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by Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The classic C-130 cargo plane can transport and air-drop troops, supplies and ammunition into austere, forward high-risk areas under enemy attack without needing a runway, transport some armored platforms and tactical vehicles into otherwise unreachable areas and even launch recoverable drones.

C-130

Now, the C-130 can fire cruise missiles as well, a mission multiplying tactical ability demonstrated recently in Norway by the US Air Force. The Air Force Research Laboratory in alignment with US Special Operations Command Europe, completed a live fire of a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range cruise missile deployed from a MC-130J Commando II, according to an Air Force essay.

“Firing palletized weapons off of a C-130 or C-17. complicates things for our adversaries,” Andrew Hunter, Air Force Acquisition Executive told reporters at the 2020 Air Force Association Symposium.

Hunter’s point makes sense, as a cruise-missile armed C-130 can hold otherwise unreachable areas at risk such as higher altitude landing zones, areas with uneven terrain or lower altitude targets potentially obscured by rocks and mountains such that fighter jets sensors and targeting systems cannot reach them. In an immediate tactical fashion, a JASSM-ER armed C-130 would be positioned to attack surrounding enemy areas within striking distance of a landing area or air-drop zone, therefore building it its own defenses and providing some measure of air fires support to maneuvering soldiers under fire on the ground.

C-130

C-130

Multiplying potential uses of a C-130, which have also included the launch and recovery of drones as well as ongoing experimentation with laser weapons, suggests that the service may indeed have long-term service life plans for the aircraft.

Could the Air Force’s workhorse, 1950s-era C-130 cargo plane fly missions for close to 100 years? If not 100, how about 80? At least 80 might be realistic given a recent series of upgrades to the existing C-130H planes, now converted into newer, high-tech C-130Js slated to arrive at a number of chosen Air Force locations this year.

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Air Force and Navy bases in Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas will begin receiving eight C-130Js this year; a fourth Air Force location will receive the aircraft at a yet-to-be-determined time, according to an Air Force report.

“Compared to older C-130s, the “J” model climbs faster and higher, flies farther at a higher cruise speed, and takes off and lands in a shorter distance,” the Air Force report says.

The C-130J aircraft incorporate a wide sphere of upgrades and adjustments, to include a new two-pilot flight station, digital avionics, color multi-functional liquid crystal and head-up displays, inertial navigation technology and GPS. The airframes themselves are also a key focal point of the effort, Air Force developers explain, which includes replacing and reinforcing the “center wingbox” of the aircraft where the wings mount to the fuselage.

“The aircraft also features fully integrated defensive systems, low-power color radar, digital moving map display, new turboprop engines with six-bladed all-composite propellers and a digital autopilot. The C-130J also includes improved fuel, environmental and ice-protection and an enhanced cargo-handling system,” the Air Force essay writes.

The upgrades have also included adding new 8.33 radios for communication enhancements along with new cockpit voice and digital data recorders. C-130s will also receive new collision-avoidance technology, a technology which relies upon advanced algorithms to identify dangerous terrain or other obstacles and, if needed, re-direct the aircraft should the pilot be incapacitated.

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As a propeller-driven aircraft, the C-130s are able to fly at low altitudes, land in more rugged conditions and withstand harsh weather such as obscurants. The propellers make the aircraft’s engines less susceptible to debris flying in and causing operational problems for the engines. An Air Force C-17, by contrast, needs to operate in more defined conditions, such as areas with longer, separated landing strips or runways. Flying debris or uneven terrain could of course present complications for C-17 engines, whereas the C-130 is specifically designed for low-altitude, high risk combat zones with uneven terrain—scenarios requiring both durability and maneuverability. In fact, in so-called “hot” or active combat zones, C-130s often airdrop weapons, supplies and even troops when called upon by Commanders.

Acceleration improvements such as this naturally bring tactical advantages as well; more maneuverable aircraft better able to handle and accelerate are less vulnerable to enemy ground missile attacks.These tactical and technical dynamics are part of why the C-130 upgrades incorporate propeller enhancements by replacing a hydromechanical propellor control system with an Electronic Propeller Control System. “EPCS improves safety by accelerating response time when throttles are rapidly advanced; an issue in previous mishaps. The legacy propeller control system uses 1950’s technology and is a significant maintenance cost driver,” a 2015 National Guard Association “C-130 Propulsion Upgrade” paper for Congress states.

Several years ago, EPCS maker Hamilton Sundstrand said in a statement that the new kits “replace 54H60 propeller mechanical controls with a system based on digital computer software, offering improved reliability, and more precise performance.” 

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.