The most successful aircraft in the history of military aviation isn’t a fighter or a bomber, it’s the C-130 Hercules airlifter. Conceived in the early 1950s as a short-hop cargo plane and people mover that could land almost anywhere, it has claimed more and more missions as the years passed. Today, a dozen variants of the plane provide the joint force with tactical mobility, aerial refueling, airborne firepower, electronic jamming, medical evacuation, combat reconnaissance, and humanitarian relief capabilities. The plane provides additional services (such as weather reconnaissance) for civil agencies, and for the five dozen foreign nations that have bought it for their own air fleets. No other military aircraft has been in production for so long, because no other aircraft has demonstrated such versatility.
However, when a plane has been built for several decades and gradually adapted to many different missions, it becomes expensive to keep all the variants ready for action on short notice. Each version has unique operational features that require special training, and unique maintenance requirements that must be met to keep the planes ready for combat. Some of the costs associated with these special needs are inherent in the missions being conducted, but a sizable portion of the budgetary burden arises from the age and diversity of on-board electronic systems. Replacing obsolete displays, sensors, navigation aids and the like with a common, up-to-date configuration thus has the potential to save billions of dollars in support costs.
Reducing such support costs is of keen interest to the U.S. Air Force, which is by far the biggest operator of C-130s. Over the long run, it plans to replace many of its existing C-130s with the more capable and efficient C-130J Super Hercules, but that could take decades and in the meantime the service needs to find ways of keeping the legacy fleet relevant and affordable. Its answer is the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (C-130 AMP), which is designed to install a common electronics package on hundreds of planes in the regular Air Force, the Air National Guard, and the Air Force special operations community. Because C-130 AMP could eventually upgrade nearly 400 planes, it is one of the most important efficiency initiatives currently under way within the Air Force.
Cost savings are just part of the story though. When military aircraft carry obsolete, unreliable equipment, there is a real danger they will not perform as needed in life-threatening combat situations. The last thing America’s warfighters need during nighttime air-drops or search-and-rescue missions is for cockpit displays, sensors or navigation equipment to fail. The on-board systems need to be as reliable as possible, and to generate the full measure of precision and connectivity that we have all come to expect from the digital revolution.
C-130 AMP can deliver those benefits, but first it has to be funded. Unfortunately, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are acting like they won’t fully fund the program next year due to perceived execution problems. However, the problems don’t actually exist — they are reported in a draft study by the Government Accountability Office that is out of date and fails to describe accurately the state of the program. It is really, really important for legislators to get the facts before cutting funds and delaying the installation of modern systems on legacy C-130s. This is one of those situations where the cost of delay may be measured in lives.
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