Cargo Chaos: Key West’s Revenge

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

  • Cranky Observer

    Isn’t another issue here that of foreign purchases? The C-27 would seem to be able to fill this requirement off-the-shelf, but if an order were placed today the first two dozen or so would come from Italy. Which is a big red flag from Congress, even though we ask other countries to buy our hardware.

  • Jimmy Wu

    The 3 most expensive components of a modern military aircraft are:
    1. engine
    2. electronics
    3. plane body
    C-27, et al, are not the hi-tech planes like F-22, full of composites. So the body is likely relatively cheap.
    Since the engine and electronics will likely come from American vendors, the vast majority of the dollar value will be American. Hence there will be little Congressional opposition from that direction.

  • Wm Ediger

    I retired from the Air Force in 1997 and was with the 18th TFS for 4 years while they were flying A-10s. A finer CAS airplane has not been invented! It was cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and as history has shown, a deadly addition to the modern battlefield. However, the Air Force has always (even in Army Air Corps days) had an institutional bias against the CAS role. They don’t mind Air to Ground, just not … on demand! I agree that the Army should take over the CAS role for itself and retrieve all those mothballed A10s from DM as well as those the AF has redesignated OA-10s in its’ frenzy to get further away from the ground. I’ve always been a bit embarassed by that and it comes from the top, not the bottom.

  • TheWanderingMind

    The Key West agreement – and the Army’s surrender of its Caribous and Buffaloes in the late 60’s – are scandals of the first order.
    The Air Force refuses to honor its part of the bargain to provide on-call close air support and “battle taxi” airlift at the cost of Army lives and bodies, preferring to do “Deep Strike” and “Air Supremacy” and “Strategic Airlift” roles instead. While all three are vitally important missions, none is as important as supporting troops in contact.
    If the President and SecDef truly cared about the revitalization of the military, the next U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff would be the Marine Corps chief aviation officer. The Marines get it. The “go-fast boys” don’t.
    Scrap the Key West agreement, authorize fixed wing close support aircraft for the Army, and allow those AF flying and support people who wish to do so to transfer interservice. You’d be surprised at how many would switch uniforms just for a chance to really support the troops on the ground.

  • Cranky Observer

    Giovanni, Jimmy, etc.: you don’t have to convince ME. You do have to convince the US Congress, and I think their view of foreign purchases is a bit different.

  • James

    Having a separate Air Force was the first mistake. Key West flowed naturally from it. Navy should have taken long range bombing, Army ICBMs and CAS. We would have been spared much nonsense over the last fifty years.

  • Piero

    Look at the US vendor content of the first half dozen aircraft built in Europe the other would be built in Florida.
    Engines,avionics 2/3 of the value

  • texan

    Finally someone with some sense. The Key WEst should be scrapped for its budget agreement more than the airplane division role. Current wars have little mission for the sea services, (navy and marines ) and also little for the Air Corps especially when they despise the CAS role. In Iraq and Afghan the Sea Services and the Airforce are fighting to prove they can contribute to the war but what this has resulted in is duplication of Army services and roles.. Ie CAS for the Airforce and the Marines for the Navy. Key west ensures that the Navy and the Airforce receive the lion’s share of the budget.. ie we don’t support the warfighters to ensure that other parts of the pentagon that don’t have a mission continue to receive a large budget. What a disgrace!!

  • Taylor McKinnon

    I felt a twinge of pain in my lower regions when I read of the Panama, USAF C-27s going to the bone yard. Now my fears have been realised. C-7 Caribou episode de ja vu. I was in Viet Nam when it happened. I suspect that the aircraft going to Afganistan now are those same Panama C-27s. It was a serendepitous save. Not due to good planning on the part of anyone. I am a retired AF officer. what do I think? The Army uses rifles, does this mean that the AF cannot have rifles? The Atmy has trucks,does this mean that ther AF cannot have trucks? There is plenty of turf to keep us both busy fot the extended future. Let the Army have their air trucks! TaylorMAC

  • Scott Gilbertson

    Reading the bood “Boyd” (about Col. John R. Boyd, inventor of the “OODA Loop” concept), both the F-16 and the A-10 were shoved down the Air Force brass’s collective throats by SecDef Schlesinger. They wanted more F-15’s; not -16’s, and didn’t want the A-10 only. When they DID get the -10, what they do with it? It was the first USAF plane that went DIRECTLY to Reserve units upon delivery! SCRAP KEY WEST, YAJOHL. The Army has been left twisting in the wind on CAS much, much too long.