Contested Space: The Final Frontier

October 7, 2021 Topic: Air Force Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Cargo AircraftC-130Air ForceWarCombat

Contested Space: The Final Frontier

The Air Force is looking into the possibility of engineering a new class of tactical lift air vehicles of some kind specifically tailored to operate in major warfare, high-threat environments.


The Air Force is in process of mapping out the future of its fleet of C-130 Hercules cargo airplanes, which includes a range of different options such as potentially arming them for combat with cruise missiles and air-dropped bombs while simultaneously retiring them. 

Air Force leaders say the current plan is to reduce the number of C-130 cargo aircraft in the fleet from 300 down to 245 to streamline the force while still covering the service’s tactical lift requirements.

Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies that “245 C-130s cover what we need for our tactical lift and includes support to the homeland.” 

There has been a lot of Air Force experimentation with arming cargo planes with palletized stacks of air-dropped bombs and building various launchers and dispensers into the airplanes for a possible attack. Several airdrop experiments have been successful and the service is looking closely at expanding the mission envelope for the aircraft. The reality is that larger, non-stealthy cargo airplanes are likely to face survivability challenges operating high-end major warfare kinds of environments. History shows that they’ve had little difficulty functioning in counterinsurgency conflicts where the United States has air supremacy. Of course, the aircraft have flares and are regularly protected by fighter jets. Still, arming them with weapons may be easy to do and is something that multiples combat possibilities for commanders. The other element of this is simply that cargo planes should be armed because they are already targets for potential enemy attacks, so there is no reason not to think of them as armed warplanes. Furthermore, the service has been deeply immersed in a number of structural reinforcements and upgrades to the C-130 fleet so that it can continue to move troops, cargo, ammunition and supplies. 

As a propeller-driven aircraft, a C-130 is able to land in more rugged or austere environments because debris will not get stuck in its engine. This fact lends further support to the idea of arming the C-130s as warplanes so that they can defend their cargo against incoming fire or even launch offensive attacks. 

At the same time, Nahom made clear that the service is exploring emerging or new “tactical lift” technologies that might be able to reduce the types of risks the aircraft undertakes. Much of this is conceptual or notional at the moment, and Nahom did not elaborate on what that might look like. Still, the military service is diving deep into the possibility of engineering a new class of tactical lift air vehicles of some kind specifically tailored to operate in major warfare, high-threat environments.

“When it comes to future tactical lift, there is a lot we are sticking our nose into when it comes to protecting logistics under attack. There are other things out there we may need to move food and fuel in a contested space,” Nahom explained.   

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. 

Image: Flickr / Air Force