The launch of an all-new airlifter development for the US Air Force could start in 2014. The new aircraft could become operational 10 years later. The aircraft would replace the 450-aircraft C-130 fleet, but the USAF may buy no more than 250. Even after at least five years of discussion, the USAF still does not know whether it wants a fixed-wing, tiltrotor, rotorcraft or airship.
These are possible implications inside a capabilities request for information document posted earlier today by the USAF's Aeronautical Systems Center about the Joint Future Theater Lift (JFTL) program .
It is, of course, dangerous to read too much into a CRFI. No requirements for the JFTL are established, and basic assumptions can change dramatically over the next 12 months. In fact, the CRFI is released precisely to help the USAF make a series of fundamental decisions about the program. But the CRFI is useful for gleaning the USAF's analytical framework as the service considers its options.
According to the CRFI, the next C-130 may have to carry up to 190% more payload and assume a new mission -- mounted vertical maneuver. Taking on the MVM mission means dropping off medium-weight armored vehicles -- think Bradleys, not Abrams -- in places the enemy does not expect. Long, concrete runways? Not any more. Fifteen hundred feet of level, hard-packed surface? That might work. Perhaps better: a clearing big enough to land a really big tiltrotor or helicopter.
At this point, the USAF has a lot of options. Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works is sponsoring Predator and Hummingbird inventor Abe Karem to design an optimum-speed tiltrotor for precisely such a mission. At the same time, Lockheed also has revealed a glimpse of a wider version of the C-130. Boeing has proposed an entire suite of options ranging from helicopters to tiltrotors to new variants of the C-17. EADS North America wants the USAF to consider the Airbus A400M. More exotic concepts also exist with stealth characteristics and embedded propulsion (see Boeing Speed Agile concept pictured above).
What the CRFI shows is that the time for making some very basic decisions is getting even closer. If the USAF wants to launch a new program by 2014, service officials need to define the requirement and ask a future Secretary of Defense for a lot of money at the dawn of a new era of fiscal austerity.
Here's a summary -- copied and pasted from the CRFI -- of what the USAF wants to figure out.