It is hard to imagine how at this late stage in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that the press would have any interest in the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of some 20 older model, refurbished twin engine Italian-made transport aircraft bought by the U.S. Air Force for the nascent Afghan Air Force. Yet, according to recent reports in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has initiated an investigation of the C-27A/G222 contract. Nearly $500 million was spent on 16 (four more that were under contract but never actually bought are in Europe) of these airplanes along with initial spare parts, training and other support activities. According to published reports, having flown only some 4,500 miles, the 16 planes now sit idly on an Afghan airfield and 6 have been cannibalized for spare parts in an effort to keep the remainder flying.
How could this have happened? To make a long story short, the embryonic Afghan Air Force needed a new tactical transport aircraft to replace its fleet of obsolescent Antonov 32s. It had to be appropriate for the limited infrastructure of Afghanistan, relatively cheap and simple to operate and maintain. After looking around the world, our Air Force decided on the C-27A (known at the time as the G222), a twin engine plane built by the Italian company Alenia that was no longer in production. The same aircraft were still in operation in places like Australia and Thailand. Four G222s already had been acquired to serve the Afghan government as VIP transports. Moreover, the G222 with its old-style cockpit, was judged easier for newly-trained Afghan technicians to maintain than the newer C-27J or comparable tactical transports. So the U.S. Air Force apparently decided, what the heck, let’s get a dozen or so more. The company had swapped a couple of dozen of these for new C-27J’s sold to the Italian Air Force. As part of the initial contract, Alenia completely refurbished the planes and provided initial spare parts and support. Cutting to the chase, trying to keep an out-of-production aircraft in service in Afghanistan proved more challenging than the U.S. Air Force had anticipated, even with significant on the ground support by the original equipment manufacturer. So the G222s were pulled from service and the planes have been sitting unused for nearly two years.
More important than trying to affix blame for this situation, of which there is likely to be more than enough to go around, is to figure out what to do now with these airplanes. Why let them just sit and rot or break them up as scrap? Why not sell them to someone who needs a simple, yet rugged turboprop transport and who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend? The Pentagon and Congress recently agreed to send excess Air Force C-27Js – the G222’s younger brother – to U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Coast Guard. A new home, perhaps with the Air Force of a small country without much money to spend or a private airline, seems a reasonable idea. The U.S. Government wouldn’t be able to recoup all its costs but it could get some of its money back and provide a worthy user with planes that still have a lot of life left in them.
Life handed the United States, the Pentagon and the Afghans lots of lemons over the past decade of conflict. It’s time to think about making some lemonade. Selling the G222 fleet to someone who would use it and getting some of our money back seems like a sensible way to create a sweeter ending from sour circumstances.
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