US Air Force aims to transfer C-130 planes to Afghanistan
* Alenia seeks renewal of existing G222 contract
* Air Force sees 2 C-130s in Afghanistan by end of 2013
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday said it hoped to deliver two C-130 transport planes to Afghanistan by the end of 2013 and two more in 2014 after deciding to end a deal with Italy's Finmeccanica SpA for 20 G222 cargo planes.
Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick said details were still being worked out, but the Air Force was "aggressively pushing for delivery of two C-130H models in late calendar year 2013 and two additional ones before the end of calendar 2014."
"The Afghan Government has requested four C-130 aircraft as a replacement for the G222, and the U.S. Air Force is currently developing and accessing strategies to identify C-130 aircraft that could be made available for transfer to the (Afghan Air Force) at some point in the near future," he said.
Gulick said the Air Force was "committed to provide an effective and sustainable airlift capability for our Afghan partners as soon as possible." He said plans were also being assessed for training Afghan crews to fly and service the larger four-engine C-130 transport planes.
The U.S. decided in December not to renew a contract with Alenia Aermacchi, a unit of Finmeccanica, when it expires in March after years of problems with Alenia's work on the contract. The Air Force has already spent $590 million on the program, but will not exercise a $60 million option that would have extended the deal for an additional year.
The contract is part of the Pentagon's overall effort to equip the Afghan military as U.S.-led forces prepare to withdraw from the country after more than a decade of war.
It remains unclear what the Air Force will do with the 16 G222 aircraft that have been already been delivered to Afghanistan, or how Afghan forces will provide airlift for troops after the Alenia contract ends in March and before the first two C-130s arrive in Afghanistan later this year.
Alenia defends its work on the program, and says the twin-engine G222, an earlier model of Alenia's C-27J cargo plane, is one of the safest, most durable cargo planes available.
An Alenia spokesman said the company was in talks with U.S. lawmakers about the Air Force's decision to back away from the G222 deal, and what could be done to ensure that Afghan forces had continued airlift capability until the C-130s arrived.
He said the program was on budget and meeting or exceeding requirements at this point after an admittedly rocky start. "We're flying missions every day," said the spokesman.
"We're not disputing the Air Force's decision to bring in C-130s; that's their prerogative," said the spokesman. "We just want to see if there's a way to continue providing airlift until those other planes get there."
Gulick said it was not yet clear where the Air Force would get the used four C-130H aircraft for transfer to Afghanistan. The Air Force has 145 C-130 planes, while the National Guard has 191 and the Air Force reserve has 102. It was not immediately clear how many of those were H-models.
Lockheed Martin Corp, which builds the planes, is not producing the H-models anymore, having shifted to the newer J-model planes.
Gulick said the Alenia program had been plagued with problems, including issues keeping a sufficient number of planes ready for use.
The Stars and Stripes newspaper quoted a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry earlier this month as saying that Washington now planned to deliver four C-130 transport planes to Afghanistan instead of the G222s, but the Air Force had not confirmed those plans until Wednesday.