UK Royal Air Force Extends C-130J Life

LONDON–The UK Royal Air Force has extended the life of its Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules airlifters for another three months as it attempts to overcome shortfalls in availability of its Airbus A400M fleet. 

Aerospace DAILY understands that RAF commanders have elected to retain the type in service until the end of June 2023, as the air force transfers the C-130Js’ capabilities over to the A400M and deals with an increased demand in airlift capability. The RAF chose to retire the 14-strong fleet of C-130Js as part of last year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy in a bid to consolidate the air transport fleet around the A400M and Boeing C-17 and make cost savings. The Integrated Review Command Paper called for the C-130J fleet to be removed from service by 2023.  

But the retirement decision has been widely criticized by observers who say that the A400M will not be able to undertake all the tasks of the C-130J. They also say that the loss of 14 Hercules aircraft represents a significant cut in air transport capacity. The point has been proven by events in Eastern Europe, which have seen RAF airlifters delivering military aid for subsequent transfer to Ukraine for its war with Russia. 

The RAF was the launch customer for the C-130J, and its fleet is among the leaders in terms of flying hours after heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several aircraft were undergoing the installation of a new wing box when the decision was made to bring forward the fleet’s retirement. 

Sources say that part of the decision to extend the fleet has been driven by ongoing availability issues with the A400M. This means that making aircraft available for flight testing to enable the Airbus-built aircraft to take on more of the Hercules’ tasks is not being fulfilled. 

Several A400Ms are on the ground at RAF Brize Norton without propellers due to shortages. Others are undergoing a retrofit process. The level of availability changes on a daily and weekly basis. 

The RAF would not confirm the aircraft’s new retirement date, but said in a statement that the Integrated Review had announced the C-130J’s retirement in 2023.  

“We will conduct a phased drawdown within this preannounced window,” an RAF spokesman told Aerospace DAILY.  

But defense officials note that the Hercules fleet’s retirement date within 2023 is subject to continuous refinement. 

The RAF has announced that the A400M has recently completed successful aerial refueling trials from its A330 Voyager tankers, proven the air dropping of light stores and demonstrated landing on natural surfaces such as sand airstrips. 

Officials insist that a special high-altitude parachuting capability will be available before the C-130J is retired, along with low-level parachuting. The latter process was accelerated from 2028 to 2023, with trials due to begin soon. 

The RAF has 22 A400Ms on order and has taken delivery of 20 so far.

Some £750 million ($903 million) has been set aside for the procurement of several more aircraft the British defense ministry’s Defense Equipment Plan for 2021-2031 revealed in February.  

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.