Theater airlift may have finally found a permanent home. Having been passed back and forth between airlift and warfighting commands since World War II, the theater lift community has been adopted by Air Mobility Command, and the relationship, now in its second year, seems healthy. While there are still some bugs to be worked out, the mission and the tools needed to accomplish it are getting renewed attention and priority.
In fact, while other mission areas throughout the Air Force will continue to struggle with ever-lengthening equipment age, theater lift assets will actually modernize ahead of schedule, and a long-term plan recently approved by the Air Staff calls for consistent improvements that should keep intratheater lift mechanically sound for the foreseeable future.
The theater lift force-dominated by the C-130 Hercules fleet-joined AMC "a little over a year ago, and that is working out very well," according to Brig. Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of AMC's Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott AFB, Ill. Addressing a June AFA symposium in St. Louis, McNabb noted that the "repatriation" of C-130s to AMC was undertaken to foster a more "seamless" air mobility structure.
Theater airlift had been within the purview of the old Military Air Transport Service, or MATS, from the Korean War into the Vietnam era, when Tactical Air Command took it over. The reasoning at the time was that TAC, as the main player in Southeast Asia, should have control over intratheater, or "tactical," assets. The arrangement stuck until after Vietnam, when Military Airlift Command took over the theater lift role to more efficiently manage peacetime usage of the C-130s.
After the War
After the 1991 Gulf War, and the dissolution of TAC and MAC, the new Air Combat Command assumed the theater lift portfolio, based on wartime experience and the necessity of fitting tactical lift into a theater air tasking order. Subsequently, the need for a unified chain of command for training, program management, logistics, and operations mandated yet another change, and the C-130 fleet joined Air Mobility Command in April 1997.
The transfer isn't complete, even today. Because of the unique day-to-day requirements of moving cargo around overseas, not all theater lift assets belong to AMC. Pacific Air Forces and US Air Forces in Europe each "own" a squadron of 12-16 C-130s, to be used for the command's own short-haul lift needs. McNabb noted that "we work that very closely to make sure the overall airlift [system] is seamless, indeed."
Just as ACC manages the supply, repair, equipage, and upgrade of fighters "belonging" to PACAF and USAFE, AMC does the same for the C-130s under those commands.
The C-130s go into action when requested by regional commanders in chief. A number of squadrons may be dispatched, depending on the nature of the contingency; as few as a dozen airplanes or as many as a dozen squadrons will deploy. In the Gulf War, 149 C-130s were sent to that region.
"Straw man" plans covering theater lift needs and deployment are already in place for most world trouble spots, and a particular unit or group of units are usually designated in the plan as the first to go. Advance teams go to the designated operating sites and determine what must be brought and what can be left behind.
Once units receive the "go" order, they virtually self-deploy to the theater, taking along most of the equipment and some of the personnel they will need to operate from forward bases. Contrary to some popular notions, they do not transport any warfighting equipment-such as Army troops or vehicles-from the continental US to a theater of operations.
"We don't bring anything to the theater except ourselves," one pilot pointed out.
Moreover, moving a C-130 unit to a contingency will require some backup lift of C-141s, C-5s, or C-17s to carry additional personnel and gear to the forward operating location.
"Think of it as deploying a fighter squadron," one C-130 pilot suggested. "You need some help to get over and set up."
C-130s will not typically set up shop at a major airport receiving large strategic transport airplanes from CONUS. Ramp space at these facilities is usually at a premium and must be given over to the "heavies." Theater lift forces will set up somewhere nearby--usually within two hours' flying time--and only come in when off-loaded cargo is ready to be transshipped to its next, and usually final, destination. Crews and maintainers will often be located at an austere site where the C-130, but few other airlifters, can operate.
In the Gulf War, C-130s operated out of Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf sites, flying into the Saudi port city of Dhahran for pickups and carrying the materiel to wherever it was needed in the region.
The cargo is varied.
"We carry food, artillery shells, missiles, Army troops, trucks, medical supplies, the mail-you name it," said one C-130 pilot. With its rough-field capability, the C-130 can carry its cargo directly to the front lines. While that is usually avoided in the heat of battle, C-130s can and sometimes will fly directly into a live-fire situation if the need is great enough.
Blue and Green
The Air Force's theater airlift force dedicates much of its capability to the Army, which needs the airplanes to move soldiers or drop paratroops and to haul lighter vehicles and all the gear and consumables necessary for quick movement in the war zone. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's famous "left hook" maneuver in the Gulf War was made possible in large part by C-130s shuttling troops from initial garrisons to their invasion start points. These were, often as not, roads or mere dirt landing strips.
"I sometimes think we speak 'Army' better than we speak 'Air Force,' " one C-130 veteran observed. "We have to know how to talk to those guys so we can understand what they need from us."
The main example of the C-130-and-Army cooperation can be seen at Pope AFB, N.C., where Air Force units constantly provide airplanes to train the paratroopers at the Army's nearby Ft. Bragg.
During the Gulf War, theater lift forces not only brought items to forward areas but also carried back many things--broken airplane parts, sick and injured troops, and, of course, the mail. During the Gulf War, a common load item was helicopter rotor blades; blowing desert sand tended to delaminate their edges, and the Army ran through new rotors for their forward-based attack, scout, and utility helicopters at a high rate.
Wartime theater airlift is the primary mission of the "slick" C-130, meaning the cargo version. Airplanes are "chopped" to the Joint Task Force commander in the event of war. In turn, the JTF commander's air boss--the role filled by then-Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner in the Gulf War--gives the C-130s their orders.
"We never belong to AMC during a war," a C-130 programmer noted. In situations such as Southern Watch, where there is no fighting but hostilities are always imminent, deployed slicks belong to the theater commander in chief.
Like their fighter counterparts, C-130 crews are busy, and every effort is being made to share the burden with considerable Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command capability in theater lift. Some Guard and Reserve units, which have a higher percentage of "full-time" participants, may volunteer for such deployments. Other units, where the number of full-time participants is not so large, will not be called for such duty unless certain certifications are made by the President that the nation is indeed at war or imminently going to war.
In Bosnian operations, which alone could consume all the capacity of USAFE's C-130 squadrons, stateside units are rotated into the theater for deployments of about 45 to 65 days and during that time are chopped to USAFE.
Such assignments, based as they are on volunteerism, are planned well in advance.
"We practice this on a regular basis," a C-130 pilot noted. "We can get out of town in 24 to 48 hours, depending on the warning time."
When deploying to an area as far away as the Gulf, the C-130s will make numerous hops, since they lack the capability for aerial refueling. Some crews will have flown ahead, gotten their requisite crew rest, and are ready to take the controls at an interim field when the airplane is refueled and checked out. Sometimes, extra, or augmented crews will fly on a single airplane and trade off the flying as crew rest demands.
Once in theater, the airplanes are to be ready for operations within a few hours of landing and unloading their gear.
Though deploying C-130s always chop to the theater commander, longer-legged C-141s or C-5s involved in theater lift operations do not. They may perform missions for a theater commander, but they still are "owned" by AMC and "on loan" for specific missions.
The C-17 Globemaster III played an important intratheater lift role in Bosnia where, early in the Army deployment in late 1995, it was able to move outsize equipment rapidly to small airfields. In fact, the C-17 is "writing a new page" in the theater lift manual, said the AMC programmer, but it is still too soon to tell if it will be given more than an ad hoc role in the theater mission. While it has been suggested that some C-17s be purchased specifically for intratheater duties, no such plan has been approved, he said.
Although the transition from ACC to AMC has been largely trouble-free, an AMC official said that there are still some "command-and-control problems." He explained, "We still have some gaps in who commands what. It's a never-ending, constantly shifting process" of determining ownership of airplanes and missions alike.
"We need better representation on a CINC's staff," he said. "Army guys and fighter guys don't understand theater lift" well enough to plan their operations, and there are usually too few knowledgeable officers available "to run what is a 24-hour-a-day operation" of tactical lifters moving around the theater.
AMC officials are developing a system to deploy liaison people to help plan operations at the start of a contingency. In addition, AMC is trying out some new ideas on how to manage theater lift and is succeeding in paring away loose ends. The command learned a great deal from Desert Storm and is still finding ways to apply those lessons. Exercises like Red Flag and the joint Blue Flag also help point up deficiencies, which AMC is trying to swiftly correct.
Enter the C-130J
One of the most controversial aspects of the intratheater lift force concerns how the nation has gone about equipping it, particularly in the 1990s. The Air Force owns about 510 C-130E and C-130H slicks, in about five different configurations. These airplanes-bought in lots as small as eight a year on up to 27 a year since the 1960s-for the most part are in good shape and have many thousands of hours of service life left. Only about 25 C-130s will need to retire in the next 10 years.
In the early 1990s, Lockheed Martin, the C-130 producer, unveiled a new model known as C-130J. It offered an all-digital flight control system, new materials, a new engine and propeller system, a glass cockpit flight deck, a two-person crew (vs. three on previous models), and improvements in climb rate, speed, and range.
The Air Force was not yet ready to start replacing its C-130s, but it agreed to request two examples of the new airplane per year to "get the ball rolling," a senior Air Force official said. By the time the airplane was certified and tested, the Air Force reasoned, it would be time to start ordering new airplanes to replace the oldest C-130Es in the inventory. Moreover, Lockheed Martin offered the airplane as a commercial buy, underwriting with its own funds the C-130J's development and presumably saving USAF money.
Congress has taken a strong interest in the new program, adding C-130Js to the Air Force's budget in each of the last five years and touting its enhanced performance and lower projected cost of ownership compared to currently serving types. Moreover, the program has top political support. Until his retirement in 1997, Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, exerted great influence on military affairs on Capitol Hill. The district of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) lies close to the Marietta, Ga., facility that produces the C-130Js.
Not everyone in Congress supports these purchases. The addition of the C-130Js to the USAF budget at a time when higher-priority programs are getting shortchanged "defies logic," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and leading critic. The C-130 ranks 15th on AMC's list of funding priorities.
In addition, Congress has tended to provide money to buy these new airplanes without adequately supplying the spares and support capabilities necessary for their proper operation. When it comes to supporting the new aircraft, the old C-130 equipment won't do. Gen. Walter Kross, AMC commander, noted that the C-130J is "70 percent a new airplane" by virtue of sophisticated new systems and engines, requiring new support gear as well as simulators and training aids. The General Accounting Office, for its part, estimates that USAF will be short $302 million in C-130J support funds by 2003.
Gingrich argues that, on the C-130J issue, the Air Force has been "playing games," deliberately failing to request airplanes because it knew Congress would fund them anyway.
"This is definitely an abnormal program," one senior Air Force official said. Congress not only is buying new airplanes in the absence of an Air Force request but also has ordered that they go, for the most part, to Guard and Reserve units and not the active duty Air Force, which has the most fatigued airplanes.
"There has not been a proper sense of ownership of this airplane," the official said. "We, as an Air Force, have also been corporately slow in defining support requirements for the C-130J and figuring out how to fund them." He added, "We are finally getting off the dime."
The Air Force has undertaken an analysis to determine whether the support-funds deficit is really as large as claimed. "I have no confidence in those numbers," the official said. "I'm having an analyst scrub it for me, to find out what's real," he added.
USAF has conferred with Lockheed Martin, the airplane contractor and "gotten them to use our numbers" when promoting the C-130J's cost and performance advantages to Congress, the official reported. "Now that Congress is seeing one set of numbers, I think the ... [support-cost] deficit will be much lower."
Plans call for converting the first C-130J aircraft into hurricane-chasing WC-130J models and for basing them at Keesler AFB, Miss., a move that raised eyebrows because Mississippi is the home state of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. However, said the senior USAF official, this move makes sense because "you want them all in one place ... as much as you can" to save on support equipment. The "issue of beddown is still being worked" as to where the rest of the new airplanes will go. The Maryland Air National Guard will get the first slick C-130Js.
The senior official said that USAF hasn't really been hurt by the addition of C-130Js to its budget. "Are they early to need?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes, but they are not excessively early to need. Better to have them available if we should suddenly discover cracks or some bad problem" in the serving models.
Moreover, without the C-130J, all of Lockheed Martin's USAF-business overhead costs would be chargeable to the F-22 fighter (the plant's other major defense project), and that could hurt the fighter's affordability. The C-130J program "relieves pressure on the F-22," said an Air Force official.
The Air Staff has also blessed an AMC "Tiger Team" study on how best to modernize the C-130 fleet. The plan calls for buying 250 C-130Js over the next 12 years, replacing the oldest C-130Es as they retire. Some of the newer C-130Es and the C-130Hs--which were purchased in four versions--would all be upgraded to a new configuration, dubbed C-130X.
This new configuration would take advantage of many, but not all, of the technologies being put into the C-130J and make the airplanes compliant with new international air traffic avionics requirements.
The C-130X program would involve three phases. Phase 0, under way right now, upgrades the airplanes' electrical systems and autopilot. About a fifth of the fleet have already undergone this modification. Phase 1 of the C-130X effort would install a new glass cockpit and install new computers and radar and many of the Global Air Traffic Management-required avionics. This would include a Terminal Collision Avoidance System. Money for Phase 1 would be budgeted in 2000 and production would begin in 2002.
Phase 2 of the X program would upgrade the engines of whatever E models remain in the fleet to the same configuration as that on the C-130H: the Allison T56A-15. The Phase 2 effort would also install a common auxiliary power unit for all C-130Xs. If necessary, a wing box replacement would be added for the oldest Hercules airplanes to be retained. The entire C-130X effort would be completed in 2010.
C-130 Performance Variations
Capability or Capacity
Cruise speed (knots)
Max. payload (pounds)
Max. payload range (n.m.)
Max. effort takeoff roll (feet)
Cargo floor length (feet)
Airdrop 463L pallets
Container delivery system bundles
Min. runway length (feet)
Min. runway width (feet)
Min. runway taxiway (feet)
Note: The C-130J-30 is a proposed stretched version of the C-130J.
Guard and Reserve C-130 Airlifters, 1998
BaltimoreBoise, IdahoChannel Island ANGB, Calif.Charleston, W. Va.Charlotte, N.C.Cheyenne, Wyo.DallasDobbins, Ga.Gen. Mitchell IAP, Wis.Hickam AFB, HawaiiKeesler AFB, Miss.Kulis ANGB, AlaskaLittle Rock, Ark.Louisville, Ky.Mansfield, OhioMartinsburg, W. Va.Maxwell AFB, Ala.McEntire ANGB, S.C.Minneapolis/St. PaulMinneapolis/St. PaulNashvilleNew OrleansNiagara Falls, N.Y.Oklahoma CityPeterson AFB, Colo.Peoria, Ill.PittsburghQuonset, R.I.Reno, Nev.Savannah, Ga.Schenectady, N.Y.Selfridge, Mich.St. Joseph, Mo.Willow Grove, Pa.Wilmington, Del.Youngstown, Ohio
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag