• The USMC is the largest operator of the KC-130J and uses the tanker to support its tactical aviation elements, including the F-35B Lightning II. (Nigel Pittaway)
    The USMC is the largest operator of the KC-130J and uses the tanker to support its tactical aviation elements, including the F-35B Lightning II. (Nigel Pittaway)

Speaking at the Dubai Air Show in mid-November, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Executive Vice President Greg Ulmer said that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has requested details for the supply of 30 C-130J Hercules.

“They are talking to us about potential for 24 C-130J-30s and six KC-130Js,” Ulmer told overseas journalists.

The C-130J-30s could be seen as a solution to the RAAF’s requirement for a replacement medium airlift capability forecast by the recent Force Structure Plan. The FSP 2020 document allocates up to $13.2 billion to replace the RAAF’s existing 12 C-130J-30 aircraft and expand the fleet under Air 7404, with funding to begin in 2029.

However, Ulmer’s specific mention of six KC-130Js – which are dedicated air-to-air refuelling variants of the Hercules – is interesting. The KC-130J is a tactical tanker, lacking both the speed and fuel offload capability of the RAAF’s current Airbus KC-30A tanker fleet and can also only refuel receivers which are fitted with a probe.

With the retirement of the ‘classic’ Hornet this week (see story elsewhere), the only current ADF aircraft able to refuel from a KC-130J are the RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers.

The largest user of the KC-130J is the US Marine Corps, which conducts AAR operations for vertical lift (MV-22B Osprey and CH-53E Sea Stallion) assets and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short-take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighters for expeditionary combat missions.

The Australian Army’s helicopter fleets are not equipped with an AAR probe either and reference to the KC-130J by Ulmer may therefore signal additional ADF acquisition programs.

Speaking to ADM during his From the Source interview in our February issue, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld may have provided more clues. “Defence provides airlift capacity in response to a range of military and civil requirements,” AIRMSHL Hupfeld said. “Force Structure Plan 2020 has identified a future need for more air lift and more air-to-air refuelling, and subsequently allocated future projects to deliver these capacity increases.”

Despite Ulmer’s comments to international media at a public event, Lockheed Martin did not respond to ADM’s request for an interview to clarify the remarks, instead providing the following statement:

“The RAAF is one of the most active and visible C-130 Hercules operators in the world. From having the distinction of being the first global C-130 operators in 1958 to operating one of the largest C-130J Super Hercules fleets in the world today, RAAF Hercs have long-served Australia in supporting national, regional and global mission requirements. Lockheed Martin is proud to partner with the RAAF in meeting its tactical airlift needs, standing ready to support the RAAF with its current Super Hercules fleet and in meeting future mission requirements. Please contact the RAAF with specific questions regarding its tactical airlift needs.”

For its part Defence said it is talking with a number of manufacturers and decision has not yet been made.

“Defence is currently exploring options to replace the C-130J Hercules which will reach its 30-year life of type in FY 2030/2031,” a Defence spokesperson said. 

“As part of this process to inform future fleet planning, Defence has sought information from industry on medium air mobility aircraft options from Lockheed Martin, Airbus, Embraer and Kawasaki.

“The decision on down-scoping options is a government decision. No such decision has been made.”

Interestingly, there was no mention of the KC-130J or AAR capability in Defence’s response, despite ADM’s specific question regarding why the RAAF may be seeking a tactical tanker. 

It is also worth noting that both the Airbus A400M and Embraer KC-390 Milennium are also able to perform the AAR role for both fixed and rotary wing receivers. The Royal Malaysian Air Force has in the past deployed one of its A400Ms to Australia to support a deployment of F/A-18D Hornets. 

Airbus Defence and Space Head of Military Aircraft Jean-Brice Dumont overnight confirmed discussions with Defence. “Are there discussions with the Australian Government? Of course, yes,” Dumont told ADM.

“Can I be more specific? No. Is the A400M part of the discussions? Yes.”

In a nutshell, if Ulmer’s comments are accurate, it would appear Defence is seeking a tactical AAR capability to support platforms it does not yet have, or is yet to announce. Watch this space.

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