Lockheed Martin just wrote a new chapter in aviation’s long and well-storied history. It relates to the introduction of a new aircraft designed for special operations – a plane built upon the most flexible platform imaginable.
It’s the new MC-130J Combat Shadow II, and in late March 2011, the company rolled out this innovative variant of its MC-130 aircraft series. The new aircraft will service the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
The rollout, which took place in Marietta, Ga., is significant for several reasons. The MC-130J is one of the most – if not the most – versatile tactical airlifters in the world, according to the Bethesda, Md.-headquartered company. The new aircraft’s multi-mission capabilities will increase the combat performance of special operations forces across the world, says Peter Simmons, communications manager for Lockheed’s MC-130 programs. “While it was tailored toward AFSOC’s activities, the aircraft’s capabilities will interest any nation engaged in special operations.”
Indeed, as the company indicates, the MC-130J will effectively operate in the most difficult conditions, and with unmatched speed and capability. Unlike previous iterations of the MC-130 series – including the MC-130E Combat Talon I, MC-130H Combat Talon II, MC-130W Combat Spear and MC-130P Combat Shadow – it integrates advanced sensors, expanded avionics and universal aerial refueling capacity.
Lockheed Martin based the new craft on the KC-130J aerial refueling-tanker. Among its many advantages, it boasts a new wing designed with an extended fatigue life, an enhanced cargo-handling system and more powerful electrical generators. The plane is also equipped with an electro-optical/infrared camera system, and it has a station for a combat systems operator in the cockpit.
INNOVATIVE PRODUCTION APPROACH
Innovation not only involves what the craft is equipped with but how the plane is produced. Most special operations aircraft are modified after production to accommodate special operations missions. Lockheed Martin did things differently with this new aircraft. It represents a bold idea: For the first time, a purpose-built, special-operations aircraft has been created upon the production line, says Jack O’Banion, director of Lockheed Martin’s MC-130J programs. “Typically, the way such planes get built involves the identification of suitable characteristics to support special operations mission, and it’s purchased off the line as a green aircraft. Then it goes to another facility, gets torn apart and rebuilt with special operations capabilities added on as post-production mod, and then its gets redelivered,” he adds. “When we looked at pursuing the potential of government’s special operations recapitalization, we realized that we had a quantity of aircraft that could substantially benefit from building them up from the start, with special operations capabilities included.”
The company then did some studies to determine the effect. Findings were startling, indicates O’Banion. “Numbers indicated that the savings for moving forward, tooling up and building within the C-130 production line translated into more than $8 million in aircraft and more than eight months of downtime that would have been necessary to take the aircraft apart, modify it, put it back together and deliver it to the customer,” he describes.
There were other benefits. “With building as you go, you get lighter weight structures, and you have a better opportunity to build in compliance with modern air worthiness standards,” he adds. “We took advantage of those opportunities and were able to come up with an aircraft that can be driven off of the lot ready for special operations work.”
As far as specific advantageous upgrades, O’Banion describes what the new aircraft offers. “We took the best of Air Force and Marine Corps configurations and expanded on them,” he says. “First, we provided the aircraft a very sophisticated set of sensors.”
These would be the EOIR, or electro-optical infrared sensors. “Further, we provide UARRSI capability,” he says, describing an acronym – for Universal Aerial Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation – that translates into the ability for the aircraft to receive fuel from a boom tanker, which provides the plane with unlimited endurance, or range capacity.
“We also fitted the aircraft with a high-speed, high-altitude ramp and door system, which allows the plane to operate at higher speeds and higher altitudes while conducting air drops, which are sometimes deployed in special operations activities,” he reveals.
O’Banion also points to the aircraft’s enhanced wing structure, which substantially increases a wing’s durability. How does this translate into real-world circumstances? “The airplanes typically fly low-altitude routes, where you need terrain masking to protect the craft,” he says. “At such levels, a craft is subject to much more intense turbulence for longer time periods. That’s why we beefed up the wing.”
The aircraft also has dual military SATCOMS (satellite communications systems). “This provides both voice and data connectivity line of sight – and even beyond line of sight – which means that operators can talk around the world, even when flying at the low level altitudes that masks the aircraft from threats,” says O’Banion.
There’s still more: The aircraft has integral night vision goggle (NVG) compatible and covert lighting systems, both inside and outside, controlled centrally from the cockpit. “In other aircraft, you may find yourself going around and unscrewing light bulbs and taking off light sources to be able to use NVGs or to mask the aircraft. With this new plane model, all of that has become centrally controlled,” reports O’Banion, describing a crucial difference.
Further, Lockheed Martin added combat system operator workstations on the flight deck. O’Banion explains the significance: “The standard C-130J involves two pilots in a two-person cockpit. So, given the various mission demands this aircraft will face, we’ve added one populated combat system operator workstation as well as a second combat system operator workstation that can be mission-populated as required.”
As O’Banion indicates, upgrades are both internal and external. For instance, this new aircraft has a built-in enhanced division system provision on its nose. This supports low-level operations and provides improved ability to land in adverse weather.
Other upgrades include:
- A full complement of flight deck and cargo compartment armor;
- An enhanced cargo handling system in the back end that provides computer-controlled event sequencing for air drop and similar operations;
- More powerful generators attached to all engines, which generates greater electrical power;
- Doubled capacity of the aircraft’s electrical system;
- A Windows-based maintenance management system that makes maintenance much easier to accomplish;
- Expanded intercom system;
- An addition of power outlets, that enable usage of technology such as laptops;
- Expanded defense measure system provisions and added provisions for large aircraft infrared countermeasures;
- Incorporation of high-speed, low-level aerial delivery system provision throughout the aircraft;
- Addition of two new Loadmaster observer, or scanner, positions in the cargo department.
Production of the lighter and more efficient MC-130J began in 2009 at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta facility.
Lockheed Martin Corporation was formed in March 1995 with the merger of two large technology companies: Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta Corporation. Today, it is a global security company that employs about 132,000 people worldwide and is engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.
And, of course, Lockheed Martin is strongly focused on aeronautics. As the company reports, its roots go back to the early days of flight. In 1909 aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin organized a company around a modest airplane construction business and built it into a major airframe supplier to U.S. military and commercial customers. Meanwhile, in 1913, Allan and Malcolm Loughead (the name was later changed to Lockheed) flew the first Lockheed plane over San Francisco Bay. The modern Lockheed Corporation was formed in 1932 after the fledgling airplane company was reorganized.
Today, aeronautics is one of Lockheed Martin’s several operating units. The unit, which recorded sales of more than $13 billion in 2010, includes tactical aircraft, airlift, and aeronautical research and development lines of business. Its C-130 platform is the most flexible in the world, and that has enabled the company to move forward with the MC-130J.
“The C-130 can be changed in almost a limitless fashion, to meet the needs of operators pretty much anywhere in the world and for any mission,” says Simmons. “The MC-130J is the aircraft that meets the multi-role, multi-mission, multi-capability requirements of different countries.”
Further, the C-130 platform doesn’t just meet military special operations missions. “It has been used in firefighting, hurricane chasing, resupplying troops, and disaster relief. But the list goes on and on,” says Simmons.
Never in the history of aviation has there been a platform so flexible, and the MC-130J boldly underscores that point.