France Is the Latest C-130J Customer

 - November 13, 2015, 3:20 AM

France will become the 17th customer for the Lockheed Martin (LM) Super Hercules with an order for two C-130Js and two KC-130Js tankers worth about $650 million. Nearly 20 years after its first flight, the J-model is set for many more years of production, with negotiations for a new five-year multi-year buy (MYB) of 83 for U.S. forces nearing completion. Meanwhile, LM has proposed the conversion to maritime patrol configuration of some aircraft belonging to the UK Royal Air Force, which was the C-130J launch customer.

The new French order was notified to the U.S. Congress this week, and includes four spare Rolls-Royce AE2100D engines; secure voice systems; and a self-protection suite comprising AN/AAR-47A missile warning systems made by ATK, and AN/ALR-56M radar warning receivers and AN/ALE-47 dispensers, both made by BAE Systems. The aircraft will be used especially to airlift and insert French special forces, and the order follows the discovery that the Airbus D&S A400M cannot refuel helicopters. The pan-European airlifter has also yet to solve an airflow problem that is preventing a full clearance for paratrooping.   

Like most countries that have ordered the C-130J, France bought predecessor versions of the "Herk." The forthcoming MYB will offer more international customers “the opportunity to re-fleet,” said George Shultz, vice president and general manager of C-130 programs for LM, recently. The company is currently fulfilling orders from India, Iraq, Israel, Korea, Kuwait, Oman and Tunisia. More than 330 Super Hercules have now been ordered, in 17 variants. LM has recently been delivering AC-130J gunships and MC-130Js to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command. 

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) had been planning to retire its fleet of 22 C-130J and stretched C-130J-30 airlifters as it receives more of the 22 A400Ms that are on order. But the C-130J’s capabilities are especially valued by British special forces, who have lobbied for retention of the type. Meanwhile, LM has proposed the modification of 10 of them into maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). The UK currently does not have an MPA, after the troubled new Nimrod MRA.4 fleet was scrapped in a defense review five years ago. Another defense review to be published on November 23 is expected to endorse a new multi-mission aircraft (MMA) requirement—essentially an MPA.

LM has been touting an SC-130J Sea Hercules Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft (MPRA) version for some while, with no takers yet. It includes a rotary launcher for sonobuoys in the rear fuselage; pylons on the wings for anti-ship missiles and the like; a forward extension of the main landing gear (MLG) sponsons to house torpedos; and a tail boom containing a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). The mission system would be ported from LM’s P-3 Orion MPA, loaded onto a pallet that can be installed or removed in 30 minutes. 

Compared with the new-build SC-130J, the proposed C-130J conversion for the UK would have a maritime mission system derived from the one that LM has already provided for the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM.2 helicopters. A spinning AESA radar would be fitted aft of the MLG, and a video sensor turret beneath the nose, both capable of overland as well as overwater surveillance. The aging aircraft would require new center-wing boxes, which could be replaced by Marshall Aerospace. The Cambridge-based C-130 specialist has maintained and upgraded the RAF fleet for decades, but failed to win the support contract for the replacement A400Ms. 

The front-runner for the expected UK MMA requirement has been the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. But senior British defense officials believe it may be unaffordable. The other likely contenders are the ASW version of the Airbus D&S C295, and a conversion of the Bombardier Q400 regional airliner proposed by L-3 Communications.