The C130K just wants to continue to be of precious service. Its retirement has been delayed at least twice, and it seems likely that a third reprieve is imminent as part of Planning Round 2012.
There are some 8 old C130K left in service in the RAF at the moment, and the plan was for them all to be retired by year's end. However, the C130K is the favorite airplane of the Special Forces, and carries all of the (classified and not) additional kit that SF ops require, from the two large underwing additional fuel tanks to additional radios and navigation devices.
The 25 C130J of the RAF were to get a software upgrade (Block 7) as part of the international, US-led C130 upgrade and maintenance program. This software upgrade would enable the addition of all of the SF kit into the airplane, making it possible to retire the old K, but the upgrade has been delayed several times. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics said the upgrade will “enter Phase II flight tests this summer. We are awaiting a schedule for [installation] from the USAF.”
In other words, the software is still being tested, and it is not currently available, while the RAF had been planning to have Block 7.0 software embodied on its C130J by September 2011, so to give the go ahead to Project Hermes: the installation of SF gear, to be done by November 2012. The following month, the K fleet would be gone forever.
Now this plan is no longer current, and when you add to the picture the delays to the A400 Atlas (in 2008 it was planned that it would enter RAF service by December 2011) and the incoming needs and challenges of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, you see why keeping the C130K left for some more time makes a lot of sense.
We will see if the option is approved under Planning Round 12. The issue is, as always, finding the money for keeping the fleet running for a longer time, but it seems very likely that the 8 C130K will continue to fly, probably in 47 Squadron, the one earmarked for SF operations.
The need for additional airlift to support the withdrawal from Afghanistan is such that the RAF is getting, as we know, an 8th C17 and 2 BAE 146-200 QC airplanes (these procured as UOR), but there reportedly are at least two more options being considered as part of PR12: keeping the Tristar running for longer in the air transport role, and leasing a couple of USAF C17 to rise the fleet consistency, at least temporarily, to 10.
In the long term, a most welcome development would be, in the case, the retention of the two BAE 146 post-Afghanistan and, if they really are leased, the eventual definitive purchase of the two C17.
That would be a major boost for the air transport fleet, one that is always very much needed.
According to the SDSR, the C130J out of service date has been anticipated to 2022, but there is reportedly already talks and hopes of actually retaining at least a part of the fleet. The way to do it could be similar to what is happening with the K: Special Forces ops. The A400 might well be too big for most SF ops, and anyway the Atlas would have to be fitted with specialist equipment for the job: why not keep around a squadron of C130J, already kitted, for SF support...?
Another airplane that does not want to die is the Sentinel R1. Its performances in Afghanistan and Libya are helping it, and Raytheon UK is valiantly fighting alongside the RAF to give government all reasons to retain the small but precious fleet in the long term.
The UK is now likely to retain Sentinel R1 (a good news once in a while!) and offer it as its participation in the NATO Air Ground Surveillance programme. This way, the UK will be able to access to the NATO-owned fleet of 5 Global Hawk Block 40, which is likely to be reinforced by a fleet of 7 Heron TP drones made available by France and by 5 EuroHawk (the German variant of the Global Hawk, kitting for Signals Intelligence).
Such an AGS fleet makes for a formidable expansion in the capabilities of the Alliance, and for the UK access to this array of sensors is very desirable. Contributing the Sentinel, instead of cash, is a double-win as it helps the RAF to make the case for the retention of the precious, nationally-owned capability.
Raytheon UK, on its part, is offering the MOD a low-cost software mod that would allow the Sentinel's radar to effectively scan the sea and track surface contacts, relieving a bit of the problem caused by the loss of an MPA platform.
They are also trying to save the 5 Shadow R1 airplanes, also doomed post Afghanistan as of SDSR, by, again, offering to fit a naval-search radar on them to expand their (classified) mission capabilities.
The retention of Sentinel and Shadow, and an improvement in sea-search capabilities would both be more than welcome news.
But one thing should be made clear: a Sentinel capable of tracking ships and boats does not a Maritime Patrol Aircraft make, as the MPA's most unique and precious capability, and the one really missed, is that of detecting and attacking surface and subsurface targets.
And Sentinel will never be able to track subsurface targets, and never will be able to attack any kind of target, as it has not weight growth margins to enable modifications for weapons carriage.
Reinstating a true MPA capability as soon as possible should be very high on the list of "To Do".