Lockheed Martin confirms studies are under way for a new version of the C-130 featuring a wider fuselage to accommodate a proposed class of US Army ground vehicles entering service after 2015. The enlarged airlifter would compete against the Airbus Military A400M and Boeing's proposed C-17B to support the army's Future Combat System.
"There's clearly things we can do to the C-130 to increase the size of the fuselage if there's a market that wants that," says Jim Grant, Lockheed's business development director for global mobility and special operations forces.
"We have teams looking at what it would take to make a [longer] fuselage," Grant says, "and then we also have the design teams looking at the emerging technologies should the requirements drive us to the new airframe."
Current plans for the FCS consist of a family of networked vehicles and systems, including a key subset of manned ground vehicles that has already outgrown the C-130's cargo hold and payload weight limits. The current aircraft's cargo box has a diameter of 2.78m (9ft), versus 4m for the A400M and 5.48m for the C-17A.
The US Air Force plans to maintain a fleet of nearly 600 new or upgraded Hercules, and believes a mix of 221 modernised C-130Hs and 172 new-generation C-130Js will be sufficient to meet most of the army's intra-theatre airlift requirement, as only 15 of its 76 future brigade combat teams will receive FCS equipment.
But with the fleet to leave a capability gap for the proposed FCS manned ground vehicles after 2015, the USAF is discussing several options.
One is to partner the army to develop an all-new airlifter for delivery after 2021. A notional development programme called Joint Future Theatre Lift, emphasising either vertical or super-short take-off and access to austere airstrips, is in the planning stages.
Another option is to buy an off-the-shelf aircraft such as the A400M. Boeing has also proposed the C-17B, which is adapted for austere landings with higher-thrust engines, triple-slotted flaps and an extra main landing gear.
Meanwhile, Lockheed is considering a widened version of the C-130J. Grant says engineers are studying modifications for super-short take-off capability, but appears dubious that any existing turboprop-powered airlifter will be large enough to accommodate the FCS requirement.
"I don't know whether the A400M will be able to carry the [FCS manned ground] vehicles," Grant says. "I do not know whether the weight of those vehicles will climb right through the weight [limit] of the A400M or not. What I can say is that the A400M will continue to be very heavy for [C-130]J-type capability."