About Air Force Trims Plan For C-130 Upgrades
|December 27th, 2007||#1|
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Air Force Trims Plan For C-130 Upgrades info
December 26, 2007
By Amy Schlesing, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
The U.S. Air Force is downsizing its plan to replace the avionics in older C-130 Hercules cargo planes, a move that will only partially upgrade the fleet but allows the program to finally move forward after six years of contract disputes and rising costs.
The upgraded plane is called a C-130 AMP. The planes are H-model C-130s built in the 1980s and early 1990s that have their flight decks gutted and then equipped with entirely new avionics - digital flight controls and navigation systems - leaving the existing engines and airframe intact.
The 189th Airlift Wing of the Arkansas National Guard has been waiting for the AMP since 2001, when the Air Force decided the wing at Little Rock Air Force Base would develop and conduct all Air Force training on the new system.
This fall, just two months after the Air Force slashed the AMP program by close to half, two 189th pilots flew the C-130 AMP for the first time. The revamped plane is in operational testing and evaluation at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
"You forget you're in a C-130," said Maj. Scott Sims, 189th pilot. "In legacy [older] C-130s, it's all behind you, with the navigator. In AMP, it's right in front of you." The C-130 AMP was first introduced in 2001 with the intent of being the fountain of youth for the oldest C-130s.
Glass displays place navigational information and other necessary information at eye level for pilots. There are no dials or knobs, just keypads and digital screens. The technology reduces the four-man flight crew to three - digital technology is replacing the navigator in the AMP, just as it did in the newest C-130, the J-model.
"Having that extra buddy back there was nice," said Maj. Kevin Tebbutt who flew the AMP with Sims. "I'll miss the nav [navigator]." The AMP program was thought to be the solution to a problem faced by older C-130s - out-of-date avionics in a plane that was still viable. It would bring the C-130s of the 1970s and 1980s up to the technology level of the new C-130J.
"Pilots will be more systems operators now," said Col. Steve Eggensperger, 189th operations group commander. "You have assistance from technology." Six years ago, 519 planes were scheduled for the AMP upgrade - every C-130 except the new J-model which already has the technology.
Now, only 366 are eligible for the AMP upgrade as the oldest of the Hercules models are retiring because of structural concerns. But of those, only 222 are tagged for upgrades because of cost overruns of more than 150 percent over the program's initial $4 billion cost estimate in 2001.
While the reduction in the number of planes scheduled for AMP re-energized the program's timeline and funding, it doesn't come without consequence - 166 C-130s have been cut from the upgrade plan to reduce costs.
The 53rd Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base is to receive some of the planes left out of the AMP plan in the coming year through Base Realignment and Closure shifts.
The six years since the AMP plan was announced have been filled with escalating costs and funding woes, ethics violations in the bidding process and the realization that the C-130 fleet is deteriorating faster than anticipated.
Today, the program has stabilized and a reliable timeline set with the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition. The 189th will receive its first three C-130 AMPs in 2010 and will begin the final phase of testing and evaluation. Boeing has completed two C-130 AMP conversions so far, all of which are undergoing operational testing and evaluation at Edwards Air Force Base.
A third aircraft was flown from Charleston Air National Guard Base, W.Va., to San Antonio on Nov. 26 to begin the AMP process.
"We will be the first unit to get AMP airplanes," said Col. Jim Summers, 189th commander, adding that the timeline for moving planes is not exact. "But with iron flow being a nebulous thing, it's always changing." The 189th expects to begin training C-130 crews on the new variation in 2013.
A flight simulator, which will assist in flight training, is currently under construction in Florida with delivery to Little Rock Air Force Base expected next year.
Air Force officials believe a breach in federal law dealing with contracts discovered this spring was the turning point for the AMP program. A program breaks the Nunn-McCurdy law if its cost exceeds the initial bid estimate by more than 50 percent. By June, the AMP program cost had grown to more than 150 percent over the initial cost estimate made in 2001.
The Air Force scaled back the program to check the cost and bring it into line with dedicated funding.
"The program has been restructured," said Capt. Tony Cianciolo, C-130 requirements officer for the National Guard Bureau. "It has gone through a Nunn-McCurdy breach. It's just been recertified by the secretary of Defense and Congress and it's going to include 222 airplanes." The AMP program ground to a halt as Pentagon officials debated whether the C-130E and H-model fleet had enough life in it to warrant an avionics upgrade with a cost of about $9 million per plane.
The E-models - the oldest of the fleet - were dropped from the AMP lineup as well as some of the older H models. Those planes are now being systematically retired.
"Current Air Mobility Command plans are to buy additional C-130Js to replace retiring C-130Es," said Maj. David Huxsoll, Air Force Air Mobility Command spokesman, in an e-mail last week.
As the oldest C-130s in the fleet were grounded in 2004, the AMP contract with Boeing to produce the avionics package came under fire.
Fellow bidders, including Lockheed Martin which builds the C-130, launched a formal complaint charging favoritism on the part of the Defense official overseeing the bid process. That year Darleen Druyun, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and management later admitted giving Boeing favorable treatment as it was bidding for the AMP contract while recruiting her as a future employee.
She was fined $5,000 and sentenced to nine months in prison. Large portions of the contract had to be rebid, but Boeing won the development and production contracts.
"There are currently no outstanding contract disputes," Huxsoll said.
"The current Air Mobility Command budget covers current and future test/production efforts," Huxsoll said. "Total cost of AMP is estimated at $5.65 billion." In 2001, the cost for upgrading all 519 planes was projected at $4.5 billion.
While the Air Force's decision to scale back the number of AMP planes allowed the stalled project to move forward, it also leaves 166 C-130H model variants with old avionics - including those headed for Little Rock's 53rd Airlift Squadron.
"The big unknown we have right now is those 166 planes," Cianciolo said.
Air Force officials will have to decide whether those planes will be AMP upgraded or replaced with new J-models. Right now neither option is budgeted.
Lockheed Martin just pitched a reduced-price offer to the Pentagon for additional C-130Js. The company proposes knocking about $10 million off the $65 million price for each of 120 aircraft if bought in the next five years. The total investment - which is over and above the number of C-130Js the Air Force is already planning to purchase in that time - is about $6 billion.
If the Pentagon takes the deal, the 166 remaining C-130s will be replaced.
One Air Force official described it as a balance between money and longevity. J-models are more expensive, but have a considerably longer life than a 20-year-old plane with new avionics. Until that question is answered, there will be 166 C-130s with old avionics.
The impact is global.
One of the primary justifications for the AMP program from the beginning was communications. The communication system in older planes used for airtraffic control is not compliant with that used in Europe.
The 463rd Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base has been flying to and from Arkansas to the Arabian Peninsula regularly since 2002. Crossing European airspace is possible using the current system, but the planes get redirected more often because of special measures that must be taken to account for the different communication system.
The AMP - like the J-model - uses the Global Air Traffic Management system that is compliant around the globe.
"European airspace is so congested," Sims said.
"There are some places they can't fly over there right now," Tebbutt added. "The capability is incredible. All the approaches are in the computer already." Sims and Tebbutt will return to the testing range at Edwards Air Force Base in coming months to continue learning about the AMP.
"That's the big advantage to having the [National] Guard to do this training," said Eggensperger. "Those guys will still be here in 2013 when the schoolhouse stands up. We have the continuity to do this." As the number of upgraded airplanes grows, the 189th's training mission will grow as well. At the same time, the current mission of training C-130 instructors will continue.
While the 189th is spearheading AMP training in the beginning, the future of that mission is unclear. And, as J-models play a more dominant role in the C-130 world, the 189th could be left behind because it does not have a J-model mission.
"We're very much concerned with that, with continuing our viability as a schoolhouse," Summers said. "There's a whole lot of variables out there that impact the outcome of this wing."
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