Now that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has demonstrated the remarkable courage to call for reform of the Pentagon’s pay and benefits systems, including retirees, perhaps he can stretch a little farther and do something good for the United States Coast Guard. The Secretary will soon have to make a decision regarding the disposition of 21 C-27J Joint Cargo Aircraft. These planes were built as part of a planned procurement of 78 by the Army (and then the Air Force when it took over the program) with the Italian company Alenia Aeronautica that was eventually terminated. The planes themselves are fine, real work horses, but the Air Force decided to go with C-130s instead. According to government policy, the Department of Defense must offer the planes to other services and then to other U.S. Government departments.
Three government entities have placed bids for the C-27Js: U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants 8, the U.S. Forestry Service has requested 7 and the Coast Guard would like all 21 but will settle for 14 based on the assumption that Forestry gets its 7. It is ironic for a program that the Air Force saw fit to cancel that demand exceeds supply by almost two times.
Here’s the problem. SOCOM gets first crack at the aircraft because it is part of DoD; the others can only bid for what is then declared to be excess defense articles. If SOCOM gets 8 and Forestry takes 7, that leaves only 6 for the Coast Guard which is not a useful number.
Of the three contenders, the most compelling case can be made for the Forestry Service and then the Coast Guard. Both are struggling to recapitalize aging aerial fleets even as the demand for aerial services continues to rise. The Coast Guard recently sent a letter to DoD in which it observed that acquiring all 21 C-27Js would allow it to avoid having to spend $1 billion to acquire an equivalent number of aircraft. I am all for supporting our Special Forces. However, they have been a prime beneficiary of the defense buildup of the last decade, while the other two government organizations have had to struggle. Frankly, for SOCOM, the 8 C-27Js they requested seem to be a “nice to have” while for the other two entities it is critical to their ability to meet their needs affordably.
So, Secretary Hagel has the opportunity to play Solomon. Well, actually he has two opportunities. If he does nothing then the result is likely to be sub-optimal solutions: either Forestry would get none or at least 6 of the C-27Js would have no home. Being Solomonic, he could ask SOCOM to rescind their request, thereby allowing the Forestry Service and the Coast Guard to divide up the pie. Or, the Secretary could go one step farther and make an effort to satisfy the needs of all three contenders, more or less. It turns out that there is prior year unobligated C-27J money left over in several Pentagon budgets. Without any additional expenses or legislative action, this unspent pot of money could be used to acquire at least 5 more aircraft for a total of 26. Consequently, SOCOM could have its 8 and Forestry and the Coast Guard could divide up the remaining 18 in way that should be viable for both.
The demand is clear and the funds are available. All it would take is an effort on the part of the Secretary of Defense to bring the interested parties together and broker a compromise. If Secretary of State John Kerry can restart Israeli-Palestinian talks it should be possible for Secretary Hagel to arrange a deal between parts of the U.S. Government.
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