TAMPA, Fla. — The most advanced versions of the military longtime tankers-turned-dealers are expected to get even more toys under the direction of the special ops community.
the MC-130J Commando II and the KC130J Super Hercules the planes are experimenting with high-energy lasers, amphibious landings and take-offs, and potentially a fully automated unmanned cockpit, if the U.S. Special Operations Command’s job is successful.
Program officers presented the details of the C-130 aircraft family Wednesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, hosted in Tampla, Fla., by the National Defense Industrial Association.
The aircraft, first built in the 1950s, has served generations of combat troops around the world. But he now faces contested airspace like he’s never seen.
“Threats are growing, it’s only getting worse,” said Rich Rodriguez, SOCOM’s technical director for its Fixed Wing program executive office.
Air Force Col. Ken Kuebler, manager of the fixed-wing aircraft portfolio, told conference attendees he prioritizes autonomous technology to ease the burden on the flight crew. It was a recurring theme in almost every air, sea and data-focused panel this week.
Beyond the workload, the crew themselves could see possible adjustments. “I have to be able to downsize the crew and reduce the workload on the crew,” Kuebler said. “We have a lot of data coming in all the time.”
A less busy crew, he said, could then focus more on aircraft safety and combat missions.
Rodriguez said SOCOM has already seen Air Force Special Operations Command experiments with an unmanned cockpit integrated into a smaller aircraft platform. He did not specify on which platform.
If successful, these initiatives could reach massive aircraft like the C-130 variants, he said.
Kuebler also wants to save space but add options. “I need to be able to have a platform that is truly a multimodal, modular system,” he said. That means payloads that can easily get on and off the plane and do more than one thing.
Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin McClure, chief of the PEO Fixed Wing Mobility Division, said the C-130 variants were receiving upgrades with a slew of new equipment. The goal is for the many variants to have common systems and provide safer infiltration, exfiltration, resupply and resupply.
“But the big chunk is in the contested environments,” McClure said. “And this becomes a really difficult problem that we need [industry’s] help.”
They want better communication systems that can receive data from other platforms to increase real-time situational awareness. “Not only can we react and recover, but we can also share that with the community,” McClure said.
This is also true for training. Program managers want augmented reality and virtual reality for immersive training on C-130 variants and as many other aircraft as possible.
What’s going on with the MC-130J?
In terms of recapitalization, the United States is modifying the MC-130J with mission systems for special operations forces to improve low-level infiltration/exfiltration, parachute drop, resupply and refueling in environments contested.
Ongoing efforts include radar integration, airborne mission networking, radio frequency countermeasures, open mission systems integration, special mission processor technology refresh, management system tactical flight and cloud-based mission system integration.
Planned efforts include automated mission systems functionality for joint operations across all domains, palletized munitions, active phased array radar, and augmented reality and virtual reality training.
The C-130 began life as a tanker/transport aircraft. It continues to be a truck in the sky, but one that can collect data, detect targets, and strike when needed.
Lt. Col. Matt Foertsch, strike division chief for PEO Fixed Wing, said work underway includes integrating the MC-130Js with precision strike array and sensor systems for targeting ” new generation “. His work also includes the removal of the “W” variant that preceded the “J” variant, which is expected to be completed by July, he said.
The latest work on the AC-130 combat ship
Ongoing efforts include shutting down the AC-130W fleet, ending AC-130J Block 30 production, upgrading AC-130Js from Block 20+ to Block 30, supplying infrared suppression systems and the provision of defensive system upgrades.
Planned efforts include crew reduction initiatives, adopting a modular approach and open systems, and adopting augmented reality and virtual reality training.
In other words, the helicopter gunship must maintain its close strike capability, but also undertake an integrated deterrence thrust, which the Pentagon has assigned to the command.
For this to work, Foertsch said, personnel are interested in airborne munitions primarily for the “better lethality.” An example of this approach, he explained, is an integrated weapons datalink added to a class of 50-pound warheads last year.
Foertsch called the datalink an “incredible capability” that allows the crew to fire and then communicate with the bullet in flight, issuing instructions.
The link gives the user a “miss” command option, which can render the weapon inert in midair if a strike needs to be undone.
But that still needs to be improved, he said. To do this, they are looking to the industry to provide next-generation guidance and sensors that can work in environments without GPS.
“We do a lot of laser targeting now,” he explained, and even that isn’t enough. They are also looking for optical or automated target recognition in open and modular systems.
But they want to do this by adding functionality to their existing forms, rather than adding another purpose-built cycle. And they want greater reach and greater distance.
Work on that front is underway with two research grants for small businesses, he said. These involve testing a miniature, electric-powered cruise missile that fires beyond 100 nautical miles, and another small cruise missile that can travel twice that distance.
As if that weren’t enough, they would also like this 82-ton aircraft to land on water and fly away.
This is important for Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders and other operators who need to get wet in remote locations.
Rodriguez said Air Force special operations personnel were doing digital planning and working to place flotation sets on the rig for the task.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct development timeline for the C-130.
Todd South has written about crime, the courts, government and the military for several publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer Finalist for a co-authored project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Navy veteran of the Iraq War.