Lockheed Martin’s famous secretive Skunk Works unit is known for its role in giving life to the U-2 Spy plane, F-22 and first ever stealth aircraft - the F-117 Nighthawk, however there are lesser known yet impactful programs tied to the special unit such as the C-130 cargo plane.
C-130 Aircraft & Skunk Works
The C-130 first emerged decades ago and is continuing to improve performance through a wide-range of ongoing upgrades.
The aircraft is also a key example of Air Force efforts to redefine, expand or enlarge mission scope for many of its existing platforms through innovations, software enhancements and other new technological adaptations.
This is one of the reasons why the C-130 represents essential elements of the strategy inspiring Lockheed Skunk Works which includes seeking to sustain close connectivity with war-fighting needs, threats and requirements while pursuing the rapid identification and insertion of new technologies quickly as they become available.
“The C-130 originally came out of Skunk Works, and to this day, Skunk Works supports that program in terms of coming up with new innovative capabilities to put out on that platform and new innovative ways to think about using that platform to stay focused on what the warfighter needs,” Renee Pasman, Integrated Systems Director, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works®, told The National Interest in an interview.
Given the longevity and impact of upgrades to the C-130, and massive extent to which the Air Force has been enlarging and reshaping its mission scope in recent years, the aircraft is a prime example of Skunk Works’ mandate to maintain close connectivity between promising, deployable innovations and emerging warzone needs.
The secretive Lockheed unit maintains ongoing involvement in enhancements to the 1950s-era aircraft which may well fly for more than 80 years.
The C-130 has received new:
- Propeller technologies
- Glass cockpit touchscreen displays
- Digital avionics
- Collision avoidance technology
- And reinforced “wing boxes” among other things
The airframes, which remain viable and reliable, have in recent years been receiving upgraded center-wing boxes to connect the wings to the fuselage.
C-130 Upgrades: Equivalent Baseline Hours
To determine the point at which a C-130 needs upgrades and maintenance to sustain service life, the Air Force relies upon a metric known as “equivalent baseline hours.”
There is need for variation with this metric, service officials explain, because wear and tear on a C-130 can vary massively depending upon a range of factors such as mission optempo, areas where it served in terms of terrain and weather conditions as well as factors such as altitude.
As an aircraft known for airdropping critical supplies, weapons and troops in rugged, high-risk areas, the C-130s can fly at lower altitudes and operate without needing a runway.
As a propeller-driven aircraft, the C-130 often operates in austere, rugged environments without a runway and is less susceptible to flying debris flying into the engine as would be the case in an aircraft such as a C-17.
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.
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Years ago, the Air Force called the C-130 upgrade program an Avionics Modernization program, which also included adding new 8.33 radios, cockpit voice recorders and digital data recorders.
The innovations with C-130s do not stop there and are not purely restricted to upgrading existing systems but have also been directed toward upgunning the planes for combat and massively expanding mission scope.
For instance, swarms of explosive mini-drones will dispatch from C-130s to blanket areas with surveillance or even overwhelm enemy targets with multiple attack nodes and Palletized air dropped glide bomb weapons will be dropped from large C-5 Galaxy aircraft.
Weaponizing Cargo Planes
The Air Force is redefining the boundaries of traditional combat by further weaponizing its fleet of cargo planes with bombs, guns, missiles and an ability to launch attack drones, expanding the mission scope of utility and cargo planes typically restricted to logistical missions such as troop transport and supply delivery.
“We are employing traditional weapons systems in non-traditional ways in terms of what we can turn mobility planes into. Why wouldn’t we think out of the box and move away from antiquated concepts to become more of a maneuver force,” Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Commander, Air Mobility Command, told The Mitchell Institute in an interesting video interview.
When faced with the question that weaponizing cargo planes could make them more likely to be subjected to enemy attacks, Van Ovost said “they are already targets. Enemies will go after the tankers and the airlifters because they are the supply line.”
Building upon the well known DARPA Gremlins program in which C-130s have been able to launch and recover drones from the air, Van Ovost explained that indeed Cargo planes could take on these kinds of missions which would include a dual advantage of survivable stand-off launch distance for manned cargo planes as well as stand in attack drones able to close in upon heavily defended areas for attack.
“We could get attritables that could be catapulted from and returned two a C-17 flying outside the kinetic threat range. Instead of a ground launch, how about an air launch?” Van Ovost said.
Something like this could make a lot of sense if, as Van Ovost explained, a large, less-stealthy and more vulnerable C-130 could operate “outside the kinetic range,” yet launch targeted air attacks from stand-off distances by launching and operating drones as a airborne command and control node in the sky.
The Air Force has already for quite some time been experimenting with dropping palletized bombs out of C-130s, yet Van Ovost Van Ovost mentioned what sounded like an enterprising and as of yet unprecedented idea. Why not attack ground targets with air-to-ground missiles from a Cargo plane.
“We look at the SOCOM (Special Operations) model and ask ourselves how you could do that with C-17s (or C-130s)? … and eject JASSMs out of the back. Instead of just dropping them off, we could drop them into the sky and somebody lights them off and sends them to target,” Van Ovost said.
Propeller-driven C-130s, for example, are built to airdrop vital supplies in hostile, austere environments where standard engine-propelled aircraft might not be able to operate. They have flares and other countermeasures to thwart ground-to-air missile attacks and regularly land in well-defended forward runway areas with a secure perimeter….but what about transitioning them more fully into armed warplanes capable of dropping bombs, controlling attack drones or even firing missiles in flight?
Sensors & Offensive Weapons
A smart idea, says Van Ovost, who says that transport and utility aircraft need to continuously be adapted to operate in a massive, great-power, technologically advanced war.
All planes, it could be argued, need to ensure they are armed warplanes built with sensors, EW weapons, countermeasures and offensive weapons. In an interesting discussion with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Van Ovost explained that Air Mobility Command continues to explore new innovative tactical methods through which cargo and utility aircraft can support a joint, multi-domain fight.
“We have to change the way we think about what we do. We are shifting our focus to the high-end fight. It is not enough to just bring mobility capacity but we also want to bring more to the joint force. We want to be ready and relevant for the future. We need time and capacity to experiment and think outside of the box,” Van Ovost said.
For instance, Van Ovost talked about arming cargo planes with air-to-ground weapons, launching attack drones or dropping bombs from C-130s or even using a C-17 aircraft as a forward command and control “node to do crunching of data.”
“We showed that a C-17 with a set of antennas could do that work. We have the size, weight and power. A pod on an airplane will do C2 to process data and make that available,” she explained.
What all of this points to is that, although Skunk Works is of course known for far-reaching basic research and long-term innovations looking years into the future, the organization operates with an equally intense commensurate focus to better enable existing systems by integrating new technologies as they emerge. This may partly explain why the Air Force has in recent years been taking massive new steps to arm C-130s with air-dropped weapons or even air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
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 News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.