New cargo planes on order for the U.S. Air Force are being delivered straight into storage in the Arizona desert because the military has no use for them, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
A dozen nearly new C-27J Spartans from Ohio and elsewhere have already been taken out of service and shipped to the so-called boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Five more are expected to be built by April 2014, all of which are headed to the boneyard unless another use for them is found.
The Air Force has spent $567 million on 21 C-27J aircraft since 2007, according to purchasing officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Sixteen had been delivered by the end of September.
The Air Force almost had to buy more of the planes against its will, the newspaper found. A solicitation issued from Wright-Patterson in May sought vendors to build more C-27Js, citing Congressional language requiring the military to spend money budgeted for the planes, despite Pentagon protests.
Congress put the brakes on the expenditure, which was the right thing to do according to government watchers such as Mike O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute. He said the planned additional purchase would have been "simply wasting precious taxpayer money."
The military initially wanted the C-27J because it had unique capabilities, such as the ability to take off and land on less developed runways, according to Ethan Rosenkranz, national security analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. But when sequestration hit, the military realized the planes weren't a necessity, but instead a luxury it couldn't afford, he said.
"When they start discarding these programs, it's wasteful," he said.
O'Hanlon said their near-resurrection was largely due to parochialism.
"It's too bad, and a waste," he said. "I'm not sure the program was ever a white elephant, and yet given budget cuts I'm not sure it should be saved now."
National defense, or a jobs program?
Ohio's Senate delegation was among the most ardent defenders of the C-27J when a mission at Mansfield Air National Guard Base, and 800 jobs there, were dependent on it.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and six other Democratic senators wrote a letter in 2011 urging the military to purchase up to 42 of the aircraft, saying too few planes "will weaken our national and homeland defense."
Then came sequestration, and a nearly trillion dollar cut to the Pentagon's projected spending over the next nine years. That will bring the military's budget down to roughly 2006-2007 levels, Rosenkranz said.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz testified before Congress last year that the military wanted to divest its C-27J fleet to come in line with budget cuts. He said the C-130 can do everything currently asked for and costs $213 million to fly over its 25-year lifespan. The C-27J, on the other hand, would cost $308 million per aircraft.
"In this fiscal environment it certainly caught our attention," Schwartz said.
That put the Mansfield base in peril, and Brown along with Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who in February 2012 called the aircraft "critically important," worked to save the C-27J.
But President Barack Obama, after making a campaign stop in Mansfield last year, promised to "find a mission" for the base. This led to eight C-130s being transferred to the base, giving it about 40 more full-time and 200 more part-time military positions. That also left it with the same mission it had prior to a cost-saving round of base closures in 2005.
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