The MC-130Js and AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, still in development, "represent a leap in capability as it can fly higher, faster, farther and carry more cargo than any of the legacy aircraft," said AFSOC spokesman Maj. Craig Savage. "With the addition of terrain-following radar and advanced survivability modifications over the next several years, the MC-130J Commando II will allow [Special Operations Command] USSOCOM to replace the legacy MC-130E/H/P fleet size."
Lockheed Martin is scheduled to deliver AFSOC's final MC-130J in 2024, with AFSOC scheduled to retire the last legacy MC-130 in 2026. Approximately 10 MC-130Js will be ultimately based at Kadena Air Base in Japan.
One aircraft Two arrived at Kadena on Dec. 21, followed by another on and Jan. 18. The respectively, and the third is set to arrive in March.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said the new aircraft will be an asset in the Pacific. "It has a completely new modern engine, with a much lower fuel burden, which is useful when there is a shortage of places to land," Aboulafia said.
An MC-130J Commando II and a CV-22 Osprey fly over the Texas Tech University stadium in Lubbock, Texas.
Photo Credit: Courtesy photo/Steven Leija
In tests, the MC-130J's improved propulsion system enabled better tactical take-off performance from short, unimproved runways and expanded the flight envelope for aerial refueling, according to the Pentagon's operational test and evaluation agency, DOT&E. Its enhanced cargo handling system also made it easier to load, unload and make airdrops, compared with legacy aircraft
The 17th Special Operations Squadron retired the MC-130P with a final formation flight at Kadena in October. They are to be flown to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, through April.
The airframe has served for more than 50 years and was used in critical air refueling missions in the late 1980s during Operation Just Cause in Panama and the early 1990s during Operation Desert Storm, but the Air Force had been looking to replace it with newer technology since the 1990s. It has since been a part of a dozen named operations, including several disaster relief missions.
The recapitalization was prompted by growing maintenance costs in the old fleet. In 2011, AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster said the MC-130 fleet's unscheduled maintenance hours had grown 56 percent over 10 years, pulling airplanes temporarily out of use.
The multimission tanker boasts advanced sensors, expanded avionics and a universal aerial refueling capability that Wurster said would, "enable the highly skilled airmen of AFSOC to operate under difficult conditions with unmatched speed and capability," after the first one rolled off the production line.
Most of the fleet was more than 35 years old and made of multiple configurations, which increased maintenance and sustainment challenges, according to a Pentagon acquisition report. "The HC/MC-130J model climbs faster and higher, flies farther at a higher cruise speed and can take off and land in a shorter distance," the report says.
In July, the MC-130J Commando II flew its first continuous mission around the world, escorting a single-engine AFSOC aircraft from Cannon Air Force Base to a destination in the Pacific and back. The mission, according to an AFSOC news release, stopped for rest and refueling but had no major breaks or delays.
The AC-130J is armed with a 30mm side-firing chain gun; wing-mounted, GPS-guided small diameter bombs; and Griffin laser-guided missiles — adding a 105mm gun with the third aircraft. Along with its sensor suite, it carries these survivability systems: the AN/ALR-56M radar warning receiver, the AN/AAR-47(V)2 missile warning system and AN/ALE‑47 countermeasures dispensing system.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.