Special Operations: Too Reliable To Replace

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July 9, 2017: The manufacturer of the American C-130 has begun marketing a special operations variant of the C-130J specifically for export customers. This model, called C-130J-SOF is similar to what some export customers (like India and several NATO countries) have already ordered. These C-130Js have some of the customization that is standard with the MC-130J special operations model American special operations forces have been using versions of since 2011. This includes a sturdier fuselage, landing gear and wing to handle more stress and emergency situations in general (like lots more landings on unpaved landing strips). The major visible addition is additional radar and navigation gear to turn the aircraft into one capable of operating at night and in all sorts of nasty weather. There are also provisions for additional crew (like another loadmaster to handle paratroopers and special cargo and one or more additional electronics specialists in the cockpit.) Other extras include hard points on the wings (for sensors or missiles) and additional electrical generation capability and upgraded wiring to handle more electronics as well as quickly adding the ability to serve as an aerial tanker.

The C-130J-SOF is a lot closer to the MC-130J in terms of mods that make it quick and easy to temporarily turn a C-130J-SOF a gunship by adding pallets of electronics and operator stations and adding additional sensors externally and weapons like Hellfire (and smaller) laser guided missiles plus a 30mm autocannon firing out the rear cargo door (modified to accommodate such a weapon.) The C-130J-SOF will be modified for each export customer depending on their needs and what special equipment they will use (like weapons and electronics from non-U.S. suppliers). Converting the C-130J-SOF to a tanker uses a similar approach although export customers may simply wish their SOF aircraft to be capable of landing at a forward airfield and refuel helicopters and other aircraft on the ground.

In 2017 U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) received the last of 37 MC-130J all-weather transports that were ordered in 2009 and began arriving in 2011 This is part of a major program to upgrade and expand the SOCOM fleet of specialized aircraft. Despite cuts in the American defense budget since 2010 SOCOM gets money for its aircraft program because SOCOM personnel are still in big demand worldwide.

Since 2009 SOCOM has been devoting the largest chunk of its procurement budget to aircraft and most of that is going for one type of aircraft; the C-130J. SOCOM wants to buy about a hundred C-130Js and use them as commando transports (MC-130J) or gunships (AC-130J). In addition several hundred million dollars is being spent on sensors and weapons that can be quickly installed in MC-130Js to turn them into temporary gunships.

The MC-130J was part of a larger U.S. Air Force effort to replace 200 worn out C-130Es. The C-130J transport proved to be more than just another model in the original (1950s) C-130 design. This is mainly because the J model is cheaper and easier to use. Like most new commercial transports, the C-130J emphasizes saving money. The new engines generate 29 percent more thrust while using 15 percent less fuel. Increased automation reduced crew size from four to three. The rear ramp door can now be opened in flight when the aircraft is going as fast as 450 kilometers an hour, versus the current 270 kilometers an hour.

The SOCOM MC-130s are all-weather aircraft used for everything from moving SOCOM personnel and equipment around the combat zone, to parachuting supplies, refueling helicopters in the air, dropping bombs and propaganda leaflets, or loading a pallet or two of electronic gear for special reconnaissance or psychological warfare missions. MC-130s are particularly useful because they have terrain following radar that enables them to fly at low altitude, especially at night or during bad weather. MC-130s have several additional navigation and communication systems, which allow them to fly in all weather, especially low enough to avoid radar detection.

C-130Js have cost nearly twenty percent less per hour than previous models. The most common version of the C-130 still in service is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C-130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The stretched C-130J-30 can carry more bulky cargo, and goes for about $100 million each. The C-130J has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C130H. The C-130 has been in service for over half a century, and has been flying for over 50 countries.

As special operations have become more common worldwide so has been demand for air transports to support it. There are other aircraft out there competing with the C-130 but for one reason or another (and some bad luck) there has been no formidable competition. That may eventually happen, but for now more countries are realizing that the best deal available is the one that’s been around since the 1960s.

 

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