The C-130 Hercules is the most widely used tactical airlifter in the world. Prized for its ability to land almost anywhere, the C-130 transports troops, equipment and supplies hundreds of times each day for the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. It also is operated by over 60 other countries, including most U.S. allies. In the five decades since it debuted, the Hercules has been adapted to a wide range of military and civil missions. Its military roles include tactical airlift, medical evacuation of wounded troops, aerial refueling of other aircraft, special operations against terrorists and insurgents, airborne fire support of ground forces, jamming of enemy communications, combat rescue and humanitarian assistance. Civil missions include weather reconnaissance, disaster relief, law enforcement, firefighting, support of scientific research and rescue of stranded mariners.
The latest variant of the C-130 is the C-130J Super Hercules. Although superficially similar to earlier versions of the plane, the “J” variant can fly farther, faster and higher with larger loads. It requires less distance to take off and land, less manpower to operate and maintain, and less fuel to accomplish missions. These improvements were achieved through the introduction of new technologies such as digital flight controls that bolster reliability and safety while reducing costs. The C-130J is used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, surpassing the performance of earlier variants by 200-300% in key operational measures. Although the C-130J delivers the same ruggedness and versatility seen in previous versions of the Hercules, it is essentially a new aircraft in terms of its performance and on-board features.
The C-130J is currently being produced for the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps and several allies. The plane will need to remain in production for many years to come, because hundreds of legacy C-130s in the U.S. fleet and overseas are approaching the end of their design lives. Some are already grounded or operating on flight restriction due to safety concerns. Failure to replace aging airframes in the domestic fleet would severely degrade the global mobility of the joint force, especially the Army. Failure to replace overseas C-130s with the latest version would diminish the capacity of the United States and its allies to cooperate in coalition warfare and humanitarian assistance. The most cost-effective way to modernize tactical airlift fleets at home and abroad is to authorize multiyear procurement of new C-130s at economical annual rates, about 16 per year for U.S. users supplemented by foreign orders.
This report was written by Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute staff as part of the institute’s continuing inquiry into the requirements for preserving U.S. global air dominance in the years ahead.