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Future Maritime Patrol – Part 6 (C130J and A400M Options)

Hercules with Firebee Drone

Eyes down look in for the final instalment in the Future Maritime Patrol series, apart from a quick summary.

We have looked at all the conventional options; large aircraft like the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, smaller aircraft like the Airbus C295, business jet and even unmanned aircraft. One option remains, using a large aircraft already, or soon to be, in service.

How about a Sea Hercules or Sea Atlas?

Neither are in service anywhere, despite many PowerPoint shows and models (mainly for the former) although a long range Search and Rescue variant of the Hercules is in service with the US Coast Guard. A long range SAR aircraft would of course be useful, but as we have discussed, long range SAR languishes at the very bottom of the reasons for reinstating a maritime patrol capability, so, any similar conversion would have to provide the high end anti submarine capability as found in the P-8A for example.

Is any of this possible, is it a good idea, or simply a triumph of PowerPoint over reality?

The final question to ask is, just because we can, should we?

The Sea Hercules

Lockheed Martin have proposed the SC-130J for a number of national requirements including Canada and for the Indian Medium Range Reconnaissance Aircraft. A variant of the C130J it is designed to encompass the full mission spread of maritime patrol, surveillance and SAR to ASW and ASuW.

A representative from Boeing commented;

And the beauty of this type of airplane – it’s a four-engine turbo-prop – it means time on station, it means the ability to prosecute targets and potential threats as well as shipping across a broad spectrum of any type of ocean mass. We’re spending a lot of time talking with new potential customers now in an effort to be responsive to that market as they look at the continued emphasis on maritime patrol surveillance as well as Anti Submarine Warfare.

Clearly, Lockheed Martin are looking at the P3 replacement market and have decided it would offer a good enough alternative to the Boeing P8.

Boeing are not going to let Lockheed Martin have access to the P-8A mission systems and neither are they going to have access to the Airbus FIT system, the equipment is therefore likely to be derived from the P3, maybe some derivative of the Merlin HM’2 systems. Despite this, there is no reason to think it would be some kind of runt of the litter in capability terms. Unlike the Boeing 737, the Hercules is designed for low altitude manoeuvring, a point Lockheed Martin never cease emphasising. It has a 360 degree search radar fitted under the fuselage, wingtip ESM, a nose mounted EO turret, wing tip mounted ESM and an interesting fuselage side blister bomb bay for torpedoes.


Looking at the brochure range and endurance figures they actually look better than a P8, by some margin.

On face value, this looks like an interesting option, the C130J Hercules is in service with the UK, an established support and training infrastructure in place and the costs would potentially be reasonably low.

A number of factors would need to be considered;

  • If this would be an interim, what would ultimately be the objective and do we actually need an interim anyway?
  • Would sufficient airframes be available in serviceable condition for the conversion?
  • How much would a conversion be including work to refurbish the existing fleet, or elements of it?
  • Would it offer a capability that is better and/or cheaper than the many alternatives?

If a conversion is not feasible, new builds would be another option.

The problem with the Sea Hercules is a simple one, the Hercules does not have a rosy future in UK service with the vast majority out of service as the A400 deliveries scale up. There has been persistent speculation about SF wanting to retain a few and it might therefore still be an outside possibility that small numbers of C130J’s would remain in UK service but the odds of this do not seem favourable, real cost savings are had by deleting aircraft types, not reducing numbers and keeping boutique fleets in service.

So as much as I think there are plus points for an SC-130J, there are many obstacles to overcome.

A Multi Role Atlas (inc MPA)

If a Sea Hercules remains a distant possibility because the likely future of UK Hercules in general then what about an MPA version of the A400M Atlas?

No one has seriously proposed this but worth at least looking at, if only to complete the broad spectrum of options.

I am not actually a big fan of a Sea Atlas, it’s focus being far too narrow, but I do like the idea of using the airframe as the base for a number of different missions, just like the USA and other nations do.

The basics are there, large payload, robust airframe and significant range/endurance.

The endurance potential opens up a range of options, multiple crews for example, the space for rest facilities is certainly there.

The A400M is the ultimate ‘pickup truck’ and I am going to go out on a controversial limb here and say the C130 is yesterday’s aircraft but you cannot ignore the sheer flexibility and diversity of variants it has spawned.

  • Airborne tanker
  • Maritime patrol, gunship
  • Electronic warfare, AEW and SIGINT
  • UAV Launch and Control
  • Special operations support
  • A number of non military government types such as fire-fighting.

The concept is well proven.

Hercules with Firebee Drone
Hercules with Firebee Drone
Hercules HC-130N
Hercules HC-130N
Hercules HC-130P aerial refuelling
Hercules HC-130P aerial refuelling
Hercules EC-130V
Hercules EC-130V
Hercules EC-130J Commando Solo
Hercules EC-130J Commando Solo

What might have prevented more widespread adoption of the C130 as the base for an even wider number of uses is its speed and in some cases, altitude of the C130.

Two areas where the A400M excels.

The A400 has pretty impressive payload, range and altitude characteristics so could it form a common base platform, much like the CVR(T) or FRES common base platform that is used as the basis for a number of specialist variants?

The A400M might not be a cheap common base platform but if there is one thing we all know it is that commonality relentlessly drives down overall cost, back to my first point above.

If the C130 can be utilised in the maritime patrol, gunship, tanker, AEW, ELINT and ISR role; why not the A400M?

Some missions might be easier than others to cover with an A400M variant and it would all come down to a spreadsheet analysis on cost but when you think about for a while, it might not be as barking mad as it sounds.

Funnily enough, the Hercules is a good model to look at for inspiration and examples. Some might think this is a good means of retaining the C130J in service but where would the fun be in that!

I am going to look at three examples, airborne refuelling, maritime patrol and the multi role USMC tanker/transport/attack variant of the Hercules Tanker, the KC-130 Harvest Hawk.

Although this series is primarily about maritime patrol I have also tried to look at the wider implications of selecting one airframe or another.

The rest of this post is about posing a ‘what if’ challenge, I know dates and programmes as currently envisaged might not align but think about making greater use of what we have, or will be having.

Airborne Refuelling

The good thing about the A400M Atlas is that the Airborne Refuelling Variant is not actually a variant at all, the base aircraft will come ready wired, ready plumbed and mission ready. All an operator need to do is buy the Cobham refuelling equipment and complete any training or local certification activity.

Actually, it is not quite as simple as that.

All A400M Atlas users start with the Common Standard Aircraft and then pick from the ‘optional extras list’

Germany, for example, will only have 24 aircraft equipped with the Forward looking Infra-Red Enhanced Vision System (EVS) and the UK has a specially strengthened floor able to take the weight distribution of the Terrier armoured engineer vehicle.

Although the common standard aircraft has the necessary structural and cabling/pipework for the airborne refuelling equipment the actual equipment for AAR is variable and includes items such as video cameras, centreline fuel dispenser hose drums, a ramp variant to allow the aircraft to be used for centreline refuelling without lowering the ramp and depressurising, cargo hold fuel cells and the pylon mounted refuelling pods from Cobham.

The simplest installation is two wing pylon mounted 908WDE pods from Cobham. These can be quickly installed, offload fuel at a rate of 1.26 tonnes per minute and are a version of the 905E’s that will be fitted to the A330 based Voyager.

Voyager Refuelling pod
Voyager Refuelling pod
Airbus A400M AAR
Airbus A400M AAR

More capability can be provided by a centreline hose drum unit and cargo fuel tanks (holding 5.7 tonnes of fuel) that are both pallet mounted.

To use the centreline fuel refuelling unit a specially designed rear ramp is used that enables the hose and drogue to be deployed whilst the aircraft is still pressurised. The centreline unit when combined with the cargo hold fuel tanks can be used to dispense a different fuel type if needed, normally, its own fuel tanks are used to store fuel used for dispensing.

The diagram below shows the A400M’s flight envelope and the same for helicopters and fast jets.

Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Chart
Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Chart

Potentiall. this would make the A400M extremely versatile in the role and for the UK

If Airbus can prove the helicopter flight envelope with A400M it could be a new capability that would greatly enhance the special-forces and amphibious capability as the Chinook, Puma and Merlin are all capable of being modified to accept refuelling probes, even though they are not in service with the UK.

Providing support to allies such as the US Marine Corps with their airborne refuelling capable CH53K’s and MV-22 Osprey’s would also be hugely valuable.

Just because the A400M is not CVF capable does not of course mean it cannot support carrier and/or amphibious operations, far from it. In fact, the more I think about it, this would provide a dramatic uplift in our amphibious assault capability and greatly enhance the utility of CVF/JCA for not a lot of cost.

A typical operation like Ellamy would make use of both land and sea based tactical aircraft both supported by a mix of A400M and Voyager tankers, a flexible and powerful combination.

The combination of AAR capable Merlins/Chinooks and an AAR equipped A400M Atlas would also potentially allow the UK to provide combat search and rescue (JPR), another capability we have had to rely on the US for as evidenced by US helicopters operating from HMS Ocean off Libya.

As the US shifts its focus to the Pacific it is this type of mission that the UK, Europe and wider NATO countries are going to have to resource themselves.

Airbis A400M Refuelling Helicopters
Airbis A400M Refuelling Helicopters

The diagram below shows fuel offload, time on station and radius of action.

Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Fuel Offload Chart
Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Fuel Offload Chart

From the diagram, a typical mission at 500nm (926km) could offload 35 tonnes of fuel during two hours on station.

One thing that an A400M tanker has over a Voyager is its ability to take on fuel itself and that can be used to both extend range and increase offload capacity.

In sustained operations refuelling aircraft might not actually offload all their fuel and in the Voyagers case, this would have to be taken back to base which is costly and inefficient.

Too much fuel equals too much weigh equals to much fuel consumption equals too much cost!

When using A400M’s as the refuelling aircraft that unused fuel could be simply transferred to the next aircraft in line and the first landed as light as possible.

If the future involves refuelling unmanned aircraft then the medium speed types might be unable to take on fuel from a Voyager but the lower speed and medium altitude flight profiles offered by the A400M could be a good match.

The A400M Atlas is no Voyager and we should not think of it as a replacement but more of a complimentary capability for missions where the Voyager is less suited.

These are in theatre support for close air support aircraft and refuelling helicopters, there is also the UK specific requirement for the Falkland Islands.

Two A400M’s based on the Falkland Islands, both equipped for airborne refuelling, would offer an improvement in capability for the air transport role and also provide a more robust and lower risk airborne refuelling capability.

All this eminently sensible talk all comes crashing down to earth when we consider the commercial arrangements involved with the FSTA PFI. Much of the actual contract conditions are commercially confidential but whilst the MoD is free to pursue airborne refuelling from other countries, other aircraft or even other commercial providers the simple fact is there will have to be penalties paid to Air Tanker who more or less have first dibs on any airborne refuelling.

If the UK is to take advantage of the significant capability and flexibility afforded by the A400M Atlas’s airborne refuelling facilities the commercial arrangements between Air Tanker and the MoD will need to be addressed.

Pie in the sky, perhaps, the point here is that significant additional capability is available at relatively low cost if a better commercial arrangement can be made with Air Tanker.

Maritime Patrol, Overland ISTAR and EW

To turn the A400M into an AAR aircraft is there for the taking, it no requires no aircraft redesign and will be in service with other nations, pretty much, a no risk capability.

If we want to look at the multi-mission flexibility evidenced by Lockheed Martin with the C130 then more effort will be required.

There are three broad challenges;

  • Punching holes in the fuselage
  • Dropping weapons
  • Fitting mission systems and crew facilities

As we know, as soon as you start drilling holes in the fuselage of any aircraft, costs rise. Our goal should be to minimise this airframe work.

The A400M does not have a bomb bay and is not blessed with many hard-points for external carriage. Dropping weapons (and sonobuoys) therefore, becomes a physical challenge.

Operating in the back of a large transport aircraft is not conducive to the levels of concentration and efficiency required for these complex tasks, some means of housing additional crew in an environment that befits their role will be required.

In addition to those challenges, we would have to address the high cost of the base airframe and running costs.

In order to minimise airframe modification (and resultant cost) the maximum use of podded systems would seem the best approach.

Podded Systems

Using a pod mounted multi mission fit on large transport aircraft is not a new idea, the SAMPSON pod, amusingly called the Special Avionics Mission Strap On Now, was developed in the mid-eighties and flown on the High Technology Test Bed (HTTB) aircraft.


SAMPSON was based on a 1,360 gallon external fuel tank modified to take a range of avionics and sensor equipment with a ram air turbine providing the power. Instead of copper cabling the data link used an infra-red transmitter on the side of the pod and a receiver inside the aircraft looking through a passenger window.

It was much like a TV remote control although as the picture below shows, rather larger

SAMPSON Pod receiving equipment
SAMPSON Pod receiving equipment

The SAMPSON pod was used for many years by to support the Open Skies initiative, click here for a good read on this fascinating subject.

What does this trip down memory lane show, nothing really, apart from the simple fact that mid eighties engineering and systems integration found a way.

The hard-points on the A400M have full electrical and electronic integration with aircraft systems, no need for remote control transmitters.

The Cobham 908E pod weighs 630kg wet so one must assume the wing hardpoint is able to handle that not insignificant weight and this provides some scope for systems integration and payload

Designing and manufacturing sensor pods is not a trivial task but it is not rocket science either and there are organisations out there with the experience and skills to do it.

Enter stage left, Airdyne Systems and a big crack in the ice.

The LC-130 ‘Skidbirds’ from the 109th Airlift Wing of the USAF National Guard have been providing transport facilities to Antarctic stations for decades.

There have been a number of aircraft losses due to undetected crevasse formations in the landing and take off areas so in 2006 the New York Air National Guard funded a programme by Sandia Labs to study an X-Band ice penetrating radar that could be mounted on its aircraft, principally the LC-130’s and Twin Otters then used for airborne ice field landing site reconnaissance, prior to landing.

C130 Crevasse Damage
C130 Crevasse Damage
C130 Crevasse Landing
C130 Crevasse Landing

Click here to read about the science.

With the basic science done, there was a need for a systems engineering approach that would allow the LC-130’s to carry the ice penetrating radar with the minimum of airframe modification.

A podded solution was the obvious answer.

Instead of a wing hard-point, a paratrooper door system was used instead.

Airdyne SABIR 06 Airdyne SABIR Systems (04)

Airdyne created a system that replaced the door with a pylon and integrated operator console.

What this project did (that is related to this post) is prove that a payload pod could be carried on a door mounted arm or stub wing. The benefit of using the paratrooper door is that if the aircraft is unlikely to be recreating the Arnhem landings then the door is somewhat surplus to requirements and represents a decent attachment point because it negates the need for complex airframe integration and can be easily swapped in and out as needs dictate.

It was, and is, is an ingenious solution.

Airdyne Aerospace of Canada and their USA marketing partner (HISShave continued to evolve the basic concept.

Their main product is called SABIR (Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response) and it has a number of components, mounting solutions, integral operator seats, workstations, tube ejectors and the pods themselves.

Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept
Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept

These choices allows the user to mix and match depending on requirements and because there is no airframe modification they can be tested/integrated off board at a low cost.

Various workstations, observer/operator seats and equipment racks can be fitted to the pallet.

The pods themselves are attached to the swing arm with it being raised for take-off and landing and lowered when airborne.

Airdyne have a good description for the pods

In essence, SABIR pods are similar to smart phones – all you have to do is select a pod and add your sensor application. Because the pod form factor is already flight rated, customers save cost and schedule by only having to focus on what goes into the pod.

Multiple SABIR systems can be deployed on the same aircraft to maximise sensor variety or ability to observe multiple locations.

Airdyne SABIR Systems (01) Airdyne SABIR 09 Airdyne SABIR 07 Airdyne SABIR 04

The A400M paratrooper door was subject of a great deal of test and modification during the aircraft design phase so this approach would probably not work as well and looking at the A400M door below it is immediately apparent integration would be more complex.

A400M Paratroop Door
A400M Paratroop Door

The basic point remains, podded solutions are viable.

To reinforce this more, the Harvest Hawk programme has also demonstrated podded weapons and sensors on a large transport aircraft.

Harvest Hawk is an eminently sensible programme driven by the USMC, started in 2008/9, that seeks to squeeze maximum benefit from a common platform, using roll on roll off kits  including podded sensors and weapons that extends the capability of the C130 tanker to include gunship and surveillance.

Defence Industry Daily has maintained a very comprehensive page on the US Marines Harvest Hawk, click here, well worth a read, plenty of great information and images.

Lockheed Martin are proposing a step forward from Harvest Hawk with Vigilant Watch and Vigilant Stare, all variations on the SABIR/SAMPSON podded sensor theme.

Muli Mission Pods
Muli Mission Pods

In the image above, one of the concepts is a strike pod that combines munitions with a SAR and EO sensors, the same for the maritime version, combining sonobouys, EO turret and search radar.

A large pod allows these combinations and might negate the need for a door solution altogether.

This presentation from Lockheed Martin provides additional information.

Lockheed Martin and Airdyne are joined by a number of other manufacturers with sensor pods, everything from the complex Gorgon Stare to the relatively simple Moog ProtectIR pod are available somewhere one someone’s shelf.

Moog ProtectIR Pod
Moog ProtectIR Pod

In fact, when you think about the size and weight of modern sensor systems it is hard to imagine anything that you couldn’t put in one, the very large radar systems perhaps, but beyond that, not sure.

Something like the L3 Wescam MX20HD or Selex Titan 385ES’s that are currently being fitted to RAF Chinooks under the £408m Project Julius.

A Wescam MX-20 turret weighs in at less than 100kg.

The radar planned to be fitted on the A400M is the Northrop Grumman AN/APN-241 Tactical Transport Radar, the same as fitted to the C130J and C295. This might not be best suited to the maritime patrol role where something like the Selex Seaspray 7500 or Elta EL/M 220 would be more appropriate. This radar was selected by the US Coast Guard for their Hercules HC-130H upgrade programme, it would not be an insurmountable challenge to swap out the APN 241 should it be required and we already have in service members of the Seaspray family of radars.

An Elta EL/M 220 radar as fitted to numerous maritime patrol aircraft, again less than 100kg

Click here to read an Airbus presentation on SAR radar

An airborne AIS transponder and display would allow the crew to take advantage of ships identification transponder information. Even pod mounted searchlights are available off the shelf (we could always reuse those off the Nimrods) and an observer window in the paratroop door might also be possible at very little cost.

Into a standard pod architecture you could snap in combinations to suit, an overland pod might major of multiple electro optical turrets and extensive communications. Instead of the usual single EO turret, a podded solution could easily have 3 or 4, each under the control of ground forces .

A maritime patrol pod could have radar, sonobuoys and a single electro optical turret, plus maybe a searchlight.

In 2011 I had a look at the Lockheed martin Vigilance Pod system that is being proposed as a replacement for the ASaC Mk7 Sea King’s in the CROWSNEST programme, perhaps this might also find a use in an A400M podded solution. It is from the same family as the F35 radar and therefore at the cutting edge, with some very interesting capabilities.

I like the idea of evolving the capabilities of the aircraft through off-board pods because it allows them to be developed, tested and delivered at its own pace, minimising aircraft downtime and maximising efficiency.

Think of the possibilities.

What was that about payloads not platforms!

Releasable Payloads

The US Coastguard have for decades used a 4 engine turboprop platform in the role, the HC-130

US Coastguard HC-130
US Coastguard HC-130

The simplest form of releasable payload are things like liferafts or medical supplies, two examples below from the Irish Army Air Corps and US Coastguard

Manufacturers include Life Support International and Airborne Systems.

Pretty simple integration, they are thrown off the ramp :)

Weapons and sonobuoys present a more complex challenge though.

One of the key features of the recent Harvest Hawk upgrade is the Derringer Door which is in simple terms a pressurised launch tube for the Raytheon Griffin and MBDA Viper Strike missiles mounted on a modified paratrooper door, the racks in the image are for storage.

In its initial guise, the Harvest hawk used a ramp mounted launch rack but this required time consuming de-pressurisation.

Harvest Hawk Derringer Door KC 130J
Harvest Hawk Derringer Door KC 130J

The Derringer Door allows the weapons to be launched from a higher altitude, both keeping the aircraft out of the automatic weapon threat zone and allowing a larger area to be covered.

There have been plans to mount an automatic weapon into the door mechanism as well, the ATK 30mm Bushmaster which has recently been type certified.

The SABIR arm uses a standard Marvin Engineering BRU-12 ejector rack.

They even have a sonobouy ejector tube version for door mounting.

SABIR Sonobuoy Ejector
SABIR Sonobuoy Ejector

Sonobouys are launched at low and high altitude but the same basic system from Airdyne would be suitable for both. Nimrod had two rotary dispensers and two single compartment pressurised launchers with storage racks for extra. A door mounted sonobouy dispenser with additional storage elsewhere in the aircraft would at least on face value offer a solution. Telemetry and receiving systems, from Ultra Flightline, would need to be fitted as well.

If a door mounted launcher was not possible then the same system as used for the centreline hose unit could possibly be used instead, or, as described above, the large underwing pods could be used.

The thing with serious ASW is that it needs a serious expenditure of sonobuoys, popping a few out of a door chute, I think, would not really do the job. They are automatically released in a controlled pattern using a specialist magazine type ejector.

A problem.

Weapons fitted would depend on the mission, missiles overland or if we were looking at this for the anti-submarine role then torpedoes.

Stingray torpedo carriage and release is a much more difficult problem to solve, they can’t just be slung off the ramp.

Pylon space would be at a premium so a although couple of 260kg Stingray Mod 1 Lightweight Torpedo should not be a problem it would not be a good use of space.

Because we want to avoid airframe modifications (like the Sea Hercules side mounted bomb bays) torpedo carriage is somewhat of a problem.

A derringer door, centreline refuelling hose aperture or wing mounted pod would all be suitable for sonobuoy and bathymetric buoys a even a lightweight torpedo could use none of these methods, they are simply too large.

Despite wanting to avoid airframe modifications an additional wing pylon might not be avoidable.

Alternatively, we could look at ramp launched options.

The video below shows tests using the C130 paratrooper door launching mechanism for the MBDA GBU-44 Viper Strike

Again, the Viper Strike is in no way comparable in size and weight to a Stingray torpedo but the basic method could possibly be adapted to carry multiple torpedoes.

I really don’t know if this would be possible and am reaching somewhat but ramp launching large payloads is a well understood engineering challenge and I don’t think it would absolutely be a deal breaker in this context. The A400M is rated for several tonnes, enough for pallets and even light vehicles so 8 or 10 lightweight torpedoes sounds possible from that perspective, which actually puts it on par or even better than some of the other dedicated MPA solutions.

The Airbus Military has a tantalising paragraph on the special missions section of its website

In future the A400M has the potential to be an exceptionally powerful gunship able to carry a wide range of weapons including the largest guns with their heavy ammunition loads. It could be equipped with a sophisticated mission system for the modern network-centric battlefield and has an extensive defensive aids suite for self-protection. The A400M’s exceptional speed range and agile night low-flying capability will let it deploy rapidly to assist ground troops and then manoeuvre smoothly to ensure accurate targeting

Combine the A400’s impressive speed and endurance, add in a palletised weapon fit, pylon mounted Brimstone/Hellfire/Viper Strike, a few extra sensors, a collection of radio rebroadcast equipment and even a centreline refuelling unit and you have an exceptionally versatile aircraft that can deliver against a variety of requirements.

We could even go into the realms of fantasy fleet with the non-penetrating transport bomber which seems a perennial discussion favourite but is always the bridesmaid never the bride.

One could think of any number of reasons why this would be a bad idea but I do sometimes get the impression that the RAF and USAF aren’t interested in any solution that threatens their bomber of fighter fleets and have a little difficulty with non-conventional solutions. Look how fast the RAF’s FOAS concept that originally aired the prospect of transport aircraft air launched cruise missiles was dropped.

I have defended the RAF’s long range strikes against Libya because they demonstrated perfectly a prompt strike response capability against difficult targets and when Tornado retires that capability might well pass to Typhoon or maybe (an outside chance) the F35B.

But imagine a repeat scenario in the mid 2020’s with an A400M Atlas based delivery option, no airborne refuelling, multiple launches, loitering for hours in response to changing target conditions or post-strike assessments and a fraction of delivery cost in comparison.

What makes this interesting, in comparison with C130 options, is the A400M’s speed, space and range, it makes the arguments against a little more tenuous.

I don’t want to get too carried away with notions of hoofing Storm Shadow off the ramp of an A400M but food for thought nevertheless!

Just for fun, have a look at these videos, herehereherehere, here, and best of all, the one below

Once again, imagine the possibilities.

Crew and Mission Electronics

Sitting like piggy in the middle between releasable payloads and sensors is a range of mission electronics and mission crew.

Having all those sensors is one thing but doing something with that data and turning data into intelligence is another, practical bandwidth constraints might prevent full utilisation but the size of the A400 means that initial processing and analysis could take place onboard.

A crew pod fitted into the cargo hold could house any number of mission specialists, command and control personnel and processing equipment, a data centre in the sky.

We have seen in the previous post that pallet mounted mission equipment and crew consoles are available from Airbus.

An alternative might be to house the mission crew and electronics in a single demountable container.

Knight Aerospace, for example, make a range of modular interiors for VIP transport and special missions.

C-130 Modular Interior 1
C-130 Modular Interior

The basic concept of roll on roll off systems has been developed by Lockheed Martin with their Vigilant Hawk proposal which expands on the Harvest Hawk and secret squirrel hyper spectral imaging Shadow Harvest programmes.

There is also the Senior Scout product.

From the Senior Scout product page

Senior Scout is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system built into a trailer-like container that can be rolled on and off C-130 aircraft. This ISR suite of equipment rapidly configures standard C-130 aircraft for tactical signals intelligence, providing capabilities that exploit, geo-locate and report communications intelligence and signals of interest to air and ground component commanders

Senior Scout has COMINT, SIGINT and ELINT operators and as the description above, the cabin simply plugs in with the antennas already having been fitted, yet again, to custom doors, pods and even undercarriage doors.

Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules

Wonder how a Senior Scout like system designed for the A400M would compare to to the AirSeeker Rivet Joint aircraft, of which we will have three.

Thales even make an ELINT pod for the C130, click here to read.

The USMC has also been exploring how they can use the Harvest Hawk in different ways and their MAPS/SABIR concept is creating a Direct Airborne Air Support centre by using palletised work stations.

Direct Air Support onboard a C130 Hercules
Direct Air Support onboard a C130 Hercules

Closer to home, VRR Aviation manufacture a variety of ‘in aircraft’ shelter systems

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What strikes me most about this is that the sub systems are entirely off the shelf, weapons, sensors, fire control systems and ejector racks are all from the parts bin.

Combining them with a bit of clever engineering and ingenuity could create a seriously cost effective ‘whole’


It will not have escaped your attention that pretty much all of the systems described are C130 based so they would actually strengthen the argument for either retention of the Hercules fleet or the buying of more to compliment the A400M’s. It’s not a bad idea really, but as I have repeatedly said, the UK intends to withdraw the C130 fleet by 2022 and we don’t save money by keeping multiple legacy fleets in service.

To maximise savings we must have commonality and as few aircraft types in service as possible. I am going to explore options for a smaller compliment to the A400M Atlas in the final part of this series but it will be for something smaller than the C130.

I should be crystal clear here; this is not a proposal to use the already too small A400M Atlas fleet for every mission under the sun but to make use of them in two ways.

The first is to use the additional features like airborne refuelling to provide sensible complimentary capabilities in certain areas, the Falkland Islands being an obvious example.

Second, use the aircraft as a base platform for specific missions.

It is foolish to think that the aircraft can be a tanker one day and an anti-submarine aircraft, that is not the point.

The numerous realities of aircraft availability, safety and aircrew training will prevent that but let’s not forget that Germany is trying to offload 13 aircraft from its production order that it does not want.

The various suggestions, from Marshalls and Lockheed Martin, for Hercules based stop gaps seem like desperately clutching at straws and fail to recognise the shagged out state of the existing fleet or the simple fact that no programmes or funding exists.

If we are to take advantage of the A400M Atlas platform for use across multiple roles then it has to be at the centre of a coherent and funded programme, not some last minute lash up.

None of these ideas might be ultimately worth pursuing but there are imaginative solutions out there that are worthy of consideration and employing the aircraft types you already have in service is one them.

Further Reading

Incidentally, if you want to read loads of presentations on the Lockheed Martin C130 multi role capabilities and much more you can click on the presentation library for the Hercules Operators Council

2010 here

2011 here

2012 here

2013 here

Loads of great stuff there, you could spend days and write umpteen posts using them as a jump off point!

The Rest of the Series

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 1 (Challenges and Missions)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 2 (Dedicated Long Range Aircraft – P-8A Poseidon)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 3 (Dedicated Long Range Aircraft – P3, P1, ATL, 319)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 4 (C295 and Comparable Options)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 5 (Business Jet and Unmanned Options)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 6 (Sea Atlas and Sea Hercules)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 7 (Summary)

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30 Responses

  1. P1. Simply because the roundels won’t have to be repainted after Scottish Independence. And it could be given a proper Sasenach name like Grendel or Beowulf.

  2. Great post TD and some interesting ideas. However as you say many of these extra options point to a C130 solution and not an A400M. Given that many of the potential mission impact on other more capable dedicated aircraft like Voyager, Sentinal and Airseeker I have to ask if this would be the the best place to spend our precious defence pounds when there are so many other areas that are lacking.

    From an industrial point of view an A400M makes sense compared to an A319. Airbus could desperately do with some more orders. But I can’t see this costing anything less than a P8 which begs the question of why go to all the risk and cost when we could buy the off the shelf Gucci solution.

    I don’t think the stand off storm shadow mission is that crazy or even that fantasy fleet. The Germans can already launch Taraus off the back of a cargo plane. With the reduction in the FJ fleet I’m sure the RAF could use a bit more fire power. Imagine an A400M with ELINT and even stand off jamming pods able to loiter outside an enemy’s air defence zone and not only identify radars and SAM sites but actually attack them at the same time with Storm shadow. That would seem a handy capability for an air force short on SEAD.

    Buying the AAR kits makes sense. I doubt it would cost much and if we are refuelling helicopters we won’t have to pay Airtanker. Combat SAR is a capability we desperately need.

  3. I have been thinking all morning about TD’s flying battleship A400M MPA. The more I think about it the more I think it’s a good idea.

    One opportunity this does present is to potentially offset some of the costs or buy out completely of the FSTA contract as I wrote about previously

    An order for say 12 extra A400M’s would be a very big deal for Airbus. Especially if these were new orders and not buying other nations slots.

    Also with so many nations in Europe operating A400M and needing to replace MPA fleets in the next decade this must be an appealing potential market for Airbus.

    Even creating new orders for A400M’s we may still be able to get the French, Spanish and Germans to pay us something in return for buying earlier production slots off of them.

    While we probably can’t afford to buy out of FSTA (around 2 billion) plus buy 12 extra A400M and kit them out for MPA what we could potentially do is get air tanker to reduce the size of the Voyager Fleet down to 9 instead of 14 aircraft and remove some of the penalties associated with using A400M tankers. This might for example allow us to use the A400M AAR in the FI and during combat operations penalty free (not too hard a sell) With a bit of effort it may even be possible to get the EDA or NATO to take the extra voyagers and use the same support facilities as us.

    It could also be possible given how desperate Airbus are to get them to cover much of the development and integration costs of the MPA kit. If the UK agreed in the future to integrate ELINT and weapons systems in future this has to be a big plus for Airbus and future orders.

    The FSTA contract is costing us around GBP 390 million a year. If we can knock GBP 100 million a year of that then we could possibly cover a large part of the costs of operating an MPA fleet.

    If we can end up with an aircraft that comes from an existing fleet, can help to reduce the costs of the FSTA PFI and provide a link for link replacement for MRA4 and possibly a Command Solo type aircraft with maybe even a Harvest Hawk type capability then we are filling a lot of gaps with one solution.

  4. I got curious as to what type of AAR equipment my country’s air force was using, boom or drogue and did some checking up. Answer is “Both”. The RAF really puts some interesting stuff on the web as opposed to the tight lipped buggers over here. Veritable goldmine this.

    I think that if you’re going to offer AAR as a contribution to a coalition, you’re going to have to make allowances for all sorts of aircraft, otherwise you’re going to have problems of plane A or B not being able to refuel from the tanker. The UK does not have boom refueling, which is a bit sad considering that the Airbus 330 that Airtanker UK is using is the same as the RAAF ones which do use a dual system. Assuming that you can even offer civilian AAR craft as a coalition contribution in a conflict zone without people freaking out.

  5. Hmm… while I am in the P-8 camp, you do make a strong argument TD for the Multi-role Atlas. The issue of what we stick down in the FI once the Tristar and Hercs have been retired does lean towards a modified Atlas.

  6. @ Observer, Our issue is needing the high capacity centre line to refuel the Sentinal, C130 and Atlas as well as Nimrod in the past. I don’t think it would be practical to refuel such large aircraft with the lower capacity wing tip pods. But given this is the system used by the USMC and USN not to mention much of Europe I think we can still be useful.

    The USAF is not exactly short of AAR tankers.

  7. Unless you want to drop things like lifeboats out of the back a transport aircraft as an MPA is a fuel guzzling air lift capacity wasting idea.

    If the UK is serious about developing an MPA capability it has two real options- either a twin turboprop airliner conversion or a P-8.

  8. martin, true. It’s just the “offering to the coalition to stay relevant” thing might drive people to equip things that you can’t use for yourself, but your allies might. And agreed, the USAF has heaps of AAR tankers, but every little bit helps, especially if the US tankers need to be shuffled around first.

    Unfortunately, you got Airtanker.

    @ Derek Hmm.. I’m starting to envision a pneumatic fired rotary magazine for a sonobuoy deployment system with option for mini-torpedoes, depth charges or inflatable lifeboat…

  9. Though I have very serious doubts about the cost and viability of a Sea Atlas, (Sea Herc is a non-starter for me) Maybe the step they should take at SDSR 2015 is for a joint project between the MOD and Airbus to modify 1 or 2 A400M to see what is possible and test out various systems, and then in SDSR 2020 commit to it if it works. One thing that shouldn’t happen is that we commit to that being our MPA solution and throw money at it even if it starts to look like it won’t work.

    Things I like about Sea Atlas are that we could in theory launch a load of Stingray’s off of the ramp, Maybe using a torpedo tube system that connects to an aperture in the ramp, or by lowering the ramp and having a rack of torpedoes on it. And then palletising everything else to allow swapping systems out.

    If we were using the ramp for torpedoes, had pods mounted on the hard points for sensors, used one door for a sonarbouy launcher and the other allow to be opened to drop life rafts etc. out of, would that cover everything we needed or would we still need a hull modifications for a large radar?

    I still favour a split C295/P1 Hi/Low fleet of dedicated aircraft.

  10. i’m wondering how difficult fitting another two wing pylons would be. i don’t think the c130 started with pylons and it now has four. if the a400m had four pylons even if the outer ones carried a reduced load it would save a lot of problems i.e. weapons carriage.

    It could be possible to do this in stages and initially simply purchasing and fitting the vigilant pods with sensors and sonar buoy launchers then over time as budgets became available come up with fixes for torpedo launches and intergeneration of EW, ELINT and other mission payloads. FITS should be able to be rolled in with little difficulty. An A400M with two vigalent pods hooked up to FITS is going to give a pretty decent MPA capability from day one. Sure it can’t drop a torpedo but I don’t think this is a mission that has ever been carried out since WWII so we can probably do with out it for a few years. Doing it this way makes it a very low risk solution than can be done virtually for no cost as we are already buying the aircraft. We could probably have something in the air by 2015.

  11. If modules were the way forward perhaps it would help to have one that completely replaced the rear doors and formed a bomb bay and sonar buoy launcher out of the rear of the aircraft. It would allow for the cargo area to remain pressurised for the operators, the wing hardpoints would be free to carry sensors and the paratroop doors could remain unmolested. It may also represent less of a weight penalty than ro-ro crew modules as you are not putting a cabin inside a cabin.

    It may sound silly to remove the cargo ramp but if you have taken the decision to turn the aircraft into MPA, even temporarily, the cargo ramp becomes somewhat redundant unless you insist on using it to drop supplies and/or weapons off.

  12. Perhaps we could offload five of the MRTT to the French, whereby they come in on the PFI and have all their basic day to day exercise type re-fuelling done in Europe with them like we will but for expeditionary maneuverers we employ grizzlies, as will the French, keeping the MRTT out of the war zones?
    I’m all for Grizzly taking on all the required tasks and I think it can! Especially where you just can’t see us stumping up the cash for a half a dozen or so of a single role platform.
    Grizzly and pallets gets my vote for pretty much all ELINT/AWACS/RF/SENTINEL/MPA and even a stand off bomber if you like.
    We need to lever as much mileage out of our new bosom buddies over the channel as we can, while they are in a sharing mood that is…
    We could build the Atlas into a fantastic platform…

  13. Ref: the A400M – despite the siren call of fleet commonality, would the Grizzly simply be too much plane ? If the weight of a mission system and sonar bouy dispensers is quite low, will the fuel economy in the MPA role be reasonable ?

    As noted in the original we don’t drop torps very often, but some commentors have noted if the shit hits the fan as many onboard as possible is preferable – so if the Sea Herc can carry six in the side blister bomb bays, could the A400M outer wing pylon be strengthed to carry a triplet of Stingray’s ? If not will 4 suffice ??

    If 4 torpedoes would not suffice, then like Engineer Tom, I have wondered long and hard about a “rear ramp options” and I think I mentioned this the first time TD posted his A400M multi-role post (yes Boss, I noticed you had regurgitated all that stuff). The ability either a) drop the ramp at low level and use a drogue chute to extract a Stingray from a rack or b) fit a new ramp for the MPA role with built in “torpedo tubes” so you don’t have to frack about de-pressurising the cabin. However I cant find a stat for what weight the A400M can carry on the ramp, and I have no idea what this type of deployment / launch config would do to the aircraft centre of gravity. Anyway, if we can afford 13 extra Spanish or German A400M I think its potentially a cheaper solution than the P8, but………

    As we have always had multiple types in our transport fleet I am fine with keeping the 10 x C130J “short body” for SF use and the 14 x C130J-30 “stretched” for conversion to Sea Herc – sweat the assets, maximise the return on the investment and all that……..

  14. Now correct me if i’m wildly off the mark here;

    Our fleet of C-130J aircraft is pretty much shagged. After over a decade of constant intra-theatre ops, ERO’s, dirt strip landings etc etc, they are pretty well worn out and suffer quite badly with serviceability issues.

    So what i’m getting at is this; from what I can gather from these recent threads MPA work generally requires low speed manuoevring, and rapid decents among other things to help prosecute and potentially engage a sub surface contact? All this as I gather puts an awful lot of strain on an aircraft (hence why the P-8 was strengthened considerably) So putting this strain on an airframe that’s already f**ked seems like frankly a terrible idea.

    So I get that some people would like to keep them in service, either for SF or posterities sake maybe and maximise our original expenditure, however I just don’t see how it would be cost effective in the long run with trying to maintain an aircraft that despite only coming into service in 1999 is pretty much past its sell by date.

    (As a caveat to my above comments, I know the Herc is remaining in service till 2022 anyway, however I’m sure it’s hoped or envisaged they will have a slightly easier life post Herrick)

    Am I wrong?

  15. I can’t help wondering if the fuel consumption is a bit of a red herring…under peacetime conditions my assumption is we need no more than one or two MPA up at any given time, so even if the cost is steepish it is not likely to be a game changer…but in a crisis a big new air-frame with a high level of commonality, available in numbers…and with a wide range of tried and tested modular fit-outs…might be.

    By way of example we could run one from the nameless isles…and keep a pallet full of torpedoes handy…might TLAM be possible as well?


  16. I’m not really sure what to think with our C-130J fleet and the prospect of Sea Herc. Whilst i don’t doubt that the fleet has seen hard service over the last few years and is far more worn out than anyone would have thought 15 years ago the exact condition of the air-frames and cost of overhauling them vs buying something new seems to be rather vague and subjective.

    On balance, whilst keeping a familiar aircraft type in service (possibly splitting the fleet between MPA and SF work) and something as sturdy and proven as the Herc i really don’t like the idea of both gutting and putting back together heavily used air-frames and bolting on what is at the moment merely a MPA concept rather than a tried and tested solution. I agree with others that Lockheed Martin are clutching at straws by trying to offer up some conceptually attractive idea of a Sea Herc as an alternative to Boeing and the P8.

    With the A400m it’s shaping up to be a potentially great lifter, and i’m sure it could feasibly be a decent MPA platform, but it’s the prospective cost that gets me. The air-frame itself is far from cheap, how expensive would a fully finished MPA version be after all of the pricey sensors and what not have been added?

    The UK would in all likelihood be the only taker for a MPA variant, and going it alone doesn’t really bode well for this kind of complex undertaking. We have to keep in mind as well that whilst the general rule of more orders bringing down costs does apply, the UK ordering maybe a dozen extra air-frames probably isn’t going to make a huge difference, not if no other customers pitch up and whilst the Germans and Spanish are busy trying to sell on many of theirs good as new!

    My two main criteria for a new MPA (assuming we can’t afford the gold-plated P8 and seek an alternative) is a cheaper air-frame with a tried/tested spectrum of capabilities and my personal feeling is that Sea Herc and the A400m prospectively fail on both counts.

    The C295 is still my favoured option. Yes it’s not as capable as some pricier alternatives and probably does mean scaling back our ambition in this area somewhat, but is that such a terrible thing? Maybe the UK accepting certain limitations and realising we can’t do everything to the best degree possible all of the time is long overdue?

  17. Thing is you cold have a grizzly doing two things at once, it could for instance do the MPA thing and buddy another A400 coming out, or drop off some supplies, there is the room, Cargo flight around the FL and at the same time do a bit of fishing boat bashing and sub hunting/argie watching, all possible…
    Big plane fairly economical plane too, C130/295 doesn’t have the legs in comparison really, C295 is only stop-gap till something better comes along and it has…
    As for C130, I’d be fine keeping them for the SF/MPA/Transport role but only if we could guarantee to get a good lifespan out of them. If the French don’t bite it may be our only option to lever an MPA from HMG who seem to have no appetite for a few very expensive single role planes anymore…

  18. A vanilla A400M void of mission equipment already costs as much as a P-8. As far as I can see, the price drop of the German and Spanish (and indeed French in due course) aircraft will not be that considerable; I bet, Airbus will have secured against the possibility that 36 aircraft from the partner nations destroy its prices.

    I also find it still amusing, that we consider an aircraft, which is vastly behind schedule and over-budget, being no better than Nimrod MRA4. Which is still years away from reaching required capabilities, including airdrop and rough-field. Which is far, far away from being multi-role. And which will be an expensive to run asset.

    The idea, that we buy out slots from countries with vastly lower public account deficits, for an aircraft, which is still no known entity, is outright insulting.

    We are firmly in la-la-land here. But, when we play fantasy fleets, why not SV-22? Or the Piaggio MPA destined to fly EOY, out of an airframe, which has a UAV-variant flying?

  19. ‘McZ

    It is about £20 million cheaper, it completed rough field tests in Sep 2013. It is not a serious contender but would have the potential to be an awesome platform

    “The idea, that we buy out slots from countries with vastly lower public account deficits, for an aircraft, which is still no known entity, is outright insulting”

    Sorry but you are American?

  20. There is a danger with an aircraft unique to the UK. We pick up the initial cost & any future updates. The cheapest long term solution is to copy the Yanks. So refurb & modify the 10 short body RAF C-130J to US Coastguard standard. Good enough for ocean patrol(anti terrorist, anti pirate, anti drug/gun smuggler)+ long range SAR. Then buy 6 new P-8 for the fighty bit. Job done.

  21. “A vanilla A400M void of mission equipment already costs as much as a P-8”

    WTF ? Really ?? Surely not……….

    References ???

  22. @Jed
    The P8 order for India did not come in at much more than £140 million an air frame ( a confirmed export order not an opinion). that was with MAD(deleted from US version) but with Indian link and comms to be fitted.
    It has become fashionable on here to make up massive numbers about P8 costs!
    It would cost more than that hence why i said £20 million more so about £165 for a UK Comms etc and £145 for a UK A400.

  23. I think a Maritime patrol pod that could be slipped into the cargo bay of an A400M sounds like a great idea especially if it can be removed fairly quickly if additional cargo aircraft are suddenly required. Remove the ramp and shape the pods arse to fit into the aperture and you could then fit a towed MAD bird and, possibly tubes to eject Stingray backwards from the aircraft (a concept that sort of worked on the NA Vigilante . . .) use a drogue ‘chute to pull it out and the machinery could be kept fairly simple.

  24. Yeah adding additional a400m airframes to the current order would be no where near 140m pound.

    The Indian order of p8 did of course come with an international version of the raytheon radar how much does the real radar cost? And yes we will be paying for stingray integration to unless its identical from cofg to sizes to interface to electronics ect. Uk DAS, communications and aar probe? Optional extras, this maybe the front runner but it expensive.

    However a400m is not an mpa or ever likely to be one.

  25. ‘Mark

    before we get too excited the radar is the same APY10 and any differences are software related. Stingray is 1.2 cm longer than an a Mk 54 otherwise they are identical.
    Really DAS comms and aar which we have been doing for years become expensive, of course they do.

  26. Software costs money generally lots of it and I’ll bet eggs are eggs some black boxes somewhere will be different and some others will be tamper proof that US eyes only can access. Were spending close to 100m quid to clear paveway 4 on f35 its almost identical to the gbu12 so I’m sure it will cost money to clear stingray then again maybe miracles do happen with uk defence procurement.

    Don’t know what das is on p8 but if its not the one the raf alway pick for its large aircraft then I’m sure well be changing it and paying to clear it as you say were done it for years. As for aar its at present boom only on p8 so we either change the p8 refuel system, change the airtanker aircraft to fit a boom or just don’t aar refuel it.

    Let’s not try and pretend p8 is anything other than gold plated high end spec with a high end price tag if that’s what is considered necessary fine let it take its place in the budget list as such.

  27. Retaining C130 in service would save the cost of introducing a new-to-uk aircraft, and most of the other options are a new airframe; but I wonder if that would be difficult to justify as the Herc would not be sufficiently different an aircraft against Atlas. Though the big Atlas is a lot of aircraft for the job. Forget Stingray, we could probably air-launch a small submarine out the back of an Atlas.

    An A400M gunship has been mentioned. Had a shortage of cash not been an issue for the Americans, then they would have replaced their C130 gunships with C27 by now. The Herc has been said to be too large for the American’s gunship role.

    I think Atlas and Hercules are both outside bets. I won’t be putting my money on them.

  28. Does the S-3 Viking make any sense for the UK? I’ve read it is being refurbished by Lockheed/Martin under offer for South Korea.

  29. Given how much cheaper a c-130 variant would be than the A400, this piece reads suspiciously like a pitch sponsored by Airbus….

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