Lockheed Martin will start modifying the C-130J to perform a new role as a tanker and airlifter for search-and-rescue helicopters and US special operations teams.
The US Air Force has awarded Lockheed a $470 million contract to build and modify the first six KC-130J tankers into the HC/MC-130J configuration.
The new variant will add several features to the baseline KC-130J, including Block 6.5 flight-control software, an extended service life wing, an enhanced cargo handling system, a boom refuelling receptacle, and electro-optical/infrared camera, a combat systems station and armour.
The contract means the air force has abandoned the option of holding a competition for a requirement to replace up to 115 HC/MC-130s.
The USAF is authorised to replace the 68 oldest HC/MC-130N/Ps, including some that entered service in 1964, but it is unclear whether it will replace the entire inventory with the C-130J.
Alenia Aeronautica does not consider the C-27J Spartan as a true competitor for the C-130J, although the company says that the aircraft could play a complementary role in the special operations community.
The HC/MC-130 tanker fleet performs a variety of special roles, foremost among which is extending the range of SAR helicopters by refuelling them. The fleet is also used to refuel special operations helicopters and perform infiltration/extraction missions.
The new fleet type is scheduled to enter service in 2012, with the first flight-test airframes scheduled to arrive two years earlier.