Air Force Special Operations Command plans to demonstrate an amphibious version of the MC-130J Hercules by the end of 2022.
The C-130 is one of the world’s most-produced transport aircraft, and it may well be the most versatile military aircraft ever used.
During its almost seven decade-long career the aircraft has been used in civilian, commercial and military roles, performing tasks such as aid & supply missions, transport, paratrooper drop, ground attack, reconnaissance, airborne early-warning (AWACS), electronic warfare, maritime patrol and search and rescue to name a few.
However it came as a surprise that in September 2021, the US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) announced its intentions to build a version of the Hercules on floats.
AFSOC’s press release points to the fact that water, which makes up 71% of the planet’s surface, would enable their service to get into isolated places that no land aircraft could.
The $114 million aircraft has advanced navigation and radar systems that allow it to operate in unfriendly territory, the ‘MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Capability’ will allow support operations at sea and in near-shore areas.
AFSOC said it will conduct a rapid prototyping effort to increase the “runway independence and expeditionary capacity” of its MC-130J by developing “a removable amphibious float modification.”
MC-130 variants have supported US military operations since the 1960s. The MC-130J is the latest version and is the backbone of AFSOC’s fixed-wing force.
AFSOC first included the development of this special C130 aircraft on its procurement list back in early 2021, and confirmed the project in September. It was also announced that, owing to the active use of the latest digital design technologies, the aircraft will be ready to fly before the end of 2022.
There is a high chance that this C-130 will be adopted by the US military. It is also likely that, in contrast to its competitors, the design will be widely exported. NATO and its allies have a need for such an aircraft.
ADVANTAGES OF SEAPLANES
For the military, during conflict, the ability to disregard airports and land airplanes at any location and at any time offers a great advantage. Original military seaplanes from the early 20th century were designed with this in mind and saw widespread use until WWII. However, the proliferation of military airfields, the increased range of land-based aircraft, new types of aircraft carriers and the widespread use of helicopters eventually rendered them obsolete. Now, we regard images of seaplanes as relics from the past.
However it is a fact that fixed-wing aircraft tend to be much faster and more efficient than helicopters. Seaplanes carry a greater payload and boast greater range. Despite being heavier and slower (due to massive floats), they outperform helicopters in most respects.
There is also a large civilian market, especially if it can be adapted for firefighting roles.
The Hercules MC130J also marks a turning point in what can be referred to as the ‘seaplane renaissance’.
In July 2020, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) test-flew the AG600 Kunlong seaplane, built for rescue and firefighting efforts. Powered by four turboprops and capable of carrying at least 12 tons (26,000 pounds) of cargo, it would also be perfect for delivering, extracting and supply missions.
Presently China already employs the Harbin SH-5 seaplane which was introduced in the 1960s. Only seven were produced, with only one used for firefighting, the rest (three prototypes excluded) are employed by the Chinese navy.
The Albatross A-40
The A-40 is the largest jet-powered seaplane ever to be built. It is also slightly larger than the AG600 and substantially heavier. Designed in the 1980s in the Soviet Union by the Beriev bureau and intended to become the company’s masterpiece and a successor to a long line of Beriev flying boats.
The two A-40 prototypes suffered a similar fate to many other ambitious Soviet projects and were left to rust in their hangars.
In 2014, United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) announced that it has resumed the development of the Albatross. In 2016, the Russian Navy revealed that it would like to replace the outdated Be-12 with the A-40.
The Be-200 Altair, a scaled-down version of the A-40, has been in production through the 2000s and was a heavy presence in firefighting efforts in both Russia and abroad. Best-known for dropping tons of water on fires, the aircraft, has been designed with other uses in mind. In particular, Beriev’s jet-powered flying boats are intended for maritime patrol, reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare.
Japanese ShinMaywa US-2
Introduced in 2007, the ShinMaywa US-2 is a Japanese quad-engine turboprop short takeoff and landing (STOL) amphibious aircraft developed and manufactured by seaplane specialist ShinMaywa. It was developed from the earlier Shin Meiwa US-1A seaplane, which was introduced during the 1970s.
Although anyone of these aircraft could be built under licence in the United States with new technology and front line avionics, it seems like a seaplane Hercules is eventually going to become a reality.