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 initally 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.
Now the U.S. Senate is poised to strip the requirement that the Pentagon spend money on new planes from the 2014 defense budget, and Wright-Patterson officials are saying they were told to put a hold on purchasing. Ohio's senators are not opposing the change of plans.
"Sen. Brown is encouraged that the Air Force is looking for new opportunities to redeploy existing C-27J aircraft for use in the Forest Service and Coast Guard, and if requested by the appropriate agencies would support continued C-27J construction for homeland security needs," Brown spokesman Ben Famous told the Daily News.
Parked in the desert
When asked why the Air Force can't simply put the brakes on having the other five planes delivered, Air Force spokesman Darryl Mayer responded, "They are too near completion for a termination to be cost effective and other government agencies have requested the aircraft."
Military officials are working to find another user for the planes. In the meantime they will be kept operational by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, overseen by Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson. It was established near Tucson after World War II because the region's low rainfall, humidity and soil minimize deterioration and corrosion. Also, the soil is so hard that no tarmac is needed.
The sprawling desert complex currently stores more than 4,400 unused aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from all branches of the military and NASA, with a total value of more than $35 billion.
"This aerospace fleet provides a unique savings account from which military units throughout the world may withdraw parts and aircraft," according to the base's website. "The government earns additional income by selling aircraft to our allies."
"It is anything but just a boneyard or a storage facility," said Ron Fry, Materiel Command spokesman. "They have a very robust mission to turn aircraft and equipment back into service."
Other unwanted projects kept
A Daily News investigation last year identified the C-27J as one of several weapons systems and programs the Pentagon wanted to cut but Congress budgeted billions of dollars for anyway.
Others included the M-1 Abrams tank and the Global Hawk drone, both of which were protected by Ohio lawmakers and linked to Ohio jobs, leading critics to call the moves the new face of pork barrel spending. Lawmakers said they believed the systems are needed for national defense.
Congress specifically forbade the military from sending Global Hawk drones to the boneyard, putting language in the defense authorization budget saying the military can't spend a dime to "retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage" a Global Hawk drone.
The C-27J is manufactured by Alenia North America -- a part of the Italian firm Finmeccanica Inc. -- and prime contractor L-3 Communications.
Finmeccanica and L-3 Communications both have multi-million dollar lobbying efforts and the two companies and their PACs spent more than $1 million on campaign contributions during last year's election cycle, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
POGO's Rosenkranz said lawmakers are partially driven to protect these programs both by campaign and lobbying money, and by the desire to save jobs in their districts with military spending.
"Clearly, money has a role to play in this, and clearly where these systems are manufactured, where they are based and located is very important," he said.