C-130 Seaplane Program Put On Back Burner (Updated)
Funding challenges and ‘reprioritization of capabilities’ has resulted in an indefinite delay of the C-130 floatplane’s test flight.
The initial test flight of an amphibious MC-130J special operations transport was anticipated to take place this year, but those plans have changed.
“We were initially aiming to conduct an operation capability demonstration in ,” Air Force Capt. Alicia Premo, a spokeswoman for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), told The War Zone in an email Thursday after we requested a program update. “However, for a variety of reasons, at this time we do not have the capability demonstration scheduled. Those reasons vary from funding challenges to a recent reprioritization of capabilities.”
Premo did not elaborate on the reasons she cited for the change in plans for the aircraft, dubbed the MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Capability, or MAC. We asked for clarification and will update this story when we get a response.
But whatever the answer, it is yet another setback for a program that has now seen its goal line shift to the right for the second time.
A flying demo was originally set to take place by the end of 2022, then-AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. James Slife said at a September 2021 media roundtable.
A year later, in September 2022, Slife announced he was moving the test flight date yet again.
"We're awaiting the outcome of the 23 [Fiscal Year 2023] budget process that continues to work its way through the Hill right now," Slife told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association (AFA) Air, Space, & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. "But our anticipation is that we will have a flying demonstration in the next calendar year."
The future of the MAC is now murky.
In December, Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind took over command of AFSOC from Slife, who was shepherding the MAC program but now has a new job as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, at the Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon.
It is unclear whether the change at the top of AFSOC is a death knell for MAC, a program design to add floats onto special operations-equipped MC-130Js to provide greater airlift flexibility, especially in the Pacific.
In an age of increasing concern over threats from China, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), AFSOC’s higher headquarters, has been looking for ways to move people and equipment to austere locations in or at the edge of contested areas. Being able to take off and land on the water offers a lot of advantages.
The MC-130’s established ability to use short, often rugged airstrips has made it an attractive platform to consider for such capabilities. The fact that it is fully outfitted with all the gear needed for the most challenging of special operations missions is an even bigger selling point.
A potential conflict with China would likely have distributed U.S. forces operating in far-flung locations that could be hard to reach with conventional air and sea lift. Marine Corps Commandant David Berger's Force Design 2030 concept is based on prepositioning troops in range of Chinese weaponry. During last year’s AFA conference, Pacific Air Forces Commander Air Force Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach talked about having supplies prepositioned across the region in anticipation of Chinese efforts to cut off supply lines. Being able to take off and land on water has the potential to help address some of those issues and concerns. Supporting small forward forces, such as those supporting F-35B or drone operations on remote islands that do not have runways is another example of how this capability could prove critical. The MAC could also help provide combat search and rescue, especially for down aircrews, over vast distances.
As noted earlier, decades of evolutionary development have gone into the MC-130J along with large sums of money to integrate unique navigation, communications, and survivability enhancements onto the airframe. So, while there is clearly a tradeoff using a C-130 on floats over a flying boat, for instance, it would be very expensive and time-consuming to fit such an aircraft out with the MC-130's existing capabilities, which center on getting in and out of hostile territory alive. The C-130 also has a large spacious hold and rear ramp that can accommodate outsized loads.
You can read more about the concept and its pitfalls and advantages in our previous coverage here.
As of last year, AFSOC had picked a general design layout for its amphibious MC-130 variant, Slife said at the time.
"We've kind of done all the modeling and simulation, and we settled on a general design layout for the way we're going to do that," said Slife of the MAC's design. "We're going through wave tank modeling to make sure that the design that we selected is stable and looks like it's going to be operationally viable for us."
AFSOC has been working with the Air Force Research Lab's (AFRL) Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) directorate to develop the MAC “to improve the platform's support of seaborne special operations,” AFSOC said in a September 2021 media release.
With today's update from AFSOC though, it is unclear whether the command still considers this concept viable and if not, what, if anything, it has in mind to replace it.
There are developments ongoing that are working toward realizing major runway-independent airlift capacity, like DARPA's Liberty Lifter wing-in-ground-effect aircraft, but that is a much bigger concept, both figuratively and literally. It was hoped that the MC-130 floatplane could have provided even a tactical airlift capability much sooner and in a relatively mature package.
We will let you know more about the fate of MAC as soon as we can.
Update 7:05 P.M. EST
Capt. Premo got back to us with some additional information.
"A final determination on how AFSOC will allocate funds for future and pathfinding capabilities has not been finalized yet," she said. "Right now, a demo is not likely to happen in ."
Premo said she would update us with a better timeline tomorrow.
"MAC does have a future," she said.
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