Leader Blues

Friday, April 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> C-130J survives cuts as budget tightened

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The proposed 2010 Defense Department budget would end procurement of one venerable airlifter, but the future for the C-130J looks brighter than ever, according to some observers.

Little Rock Air Force Base is the pre-eminent C-130 base in the world and virtually all aircrews and maintainers are trained there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposed $534 billion budget could signal the end of the C-17 air transport plane, the F-22 stealth fighter and expensive new presidential helicopters. The budget still has to survive Congress, where those weapons and systems all have guardian senators and congressmen who want to protect manufacturing jobs in their districts and states.

“I heard nothing in Secretary Gates’ budget statement in conflict with the war fighters’ great confidence in the C-130J,” Rep.

Vic Snyder said this week. “It has proven itself both in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be part of military transport for years.” Snyder serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

Gates said the military would fill its needs for C-17 heavy-lift air transport this fiscal year, ending with 205 of the airplanes.

He resisted congressional pressure to add more C-17s to preserve jobs throughout the country. “We have enough C-17s,” he said.

If the department doesn’t buy more C-17s, then Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Hercules, which the Pentagon tried to cancel several years ago over cost issues, is the likely winner – but not a certain one, according to one account.

Alenia’s smaller joint force cargo plane, the C-27J, has been discussed as a mobility and gunship aircraft for smaller loads and takeoffs and landings at airstrips even shorter than the minimum for the C-130J.

Gates’ budget reinforces a strategy of arming for wars against insurgencies and irregular threats in places such as Afghanistan rather than for fighting conventional wars.

Tuesday, Air Force representatives received the first of 14 new C-130J Hercules that will be based permanently at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Ten C-130Js will be delivered to Ramstein this year, with four more scheduled for delivery in 2010, according to a Lockheed Martin press release. The 14 new Js will support the Ramstein-based 37th Airlift Squadron, 86th Airlift Wing that has been flying older C-130Es.

The new aircraft are the longer C-130J-30 configuration, which is now the standard for recapitalizing the USAF and many other air forces around the world.

C-130Js are engaged in high-tempo operations in multiple combat theaters and are routinely deployed in support of both peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, a spokesman said. The C-130J is a proven airlifter that has been selected by 10 nations, with 173 aircraft delivered to date.

Also affecting the C-130, in March the Air Force discovered cracks in some barrel nuts, which hold the wings to the plane, and it has relied since then on planes without the problem.

At Little Rock and throughout the Air Force, maintainers have been replacing the barrel nuts and putting the planes back in the air as quickly as possible.

Those barrel nuts secure the outer wings to the center wing box, according to Col. Greg Otey. Otey is commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base.

About one-third of the 95 C-130s at Little Rock have the questionable upper wing-joint barrel nuts that held planes out of service, according to Otey.

“We’ve had no decrease in our ability to support our worldwide commitments,” said Col. Jeffery Hoffer, 19th Operations Group commander at Little Rock.

“Through strong collaboration between operations and maintenance personnel, we’ve been able to mitigate any training losses as well to maintain a high level of readiness,” Hoffer said.

“Simulators have proven effective tools in providing alternative training platforms, but nothing can replace the knowledge and proficiency provided by flying actual aircraft. We expect to be back to full strength shortly which will allow us to continue to support the war fighters,” the colonel said.