A Royal Air Force decision to take the seven remaining C-130Ks out of service brings to a close a 45-year operational association of the variant with the RAF. (Becky Paget/MoD)
LONDON — The Royal Air Force will axe the final C-130K special force Hercules from its fleet of airlifters by the end of this month. The Defence Ministry is cannibalizing the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft of its defensive aids suite to fit into some of the C-130J models being equipped to fill the role according to the MoD.
In an unrelated move, the British have opted to skip the Block 7 update for its J models and incorporate the modifications in their aircraft along with the new Block 8.1 improvements program being led by the US Air Force as part of an international program.
The decision to take the seven remaining Ks out of service brings to a close a 45-year operational association of the variant with the Royal Air Force. The decision leaves Britain’s tactical airlift dependent on 25 of the more modern J models ahead of the introduction of the Airbus A400M next year.
The move has been prompted in part by the heavy cost of keeping the aircraft airworthy. One MoD source said keeping them flying would not have made economic sense, and with the K effectively at the end of its service life, it made more sense to invest in further J capabilities.
It’s the second aging air asset the British have stood down recently. Late last month, the Air Force finally took its VC10 air transport/air tanker fleet out of operation after 47 years of service.
The British C-130K fleet has been gradually run down over the past few years. The aircraft has had its out-of-service date extended several times, mainly as a result of serious delays to the A400M program and to a lesser degree the failure to complete the Block 7 upgrade to the J fleet on time.
Deliveries to lead customer France have commenced on the Airbus aircraft, which in payload sits between the Hercules and the Boeing C-17, which the Royal Air Force also operates.
Increasing numbers of Airbus A330 tanker/transports now coming into service, a handful of old Lockheed Tristars and some leased BAE 146 jets make up the remainder of the British airlift fleet.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said the timing of the out-of-service decision might stretch resources as Britain completes the draw down of combat troops from Afghanistan next year.
“It’s hardly ideal to lose airlift capability at this point with the VC10s only recently going out of service, the AirTanker program not up to full speed and with only limited numbers of Tristars available. Of course we don’t know what the level of special forces activity is right now but the Ks will have to be replaced with other airlift assets,” he said.
Lockheed Martin has been given an £18 million (US $29 million) contract by the British to develop and install radio frequency defensive aids systems into the J models. The systems are already in use in the K model.
Time frames and whether the work will be undertaken separately or as part of routine maintenance carried out by Air Force Hercules support prime Marshalls Aerospace is unclear.
The British have also decided to drop separate implementation of the Block 7 upgrade to its fleet of J aircraft and instead effectively merge the capabilities with the upcoming Block 8.1 modification program, sources here said.
The Block 7 program is significantly behind schedule and has effectively been overtaken by the Block 8.1 upgrade, which is scheduled for completion in 2014. The US has already opted to move straight to the Block 8.1.
A Royal Air Force Hercules modified to trial the production version of the Block 7 avionics upgrade has been stuck for months on the apron at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., plant modified but unable to fly because it awaited clearance from Britain’s Military Aviation Authority.
A Royal Air Force spokesman said it remains the strategy to “support the multinational block upgrade program in order to sustain our C-130J fleet to its out-of-service date.
“The UK has one C-130J, currently modified to Block 7 standard and located in the USA, where we expect it to commence flight trials soon in support of the multinational block upgrade program. We have no current plans to withdraw this resource,” the spokesman said.
It’s a similar message to the one the British issued in March after the aircraft had been modified to clear the upgrades for incorporation by the partner nations in the program.
The aircraft has been marooned at the Marietta plant so long that Lockheed Martin had to give the machine annual maintenance that it was scheduled to have on its return to the UK.
A Lockheed Martin spokeswomen said that “Seven C-130J operating nations have signed up for the Block 7/8.1 upgrades. These nations include: Australia, Denmark, Canada, Italy, Norway, the US and the UK. Each nation will implement the upgrades on a schedule that accommodates their operational requirements.”
Block 7 upgrades include a new flight management system, which allows operators to meet current civil aviation CNS/ATM standards and integration of a tactical data capability, Link 16, civil GPS and a new special mission display processor.
Awarded by the US Air Force in December 2011, the Block 8.1 configuration includes updated identification friend or foe, Tempest compliance, automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, and a communications, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management data link. Lockheed Martin is also providing enhanced approach and landing systems, and additional covert lighting. ■