Transport was seemingly on its way out as the Bush administration's axe fell, but USAF could have the final say

Lockheed Martin appears poised to escape yet another imminent extinction threat to the C-130J Hercules, this time aided by the renewed support of a perhaps unlikely ally – the US Air Force.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he might amend the Bush administration's plan to terminate the programme at the end of this year, a proposal that would scrap the USAF's plans to buy 115 more C-130Js and halt Lockheed's 51-year-old Hercules line.

Rumsfeld's rare flash of flexibility follows a predictable backlash from the C-130J's supporters in Congress to his termination proposal. But, perhaps more importantly, the proposal was fiercely resisted internally by the USAF, which – despite its status as the C-130J's biggest customer – has a turbulent and puzzling history with the 14-year-old tactical airlift programme. In turns since 1988, air force officials have alternately embraced, cancelled, reluctantly accepted and then again embraced the digitised and re-engined update to the classic C-130 design.

Having broken through a decade-long series of software and airframe glitches, the USAF's C-130J embarked on a maiden combat tour to Iraq in December and is enjoying a new wave of support from senior leadership. The deployment came after the C-130J's ALE-47 chaff-and-flare defensive system cleared operational testing, but the C-130Js still lack some advanced capabilities – including automated formation flying and heavy airdrops – that are expected to be installed with a new software upgrade this year.

The deployment has served as a major showcase opportunity for the Lockheed programme – a chance to demonstrate the basic validity of the C-130J's design improvements despite the programme's well-documented schedule delays and technical faults. The basic cargo delivery mission in Iraq will test the value of the C-130J's ability to fly higher and faster and with lower support costs than the legacy Hercules fleet. The C-130J is re-engined with the Rolls-Royce AE2100 and six-bladed Dowty propellers.

The stretched C-130J operated by the USAF also finally rationalises the Hercules' maximum take-off weight with its cargo bay capacity. Maximum take-off weight for the C-130H is about 20,400kg (45,000lb), but it has only room to store five 2,270kg pallets. The C-130J Stretch mitigates this mismatch by providing room for two more pallets on standard airland cargo missions.

USAF chief of staff Gen John Jumper has led a polite public opposition to Rumsfeld's termination proposal, pointing out the service had badly underestimated the cost of terminating the programme during Rumsfeld's decision-making process.

At that time, in late December, the USAF officials told Rumsfeld the direct cost of termination fees to halt production after fiscal year 2005 would be about $493 million. That estimate, says Jumper, falls far short of the true cost to the government.

Terminating the C-130J assembly line at the Marietta plant also would substantially raise overhead costs on F/A-22 and the C-5 modernisation, which would be passed on to the government. Factoring in those figures, the termination costs for the C-130J rise to between $800 million and $1 billion. The C-130J programme's critics argue, however, that the air force could avoid termination fees by cancelling the contract.

In any event, Rumsfeld cited the unexpected costs as a reason for backing off the termination proposal, telling a group of lawmakers last month that a review of the C-130J issue was under way. The fate of the programme may still depend on several factors, including the conclusions of a defence-wide mobility study, new signs of obsolescence in the existing C-130 fleet and the USAF's contractual provisions on the C-130J.

For example, if reduction of the termination fee is the determining factor, Rumsfeld's options are to stop production now and absorb the huge cost, or wait while the direct termination costs dwindle to zero through FY08. At that point, the USAF would still be forced to pay the indirect costs associated with amortising Marietta's overhead costs to other programmes.

The Pentagon also may consider the longevity of the USAF's 666-aircraft Hercules fleet, of which about 240 are more than 40 years old, according to Lockheed. The ageing issue struck one month ago with news of a centre-wingbox cracking problem, which forced the USAF to ground 30 C-130Es and restrict the flying status of 60 more E- and H-models. Meanwhile, the Air Force Fleet Viability Board is also investigating the health of the C-130E airframe, which may factor into the decision whether to terminate the C-130J production early.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's joint staff is working to complete a broad review of airlift needs in the Mobility Capabilities Study, which is likely to be completed in June after a three-month delay. The C-130J's fleet size will be considered against proposals to add about 42 more Boeing C-17s and reduce the size of the Lockheed C-5 fleet by about half by retiring the 60 A models remaining in service.


Source: Flight International