Lockheed Martin hopes US Air Force move will persuade US Congress to approve multi-year procurement funding

The US Air Force has cleared the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules for overseas deployments and assault landings. The manufacturer hopes the move will help convince the US Congress to approve funding for a multi-year procurement of 64 aircraft beginning next year.

The USAF's 31 C-130Js have been restricted to flying within North America while awaiting upgrade to the latest Block 5.3 software standard. The USAF recently completed Block 5.3 qualification and is expected to complete the retrofit programme by November. Clearance for overseas operations covers the C-130J and stretched CC-130J, while combat assault is limited to the shortbody version.

"Block 5.3 cleans up a lot of the nuisance messages and it is what we refer to as our go-to-war software. The message is the C-130J is capable, operational and mature in the sense that the aircraft can go to war," says Ross Reynolds, Lockheed Martin C-130J programme manager. He adds that Italy and the UK, which are still operating the earlier Block 5.2 software, are already flying into Kabul in Afghanistan.

The USAF nonetheless has decided to wait for the follow-on Block 5.4, which provides for a fully integrated self-defence suite, before putting the C-130J through a dedicated operational test and evaluation (OT&E) phase in 2004 and declaring the aircraft operational. Congress has made funding for the multi-year purchase of 40 CC-130Js and 24 US Marine Corps KC-130J tankers, beginning next year, contingent on the aircraft proving its suitability and effectiveness.

"I believe what we need to do is demonstrate that we're making satisfactory progress towards a successful completion of OT&E," says Reynolds, who adds that the latest approvals are incremental steps in that direction. Other critical measures will be clearance for cargo and paratroop drops and the start of the USMC KC-130J's operational evaluation in November.

Lockheed Martin hopes to conclude the multi-year contract by the year-end. This will fund eight C-130Js and four KC-130Js annually and will stabilise production of the KC-130J, says the company. The order will also give the manufacturer's backlog a much-needed boost as it has shrunk to just 29 after the delivery of 89 aircraft.

Source: Flight International