The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is exploring turning its Lockheed Martin MC-130J into an amphibious aircraft by adding two large floats below its hull.
SOCOM revealed its interest in the idea during a slide presentation at the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference on 19 May.
The command wants the MC-130J Amphibious Capability, dubbed MAC, to be able to take off and land from the ground or water on the same mission, indicating that the aircraft’s twin floats would have some sort of retractable wheels.
Flying boats, such as the Consolidated PBY Catalina, and floatplanes, such as the Vought OS2U Kingfisher, were common during the Second World War, especially in the Pacific theatre where lack of runways on dispersed islands made landing on water especially useful. The seaplanes were used for long-range reconnaissance, bombing patrols and anti-submarine warfare against the Empire of Japan.
During the Cold War seaplanes had diminishing significance for US armed forces as long-range jet-powered aircraft, often refuelled in-flight, came to rely on a worldwide network of land-based runways. Longer-range carrier-based aircraft, which could be launched and recovered faster, also displaced the seaplane.
However, as the USA has entered into an era of great power competition with China in areas across the Pacific and Indian oceans the idea of amphibious aircraft is being reborn. In particular, China’s arsenal of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles has the US Department of Defense thinking about ways to disperse its forces.
The US Air Force is pushing forward its Agile Combat Employment strategy, an operational concept that relies on spreading out aircraft across remote island airstrips to avoid losing large numbers of jets on the tarmac in a hail of missile fire. Because amphibious aircraft would be able to land on water as well as terra firma it would be even harder for the Chinese military to predict where the type might land.
“If you can think of giving our C-130s that amphibious capability that creates challenges for adversaries as we look to increase the competitive space,” says US Air Force Colonel Kenneth Kuebler, SOCOM’s programme executive officer of fixed-wing aircraft.
Still, the idea of an amphibious C-130 has been floated several times over the past decades. The internet is littered with conceptual renderings from Lockheed and others that have never taken off. SOCOM emphasises that it is working to determine if MAC is feasible.
“It’s a pretty physics and engineering difficult programme,” says Kuebler. “We’re working with industry on feasibility studies, operational studies, as well as some digital design efforts to determine the best way to move forward.”
SOCOM says the aircraft is too early in development to say what a possible fielding timeline might be.
The conventional MC-130J is used for carrying and resupplying special operations troops behind enemy lines, in addition to extracting soldiers and providing in-flight refuelling for special operations helicopters and the Bell Boeing CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor. However, SOCOM says the MAC may not have the same mission set and its use would partly depend on the result of operational studies.
Interest by SOCOM in the MAC concept comes as China is pushing forward development of the AVIC AG600, a four-engined turboprop amphibious aircraft that conducted sea trials in 2020. The world’s largest amphibious aircraft, the AG600 is intended for search and rescue, transport, and firefighting missions, as well as supporting Chinese military bases built on atolls in the South China Sea.