The C-130 transport may be the most successful military aircraft in history. It has been in continuous production for 60 years, and just keeps getting better as new technologies are added to a proven design. Originally conceived as a tactical airlifter for the Air Force that could deliver troops and supplies anywhere there was a dirt airstrip, today it also serves as an aerial refueling tanker, a gunship, a hurricane chaser and a search-and-rescue plane. Every branch of the U.S. military relies on it, as do dozens of allies. Its versatility and rugged reliability are legendary.
In some ways, though, the success of the C-130 (also known as the Hercules) has become its undoing. Hundreds of C-130s bought during the Cold War have remained in the Air Force fleet for so long that metal fatigue and corrosion are beginning to take their toll on airworthiness. The insulation on wiring is rotting, and the electronic systems the wires connect in some cases no longer comply with regulations for safe flight in civil air space. The Air Force thought it had a solution back at the dawn of the new millennium, when it initiated a program called the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (avionics is the technical term for airborne electronics) that would enable aged transports to continue flying in crowded air space.
Fifteen years later, requirements have changed and little progress has been made. It turns out that when you tear open old aircraft, you find a lot of problems no one expected. That has contributed to delays and cost increases, which in turn have undermined the business case for the whole program. Rather than upgrading 500 aircraft as originally planned, the program now would modify barely 200 — and fail to address the most serious age-related problems that are gradually making legacy airframes unsafe to fly. So the Air Force has decided to pull the plug on C-130 AMP, preferring cheaper solutions that will keep Cold War airlifters relevant until they can be replaced by the modern C-130J Super Hercules.
Super Hercules looks a lot like legacy C-130s, but it’s a much better plane. It has 40% more range, requires 40% less takeoff distance, and can fly 20% faster. It costs less to operate, and is much more productive. Best of all, its flyaway cost — the cost of manufacturing each plane — isn’t much more than the cost of fixing all the structural, engine and other problems on legacy transports ($67 million versus $50-60 million per plane for repairs). So replacing the old planes makes more sense than trying to patch them up with new electronics and other features. However, it takes time to buy hundreds of new planes in a constrained fiscal environment, so what the Air Force wants is a cheaper solution than C-130 AMP that will keep the old planes usable until they can be retired.
This is an eminently sensible position for a service that is already struggling to buy a new fighter, bomber, tanker and trainer after 20 years of minimal modernization spending. Unfortunately, some appropriators in the House of Representatives seem to feel that if C-130 AMP goes away, so will the decrepit C-130s at bases in their district. So the fiscal 2015 defense appropriations bill blocks the Air Force from killing or altering the program, in much the same way that other provisions of pending bills would prohibit retiring aged attack aircraft and radar planes. This is not good for warfighters or taxpayers. Both the Institute for Defense Analyses and the Government Accountability Office have found there are more cost-effective ways to fix the electronics on aging C-130s until the planes can be replaced. Legislators should listen to what the experts are telling them, and let the C-130 AMP program die.
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