Boeing is offering a lower-cost version of its ambitious Hercules Avionics Modernisation Programme (AMP) upgrade to export customers, and is believed to be close to signing a deal with Saudi Arabia to upgrade the Royal Saudi Air Force’s fleet of 47 C-130Hs. Saudi Arabia is not the first export customer for AMP, as the Swedish Air Force and Boeing signed a letter of agreement for the upgrade of eight C-130E/H aircraft under the full scale C-130 AMP program in March 2005, for redelivery between 2007 and 2009. 

The C-130 AMP was originally launched to reduce the total costs of ownership for the United States Air Force C-130 fleet (which was then identified as including 525 aircraft in “13 Mission Design Series”) modernising the aircraft and standardising their core avionics architecture, producing one common core avionics suite with five mission families. Four of these were intended for Special Operations mission requirements, and one for the basic Combat Delivery variants, which constituted the majority of the C-130 fleet.

 USAF C-130

It was intended that an upgraded, common fleet configuration would offer dramatic benefits in life cycle cost, with better availability and affordability. The flexible avionics architecture would allow a reduction in crew size and promised a simpler and cheaper path for the insertion of future upgrades, as well as providing greater reliability, and simplified fleet-wide training, and easier fleet management.

Crucially Boeing's AMP upgrade provides Communication, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management compliance, meeting global air traffic management (GATM) requirements. Without this the C-130 fleet would be prohibited from using some categories of airspace and some international airways. The aircraft is fitted with a modern digital glass cockpit with wide field of view Head Up Displays (HUDs) and six 6x8 Multi-Function Displays (MFDs), and full Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS) compatability. The aircraft features a proven flight management system taken from the Boeing 737 commercial airliner.

Boeing was awarded the AMP contract in June 2001, and the first preliminary design review and first critical design review were passed in November 2003 and June 2004, respectively. An MC-130E Combat Talon I was used as a pre-Development, Test and Evaluation aircraft (a risk reduction platform for the planned Northrop Grumman APN-241 terrain following radar system), flying for the first time with its new equipment on March 15, 2005.

The first ‘proper’ AMP aircraft, in so-called H2 configuration, made its first flight post conversion in September 2006, and the second (as an H2.5) in March 2007.

 USAF C-130

The programme soon ran into problems, and in the Spring of 2007, it was revealed that it had breached the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment by encountering a growth in unit costs of more than 50 percent since initial estimates. The C-130 AMP’s breach was spectacular -  with the deputy director of Operational Test and Evaluation/Air Warfare at the Department of Defense reporting that AMP costs had gone: “through the roof... up 160 percent.”

Most of the blame for the cost increases were laid at the USAF’s door, primarily for failing to maintain configuration control. As a result, Boeing had been expecting to work with six baseline C-130 configurations – but discovered that unplanned, local and ad hoc modifications over the years, together with a backlog of incomplete technical change orders had left almost every aircraft in a unique configuration.

Doubt was also cast over the programme because the contract had been let while Darleen Druyun had been serving as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and management. Druyun was imprisoned for giving Boeing favourable treatment on the KC-X tanker programme while trying to line up a well-paid position with the company. The possibility that Druyun had also influenced AMP led to further scrutiny and delay.

Following the Nunn-McCurdy assessment, it was determined that there were no lower cost alternatives to AMP, but the programme was dramatically reduced in scope, and just 222 upgrades were authorised – effectively limiting the upgrade to the USAF’s C-130H transports, leaving out the older E-models and the Special Operations aircraft. The Special Operations Hercules fleet will now be ‘recapitalised’ via the procurement of a new-build HC/MC-130J variant, while the removal from the fleet of these hard-worked aircraft, and the ageing C-130Es has effectively halted Boeing’s Total Life Extension project, which would have seen the provision of a complementary centre wing box structural upgrade.

It was originally planned that Boeing would upgrade one third of the aircraft at its Boeing Aerospace Support Center in San Antonio, Texas, with the remainder being divided between the USAF’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, in Georgia, and the Ogden Air Logistics Center in Utah. Boeing are now expected to receive a a sole source contract for the first Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) aircraft, but that Full Rate Production will be fully competed, with the FRP Request for Proposals planned for release in 2011.

Though the scope of the USAF C-130 AMP programme has been dramatically reduced, Boeing hope to tempt export customers into upgrading some of their legacy Hercules by offering a lower-cost scaleable and modular avionics architecture according to Boeing’s C-130 AMP business development manager, Jeff McDaniel.

Customers would be able to leverage off the USAF programme, and could ‘cherry-pick’ particular elements of the full AMP upgrade, including the digital glass cockpit, the colour weather radar, the digital autopilot, TCAS, the advanced flight management system, and the smart air data system. Such scaleable solutions would cost between one third and half of the price of the full AMP solution (which itself represents about one seventh of the cost of a new C-130J), and would still allow customers to benefit from improved interoperability with USAF C-130s, and to take advantage of the logistics, support and training infrastructure being set up for the USAF’s AMP aircraft. A scaleable architecture would also allow a customer to go to the full AMP configuration via a series of ‘Spiral’ upgrades, and to upgrade aircraft when future block upgrades are developed as part of the USAF AMP. McDaniel identified a potential market of about 700 "addressable" Hercules, including non-USAF examples in the USA itself.

Source: Flight International