“The only complaint I heard about the Caribou was that there weren’t enough of them.”
Lt. Gen. John J. Tolson III, director of Army aviation, 1963–1965

In April 1966, one year after US conventional forces’ entry into Vietnam, the Army chief of staff, General Harold K. Johnson, and the Air Force chief of staff, General John P. McConnell, signed a capabilities memo that influenced battlefield transportation into the twenty-first century. General Johnson agreed “to relinquish all claims for CV-2 and CV-7 aircraft and for future fixed-wing aircraft designed for tactical airlift” (exceptions were made for “administrative mission support fixed wing aircraft”). In return, General McConnell relinquished “all [Air Force] claims for helicopters and follow-on rotary wing aircraft which are designed and operated for intratheater movement, fire support, supply, and resupply of Army Forces.”

This agreement was one of several that shaped aviation operations within the Department of Defense. The 1948 Key West Agreement separated the carrier-borne mission from that of the Air Force, for instance, and a 1952 memorandum signed by Secretary of the Army Frank Pace, Jr. and Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter also specified rotary- and fixed-wing roles for each service. Coming after those, the 1966 agreement signaled that the Army was out of the fixed-wing business, and in the decades since an idea has taken root that it should be. But that agreement was a product of the times. The Army and Marine Corps had experimented with moving limited numbers of personnel (ground troops and casualties) using rotary-wing platforms during the Korean War, but in the interwar years (1954–1964) the Army developed the doctrine and force structure required to create divisional-level air mobility. The efforts paid off in November 1965—five months prior to the Johnson-McConnell agreement—when units of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) moved into Ia Drang Valley to attack Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units operating in the area. During the five-day battle, rotary-wing units delivered more than five thousand tons of cargo and moved multiple infantry battalions and fire support batteries into and out of the battlespace. After a month of intense fighting, helicopters were able to extricate remaining US forces from the battlefield. The Battle of Ia Drang validated doctrinal airmobile concepts on the battlefield and endorsed General Johnson’s decision to trade planes for choppers.

The Army agreed to turn over its fleet of CV-2 Caribous (the Air Force designation was C-7) and CV-7A Buffalos per the 1966 agreement. De Havilland Aircraft of Canada manufactured both aircraft. The Caribou was a twin-engine transport that provided the Army with short takeoff and landing capabilities. Entering service in 1961, the CV-2 could carry more than two dozen, fully equipped paratroopers or twenty litter-bound patients more than 1,100 miles. While the cargo capacity of the Buffalo—also a twin-engine transport—was three times that of the in-service Caribou, the Air Force preferred its own twin-prop, the C-123 Provider, and consequently discontinued acquisition of the CV-7A. The CV-2’s rugged design allowed aircrews to move three tons of equipment via strips cleared for use as primitive runways. Combat pilots were able to safely land a CV-2 on landing strips as short as 830 feet. The Caribou also proved a reliable workhorse. Between January and December 1966, Army aviators flew more than 128,540 sorties using the CV-2, transporting more than 780,200 passengers and carrying 83,232 tons of cargo.

The world has changed considerably in the half century since US forces departed Vietnam in 1973. Yet, the terms of the Johnson-McConnell agreement that apportioned aircraft between the Army and the Air Force during that war remain, despite the markedly different global strategic landscape and potential conflict scenarios the joint force must prepare for. Today, the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China, for instance, is a stated objective for Chinese President Xi Jinping. This has been an unresolved issue since 1949, yet rapidly growing Chinese military capability makes it a greater risk than at any time before. In addition, there are other regional friction points that involve China. These include continual waterway disputes with neighboring countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. There have also been skirmishes between Chinese and Indian forces. All of these have the potential to ignite a large and lengthy regional conflict.

For the United States, these friction points fall within the area of responsibility of US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Comprising more than one hundred million square miles, this region is so vast that it required two five-star commands—the Southwest Pacific Area and the Pacific Ocean Areas—during World War II. Beginning in Australia, General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur directed operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, which ranged from Australia to the Philippines. Air transport became a critical commodity in the Pacific theater, which required more than 1,200 cargo planes to move personnel, casualties, and equipment in support of ground operations.

While airframes and technologies have changed over time, the geography and vast distances USINDOPACOM’s area of responsibility have not. Doctrinally, Air Mobility Command, the Air Force’s component of US Transportation Command, supports National Military Strategy “through mobility forces able to connect, navigate, and maneuver at the tempo required to win inside the first island chain and anywhere else.” To accomplish this, Air Mobility Command relies heavily on the venerable C-130 Hercules.

First introduced in the early 1950s, the C-130 is the Department of Defense’s workhorse for tactical and operational lift. The latest model of the Hercules, the C-130J, entered service in 1999. The four-engine, turboprop can carry ninety troops, sixty-four airborne personnel, or seventy-two litters more than two thousand miles. The C-130’s rugged airframe and durability allow it to operate on short, unimproved airfields. These airframes served almost exclusively as intratheater transports during the post-9/11 wars, continuously moving uniformed personnel, civilians, and equipment through Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

While the C-130J fleet is tough, proven, and reliable, the Air Force only contains a limited fleet of aircraft. As of January 2023, there are only 428 airframes across the entire Air Force including the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. This number pales in comparison with the massive armada of transports employed in the Southwest Pacific Area during World War II. As a strategic-level asset, Hercules units support all unified combatant commands. In the event of a conflict in the USINDOPACOM area of responsibility, C-130 crews and planes would be heavily taxed given the requirements to move personnel and equipment across the dispersed island chains of the Pacific while still supporting joint force requirements in other areas including the continental United States and Europe.

One way to address this problem is restoring the Army’s fixed-wing, tactical lift capability. While the Army and Air Force agreed in the McConnell-Johnson agreement that this was specifically an Air Force mission, there are no laws prohibiting the Army from employing fixed-wing airlift. The Vietnam-era handshake agreement was based on contemporary needs. The Army agreed to give up its prop-driven fleet and invest its resources into expanding organic rotary-wing capability. Circumstances change and require investigating innovative solutions to new challenges, such as tactical lift in an USINDOPACOM-based conflict.

Creating a new capability is a formidable, but not insurmountable, challenge. There are platforms currently in US inventory that may be considered for Army use. One of these, the C-27J Spartan is currently in use by the United States Coast Guard, which employs fourteen of the aircraft for “drug and migrant interdiction, disaster response, and search and rescue missions,” and US Special Operations Command, which operates seven for training.

The Spartan was not an unknown aircraft in the Air Force. In 1991, the service purchased ten planes as part of the Rapid-Response Intra-Theater Airlifter program. Based at Howard Air Force Base in Panama, C-27 crews flew both drug interdiction and support to peacekeeping operations. Once the airbase closed in 1999, the Spartans went out of the Air Force inventory and into retirement.

A reinvigorated Spartan acquisition effort began with a joint Army and Air Force program in 2005 to acquire “a small-capacity, intra-theater airlift capability.” In 2007, the joint program office initially recommended acquisition of 145 C-27Js. Over time, budget concerns reduced the office’s request totals to seventy-four planes, then finally to thirty-eight. In 2009, the Air Force assumed the mission of direct support airlift and took over sole management of the C-27 acquisition program. Three years later, citing cost concerns and the C-130’s ability to manage direct support missions, the Air Force canceled the C-27 acquisition program. Up to that point, the Air Force had received twenty-one Spartan airframes. After discussions with other federal agencies, two-thirds of the fleet went to the Coast Guard and the remaining seven went to US Special Operations Command. Although the Spartan has reduced characteristics in comparison to the C-130J, it still provides extensive lift capability.

Figure 1: C-130J and C-27J comparison chart. (Source: US Air Force and Leonardo.)

Between the C-130J and the C-27J, the former is faster and can carry more cargo, personnel, and litters, while the latter has a greater range. The C-130J’s qualities enhance its suitability to bridge the gap between strategic and operational (intertheater) airlift by flying a heavier payload or more troops and litters faster than the C-27J. The distances covered make the Spartan an ideal transport for intratheater movement, allowing a theater commander to shift personnel, equipment, and units in his or her area of responsibility without having to wait on Air Force support. The Spartan also outranges and carries more troops than the Army’s primary heavy-lift, rotary-wing platform, the CH-47F Chinook. In terms of capacity and capability, the C-27J carries two dozen more personnel and flies faster (374 miles per hour vs. 184). The Spartan’s range of more than 3,600 miles greatly outmatches the CH-47F’s maximum range of 378. These characteristics become more magnified in a large, nonpermissive environment such as the USINDOPACOM theater, which is replete with Chinese antiaccess / area-denial platforms.

Figure 2: Chinese conventional antiaccess / area-denial capability ranges. (Source: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2020)

Every aircraft has its role and adding fixed-wing airlift such as the C-27J does not replace either the C-130J or CH-47F, but rather augments the Army’s existing lift capabilities. Creating and implementing a new capability is an enormous undertaking requiring additional (or redirected) funding, manpower allocations needed to support the force structure, doctrine, training (officer, warrant officer, and enlisted), and a number of other actions. While the transition tasks are daunting, they are not impossible. Several steps could enable such a transition. A collaborative effort between doctrine developers at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, for instance, would be vital. And combat testing at the Army’s Combat Training Centers would help pave the way to the aircraft’s effective employment. Moreover, the Coast Guard already employs the C-27J and the Army could establish memorandums of agreement with it for initial air, ground, and maintenance crew training. The Coast Guard also already has a maintenance program that the Army can copy and modify to meet mission requirements. Army designers can also adapt the hypothetical example shown in figure 3 to create the actual company structure required to maintain and operate the transports.

Figure 3: Notional C-27J company structure.

The C-27J company’s design is based on the Army’s traditional force structure and includes a headquarters, maintenance, and (three) lift platoons. Each lift platoon would operate four aircraft, providing the company with a dozen planes—the same number of CH-47s in a current heavy lift company—plus two additional back-up inventory aircraft for mission augmentation or to replace those in maintenance. In Vietnam, before the Army divested its fixed-wing lift capability, operational commanders assigned Caribou units to a theater zone, which roughly translates into a corps area. With a similar approach today, a fourteen-ship Spartan company would provide a corps commander with the ability to transport more than eight hundred troops over 3,600 miles in a single, fourteen-plane (company) lift.

Figure 4: Comparative ranges of C-27J and C-130J in Indo-Pacific region. (Source: The author used the distance calculator feature and images provided by Google Maps.)

Figure 4 illustrates the C-27’s range. It depicts Guam, outside of the People’s Liberation Army antiaccess / area-denial capabilities, as the takeoff point for a notional one-way trip. In this scenario, the Spartan platform can reach mainland Asia as well as Taiwan, all of Japan, almost all of Australia, and the territory of key partners and allies like the Philippines. Continental landing areas include Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This capability provides a corps commander with a tremendous amount of flexibility to move personnel, evacuate casualties, and position equipment in an area characterized by relatively small land masses and tremendous amounts of water.

The C-2 Caribou proved that the Army had the ability to effectively conduct (limited) fixed-wing flight for nearly two decades following the Air Force’s creation in 1947 and fly in a contested tactical environment is Southeast Asia. A handshake agreement between two service chiefs effectively ended the Army’s interest in operating intratheater aircraft moving personnel and equipment, which has remained in effect well into the twenty-first century.

In American conflicts following Vietnam, the Air Force was able to provide both air supremacy and airlift at all levels (strategic, operational, and tactical) in permissive environments. Although both Operation Desert Storm and the post-9/11 wars occurred in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the former’s one hundred hours of ground combat first required a large theater build-up of two Army corps to mass the combat power needed to defeat the Iraqi military. And in the latter, the United States found itself engaged in lengthy and brutal counterinsurgency conflicts fought in two separate theaters. During those long wars, the Air Force was able to both control the skies and facilitate troop and equipment rotations on the ground absent an opposing air threat. It was in this context that, in 2009, due to funding concerns, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates transferred responsibility for the C-27 program from the Army to the Air Force, a move Army Chief of Staff General George Casey agreed with.

Just as contemporary circumstances were a crucial factor when General Johnson exchanged the Army’s fixed-wing capability for the service’s rotary-wing primacy in 1966, circumstances must influence Army decision-making today, and the current environment is vastly different than that in which the Air Force canceled the C-27 acquisition program more than twelve years ago. Campaigning in a theater that contains multiple island chains of varying sizes separated by hundreds of miles of water makes mobility and flexibility a prerequisite for survival, and not an intratheater luxury. By restoring the Army’s fixed-wing lift capabilities, ground commanders will have the ability to move troops, casualties, and equipment throughout USINDOPACOM rather than relying on an overtaxed airlift system burdened with the requirement of supporting all US Department of Defense entities and their global missions.

Shane Reilly is a staff historian in Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. As a multifunctional logistician in the Army Reserve, he deployed to both Iraq and Kuwait during his thirty years of service.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image: Royal Australian Air Force C-27J Spartan (credit: Airman 1st Class Christopher Quail, US Air Force)