F-35, F-22 Developer Coming To India! Lockheed Mulls Setting-Up C-130J Super Hercules Assembly Line Under ‘Make In India’

Bringing more skin in the game to bag the deal to supply Medium Transport Aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF), Lockheed Martin, the US defense giant behind cutting edge stealth fighters like F-35 and F-22, is considering setting up an assembly line for the special operations aircraft C-130 J Super Hercules in India.

The IAF is looking to replace its upgraded Russian An-32 transport aircraft fleet. The IAF operates about 100 aircraft, which will complete 44 years of service in 2031-32. They are planned to be phased out then.

The IAF had initially planned to procure MTA under a joint developmental project with Russia. The two countries had inked a pact for the co-development of the aircraft in 2012. India would have bought 45 aircraft, and Russia would have purchased around 100. The deal, however, fell through in 2016 after the two countries failed to reach an agreement about the engine and design of the aircraft.

As reported by the EurAsian Times earlier, the other companies in the fray are Brazilian firm Embraer Defense & Security, which joined hands with Indian firm Mahindra in February to manufacture the C-390 Millennium multi-mission aircraft in India. European Airbus Defense and Space, with its A-400 M aircraft, is also in contention.

Lockheed Martin also has the advantage as the C-130J is already in the IAF’s fleet. The IAF operates 12 Super Hercules for tactical airlifting. The Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, introduced in 1999, has four turboprop engines and is mostly used as a military transport aircraft. Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules had received a complete upgrade with the C-130J that contained new engines, a flying deck, and other equipment.

The Hindustan Times quoted Anthony G Frese, Vice President of Business Development (air mobility and maritime missions), Lockheed Martin, saying that the American firm is also considering setting up an assembly line for the C-130 J in India. “The MTA competition provides us a significant opportunity to meet IAF’s tactical airlift requirements. We are exploring options for setting up an assembly line for the C-130J in India,” Frese said.

Lockheed Martin already has a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), the global source of empennages (tail Assemblies) for C-130J. It remains to be seen if Lockheed Martin will again use the Indian firm to bid for the IAF’s tender. Airbus has already partnered with TASL to supply the IAF with C-295 transport aircraft.

The IAF is looking to induct 40-80 aircraft in line with the Indian government’s Make in India initiative. The new transport aircraft are expected to have an 18—to 30-tonne cargo-carrying capacity.

In the request for information for the MTA, the IAF has asked the foreign vendors to provide a general estimate of the cost of aircraft and associated equipment for a batch of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft. The C-390 can carry a payload of 26 tonnes compared to the C-130J’s 20 tonnes and A-400 M’s 37 tonnes.

The IAF has asked OEMs to furnish information about the scope of technology transfer; methods to enhance indigenization and to set up a dedicated manufacturing line, including design, integration, and manufacturing processes in India; capability to undertake indigenous manufacture of systems, subsystems, components, and spares; and making India a regional or global hub for manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of the equipment.

The prolonged standoff with China has underscored the information on military transport aircraft. After the Galwan clash in 2020, India deployed its transport fleet of C-17 and C-130Js to ferry over 68,000 additional troops, along with nearly 90 tanks and over 300 infantry combat vehicles, into the icy heights of Ladakh.

Refueling an M1A2 Abrams tank from a C-130J Super Hercules
File Image: Refueling an M1A2 Abrams tank from a C-130J Super Hercules

Technology Transfer Key To Deal

C-390 Vs C-130J

Lockheed Martin’s statement has come after Embraer Defense & Security signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Mahindra. The MoU was signed by Embraer Defense & Security and Mahindra Defence Systems, a 100 percent owned subsidiary of Mahindra, which focuses on armored transport and security-related products, including electronics.

The C-390 Millenium is a multi-mission, twin-engine, jet-powered, tactical transport aircraft. It is the most modern military transport aircraft in the market, can carry more payload (26 t) than other medium-sized military transport aircraft, and flies 870 km/h (470 knots).

It entered the Brazilian Air Force in 2019. Since then, it has been inducted into the Brazilian Air Force, Portuguese Air Force, Hungarian Air Force, Austrian Air Force, Czech Republic Air Force, and Royal Netherland Air Force. South Korea opted for it in December 2023.

In 2020, the Royal Netherlands Air Force chose the C-390 Millenium over the C-130 J. Because of its speed and load capacity, the Brazilian aircraft could complete a mission with fewer aircraft than the competition.

The C-130J can only cruise at 248 kt; however, the KC-390 can reach a top speed of 470 kt and has a higher operating ceiling of 36,000 feet, as opposed to the C-130J’s 28,000 feet. The C-130J has a range of 2,100 miles, whereas the KC-390 has slightly less (1,750 miles).

According to Embraer, a fleet of six KC-390s flying 1,350 nm (2,500 km) round trips could carry 1,000 passengers and 500 tons of cargo in less than two days. That is 40 percent faster than the C-130J, claims Embraer.

Operating on temporary or unpaved runways like packed earth, soil, and gravel, it may carry out a broad range of operations, including hauling and dropping soldiers and goods, medical evacuation, search and rescue, aerial firefighting, and humanitarian missions.

The KC-390, an aircraft equipped with air-to-air refueling capabilities, has demonstrated its ability to refuel from the air as a tanker and receiver. In one instance, it accomplished this by utilizing underwing pods to accept fuel from another KC-390.

The KC-390 is fifteen percent quicker, eighteen percent more capable of carrying cargo, and forty-one percent less expensive than the C-130J. The KC-390 has an aerial refueling capability as standard equipment; however, its range is 15% less than that of the C-130J. Only a few specific sub-variants of the C-130 are equipped with this capacity.

A-400 Aircraft

A-400M – The Heavy Lifter

The third contender in the tender is the A-400 M, which is sized between the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. It can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and use rough landing strips. Apart from transport, the A-400M can perform aerial refueling and medical evacuation when equipped with the appropriate gear, a role performed by the Russian Ilyushin Il-78 in the IAF.

The Airbus A-400M Atlas is a European four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed by Airbus Military (now Airbus Defence and Space). However, its size is beyond the upper limit of the transport aircraft’s cargo-carrying capacity that the IAF is looking for.

The IAF wants a transport aircraft in the 18-30 tonne category. The C-390 can carry a payload of 26 tonnes compared to the C-130J’s 20 tonnes and A-400 M’s 37 tonnes.

The A-400M demonstrated its ability to serve as an airborne launcher for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2022. During a recent test, an A400M deployed a drone from its opened rear cargo ramp door while airborne, validating its capability to air-launch drones.

In recent times, the Government of India has considered strategic interests when pursuing defense deals. It would be interesting to see which firm emerges as a winner in this multi-billion-dollar deal.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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