that.

– Jimmy Wu

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