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US Air Force Seeks 115 Cargo Planes For Special Operations January 26, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Military News.
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WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–The U.S. Air Force seeks 115 cargo planes for special-operations missions, to replace a fleet of aging Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) C-130 airlifters, the Air Force told Dow Jones on Friday.

The Air Force drew numerous responses to a request for industry input on replacement options that closed Wednesday, said Aeronautical Systems Center spokesman Chris McGee. The current requirement is for 115 replacement planes; an industry day is scheduled for early February, he said.

Analysts knew the Air Force was in the market for new special-operations airlift. But they hadn’t expected the service to seek such a large number of new planes. As of last year, the Air Force inventory included 59 MC-130s and 37 HC-130s in a variety of configurations.

Lockheed Martin is the front-runner in the coming contest, said Teal Group aircraft analyst Richard Aboulafia. This marks the latest achievement for a program that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to kill in late 2004.

“This is probably the closest thing the C-130 has to a slam dunk,” Aboulafia said.

The only other four-engine potential contestant is the Airbus A400M, a new EADS military cargo plane that is still in development. It will be larger and more expensive than the C-130, and it also lacks compatibility with the current Air Force inventory.

Other contenders are two-engine planes that also are vying for the Pentagon’s Joint Cargo Aircraft light cargo plane contest, Alenia’s C-27J and the EADS C-295, along with the smaller EADS CN-235. But these planes may not be what Air Force Special Operations Command has in mind.

“AFSOC is spending $20 billion on new equipment,” Aboulafia said. “Do you think they’re going to refuel using a small twin turboprop that has to have its back door open?”

Alenia said its C-27J is intended as a “partial solution” to the Air Force’s needs. It recommended a mixed buy of C-130Js and C-27Js, which use the same engines as the C-130J.

This strategy might allow the Air Force to recapitalize its fleet more cheaply, Alenia spokesman Ben Stone said. Alenia’s offering includes its partners in the JCA race, L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. (LLL) and Boeing Co. (BA).

Boeing C-17 Sits Out C-130 Race, Could Replace C-5

One cargo plane that won’t compete for the special-operations planes is Boeing’s C-17 cargo jet. Boeing said the C-17 has tactical as well as long-range capabilities, but isn’t designed for the range of missions needed for that contest.

But Boeing could still gain a big new Air Force order if the service decides to retire some of its oldest C-5 aircraft. These planes are in the midst of a trial avionics modernization program, or AMP.

Defense Department testers said recently that the C-5 avionics upgrade isn’t “operationally suitable.” In a report released this month, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation cited high component failure rates, lengthy troubleshooting procedures and heavy maintenance loads.

The Air Force defended the C-5 AMP program, saying that “many of the suitability items have improved.” Testing delays have been primarily due to a shortage of available aircraft, which has been addressed by recent maintenance improvements, the service said in a statement Friday.

Results won’t be in from the C-5 study until around 2009. This means the Air Force needs another year of “bridge” C-17 purchases – about a dozen planes – to keep the line open until it makes its decision.

Congress may cooperate. In 2007, Congress gave the Air Force funding for an extra 10 planes as part of war-related emergency spending bills.

Boeing urged lawmakers and the Pentagon to keep the C-17 line open. “The C-17 line is hot – but obviously won’t remain so forever,” Boeing spokesman Rick Sanford said.

“Spending billions on upgrading the old C-5As in hopes that they might be able to perform at a reasonable mission-capable rate sometime in the future is at best a risky proposition.”

Testers Hit C-130J On Maintenance, Combat Concerns

The Pentagon’s test office also criticized the C-130J for maintenance difficulties and concerns about its combat defenses. But Lockheed Martin and the Air Force said these issues haven’t hurt the plane’s combat performance.

According to the new test report, the C-130J isn’t able to drop troops and supplies when using an avionics system intended to keep the planes in formation. It also has problems with maintenance and a missile-warning system.

“The C-130J is not effective for worldwide operations in a non-permissive threat environment,” the test report said.

The Air Force said the report raises issues that aren’t part of the C-130J’s daily mission. The aircraft hasn’t been asked to perform formation airdrops during Iraq and Afghanistan operations, nor is it required to fly in range of ground anti-aircraft fire.

The cargo plane is “not designed to operate in high threat environments and avoids operations at altitudes within the range of operational surface-to-air missiles,” the Air Force said.

Lockheed Martin said the C-130J has flown successfully in combat since it was declared operationally capable in 2006.

“The aircraft is currently deployed in two combat theaters; is being flown by both U.S. and allied operators; and is operating at a very high tempo efficiently and reliably,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Peter Simmons said.

By Rebecca Christie, Dow Jones Newswires

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