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The Air Force is in process of mapping out the future of its fleet of C-130 Cargo planes to include a range of seeming variable or different options such as both potentially arming them for combat with cruise missiles and air dropped bombs while simultaneously retiring many of them.
The current notional plan, according to Air Force senior leaders, is to drop the number of C-130s in the fleet from 300 down to 245 to streamline the force while still covering the service’s tactical lift requirements.
“245 C-130s cover what we need for our tactical lift and includes support to the homeland,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
All of this is happening alongside a concurrent Air Force effort to more fully arm the fleet of C-130 cargo planes. There has been a lot of Air Force experimentation with arming cargo planes with palletized stacks of air dropped bombs and building various launchers and dispensers into the planes for possible attack.
Several air drop experiments have been successful and the service is looking closely at thinking “outside of the box” and expanding the mission envelope for the aircraft.
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There are several tactical circumstances which inform this, such as the reality that larger, non-stealthy cargo planes are likely to face serious survivability challenges operating high-end major warfare kinds of environments, whereas they’ve had little difficulty functioning in counterinsurgency conflicts where the U.S. has air supremacy. The aircraft does have flares of course and is regularly protected by fighter jets, yet arming them may be easy to do and is something which certainly multiples combat possibilities for commanders.
The other elements of this is simply that cargo planes should be armed because they are already targets for potential enemy attack, so there is no reason not to think of them as armed war assets. Furthermore, the service has been deeply immersed in a number of structural reinforcements and upgrades to the C-130 fleet such that they are considered viable for many years into the future as essential troop, cargo, ammunition and supply delivery platforms.
As a propeller driven aircraft, C-130s are able to land in more rugged or austere environments, when compared with engine driven aircraft such as C-17s, because debris will not get stuck in an engine. This fact lends further support to the idea of arming the C-130s as warplanes able to defend against incoming fire or even launch offensive attacks.
At the same time, Nahom was also clear that the service is exploring a handful of emerging or new “tactical lift” technologies which might be able to bring the transport functionality with lower risk or in a more survivable fashion. Much of this is conceptual or notional at the moment, and Nahom did not elaborate on what that might look like, yet the service is diving deep into the possibility of engineering a new class of tactical lift air vehicles of some kind specifically tailored to operate in major warfare, high-threat environments.
“When it comes to future tactical lift, there is a lot we are sticking our nose into when it comes to protecting logistics under attack. There are other things out there we may need to move food and fuel in a a contested space,” Nahom explained.
Kris Osborn is the 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