The top military officers in the U.S. Air Force and Army have signed a memorandum of agreement that outlines how the Air Force will provide direct airlift support to deployed Army units, an issue that had been a concern for some officers in light of a Pentagon decision to terminate the C-27J that was specifically purchased for that mission.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 26 that the Air Force is canceling future purchases of the twin-engine L-3 Communications/Alenia North America airlifter, selected by the Army in 2007. The first 13 of 38 aircraft envisioned for the program have been delivered and will be mothballed, even though the majority of them have never been deployed for use (Aerospace DAILY, Jan. 30).

“This MOU reconfirms the concept of employment that was developed in 2009,” after the Air Force assumed oversight of the program, says Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman. Army officers were concerned, however, about relying solely on the Air Force’s C-130 fleet for time-sensitive, direct airlift support for troops at forward bases. The Army selected the C-27J in 2007 after a competition to replace aging C-23 Sherpas, which lack pressurized cabins, specifically for the direct support mission.

Gen. Raymond Odierno was the commander of forces in Iraq when the Air Force led an experiment to compare direct support using the C-27J and C-130. “I thought it was a very successful test. So . . . I’m comfortable with that,” he told reporters Jan. 27. “We’ll mitigate the loss of the C-27. I’m not sure we’ll be able to completely mitigate it, but that will help at least, as we’re deployed, to mitigate that problem.”

Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and programs, says that the two services have worked closely to craft a way forward. “We are going to have to become more interdependent,” he says, acknowledging that reduced defense spending will certainly motivate both to work more closely. “We are going to have to build institutional trust.”

Despite the MOU, this could be a challenge. Some Army officials feel the Air Force did not provide sufficient support in recent wars. The first two C-27Js were deployed last summer to Afghanistan to help with this mission, though an Army officer said as many as six were hoped for.

Carlisle says that the number of C-27Js in theater were limited by the number of total soldiers allowed to be in Afghanistan. However, Carlisle says the Air Force is “very much committed to the mission,” and will continue to explore ways to provide direct support so as to reduce the support required by Army CH-47 Chinooks. These helicopters have been unduly used for this mission, especially in Afghanistan, according to Army officers.

Carlisle emphasizes that in the direct support role, which demands quick support for Army officials, the C-130s moved effectively during the experiment in Iraq. But, he says, “there is a natural tension” between a commander’s desire to have equipment quickly and the ability to dispatch an airlifter.