The KRA And Assault Support: A Case For KC-130 Modernization
SUBJECT AREA - Aviation
Title: The KRA and Assault Support: A Case for KC-130 Modernization
Author: Major Anthony B. Pais, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: The Marine Corps must modernize its fleet of aging KC-130
aircraft to maintain its expeditionary power projection capability.
Background: The KC-130 is an integral element to many functions of the
MAGTF. It bridges gaps in capabilities and provides a versatile means
of meeting multiple mission requirements across the functional
responsibilities of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE), the Ground Combat
Element (GCE), and the Combat Service Support Element (CSSE). Likewise,
while the KC-130 Hercules' flexibility of employment illustrates its
enduring utility, its multi-mission capabilities are becoming more
relevant to the MAGTF in the current era of declining defense budgets,
decreasing forward presence, and increasing global volatility. However,
half of the current KC-130 inventory will retire during the 1998 through
2005 time frame. Retirement of the KC-130 "F" without replacement or
service life augmentation will result in a critical shortfall in
tactical aerial refueling and logistics support to the MAGTF. The
Marine Corps would be well served by investing in its KC-130 fleet now
to ensure its assault support requirements of the early twenty-first
century are met.
Recommendation: The Marine Corps should retire its oldest KC-130
airframes, update the remaining inventory, and acquire KC-130
THE KRA AND ASSAULT SUPPORT: A CASE FOR KC-130 MODERNIZATION
Thesis: In an era of decreased foward presence and increased global
volatility, the Marine Corps must modernize its fleet of aging KC-130
aircraft to maintain its expeditionary power projection capability.
I. The requirement for the KC-130
A. Force Structure Planning Group
B. Marine Aviation Plan
C. KC-130 Replacement Aircraft Options 1998-2030
II. No doctrinal home
A. Roles and missions
B. Doctrinal priorities
III. Organizational orphan
A. Impact of community leadership
B. Tactical asset vice administrative airlift
IV. Current perspective
A. VMGR missions
B. Anticipated future requirements
V. Replacement options
A. Retirement without replacement
B. C-17 tanker
C. Service life extension program
D. KC-130 "T Plus"
THE KRA AND ASSAULT SUPPORT: A CASE FOR KC-130 MODERNIZATION
The multi-mission versatility of our KC-130s proved
to be the linchpin of Third Marine Air Wing combat
effectiveness during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
This vital tanker/transport will continue to enhance
the warfighting capabilities of our Corps well into
the next century.
MGen Royal N. Moore USMC
Third Marine Air Wing (11:12)
Assault support provides tactical mobility through the airlift of
personnel, supplies, and equipment into or within the battle area by
helicopters or fixed wing aircraft. (18:2) The Marine Air-Ground Task
Force Master Plan 1992-2002 (MMP) and the Marine Corps Long Range Plan
2000-2020 (MLRP), each dated 28 June 1991, document the continuing and
increasing importance of a multi-mission aircraft capable of performing
the growing number of fixed-wing assault support missions. The
fixed-wing assault support role is currently accomplished by a fleet of
76 (FY 94 projected inventory) KC-130 "F," "R," and "T" model aircraft.
The "R" and "T" models are projected to remain in service until 2019 and
2033 respectively. However, 38 of these aircraft (38/76=50%) are KC-130
"F" models due to retire with 40 years of service during the 1998 to
2005 time frame. The KC-130 is the only organic aerial refueler and long
range transport available to the MAGTF commander. In an era of
decreased foward presence and increased global volatility, the Marine
Corps must modernize its fleet of aging KC-130 aircraft to maintain its
expeditionary power projection capability.
The KC-130 is an integral element to many functions of the MAGTF.
It bridges gaps in capabilities and provides a versatile means of
meeting multiple mission requirements across the functional
responsibilities of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE), the Ground Combat
Element (GCE), and the Combat Service Support Element (CSSE) of the
MAGTF. The requirement for organic KC-130 assets within the Marine
Corps is identified in the 1991 Force Structure Planning Group (FSPG)
study; the Marine Aviation Plan 1992-2001 (AVPLAN); and in the Marine
Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) study directive entitled the
KC-130 Replacement Aircraft Options 1998-2030 (KRA Study).
During August 1991 the FSPG convened to structure a reduced size
Marine Corps in compliance with the Department of Defense Base Force
Plan. The retirement of the "F" model without replacement and its
concurrent manpower reduction was, at first glance, an appealing option.
However, due to the anticipated critical shortfall of tactical aerial
refueling and logistical support, the commanding generals of the Force
Service Support Groups implored MGen Krulak not to reduce the KC-130
structure. As a result, the KC-130 community was the only sector of
Marine aviation not cut by the FSPG.
Likewise, the AVPLAN projects no reduction in the KC-130 inventory.
In fact, the Marine Corps Reserve is scheduled to recieve two new KC-130
"T" models during FY 94 for a projected total of 76 KC-130 aircraft in
the Marine inventory. This will round out the active and reserve
structure to five operational squadrons and one training squadron.
Furthermore, a recent study conducted by the Aviation Weapons
Branch at Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) projects a stable fleet of 78
KC-130 aircraft will be required to meet future assault support
requirements. (11:5) This conclusion is based on the MMP assumption
that while the total number of aircraft in the Marine inventory
decreases toward the year 2010, the projected acquisition of the Medium
Lift Replacement (MLR) and the Marine Attack and Observation aircraft
(VMAO) increases the total number of aerial refuelable platforms. The
KRA Mission Needs Statement says that there will be no changes in
doctrine, tactics, organization or training that will provide
non-material alternatives to the projected KC-130 shortfall. (12:4)
Finally, the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) study
directive entitled the KC-130 Replacement Aircraft Options 1998-2030
(KRA Study) states:
The aerial refueling/assault air transport requirement
can only be satisfied by a modernized platform with
warfighting improvements that ensure reliability,
survivability, and maintainability. (19:4)
Thus the need for the KC-130 within the Marine Corps and its need
for modernization is widely documented. Likewise, the recognition of
its ability to perform so many missions is a tribute to its enduring
utility. However, while the airframes have been continuously
overtasked, the Marine Corps has never fully utilized the operational
capabilities of its Hercules aircraft. This is in large part due to a
lack of doctrinally delineated employment options and, until recently, a
general lack of understanding of its role within the MAGTF.
NO DOCTRINAL HOME
The Marine Corps has always had a difficult time in identifying a
doctrinal home for the KC-130. The capability of the Hercules and the
reliance the Corps has placed upon its KC-130 aircraft has always far
exceeded their doctrinally recognized importance. This is probably due
to an enduring suspicion that since the U. S. Air Force jealously guards
its Title 10 airlift missions, it has always cast a jaundiced eye on the
Marine Corps possession of KC-130 aircraft. In fact, the Corps has
always justified its stewardship of its KC-130 aircraft as tactical
refuelers - thus the "K" in its designation.
Implicitly the Corps has assumed that if it aggressively promoted
other uses of its KC-130 aircraft and doctrinally justified them, the
Air Force would squawk "roles and missions"- possibly jeapordizing
Corps ownership of its KC-130 fleet. Therefore, the many functions the
KC-130 performs other than refueling have not been delineated in
doctrine. Subsequently, these capabilities have never been fully
recognized, funded, developed or utilized.
Ironically, during the recent debate on service roles and missions
the Air Force was ready to deed its aerial refueling capable HC-130
aircraft to the Marine Corps. (1:III-21) In any case, this is probably
not going to occur. (2:III-28) However, the fact that the Air Force
did not put a claim on the Marine Corps KC-130 assets is tacit
recognition of the integral role the KC-130 plays in MAGTF operations.
The February 1993 Report on the Roles, Missions, and Functions of the
Armed Forces of the United States says:
The importance of C-130 tactical airlift and [KC-130]
tanker support to the armed forces and their operations
has not diminished in the current security environment.
FMFM 5-1, Organization and Function of Marine Aviation, and FMFM
5-3, Assault Support, are very unspecific as to what capabilities the
KC-130 provides the Marine Corps. In reference to assault support these
doctrinal publications are dominated by discussion of helicopter
employment. Discussion of the KC-130 is primarily focused on the "K"-
that is the refueling aspect of its mission. During its first 15 years
of service (1961-1976), the KC-130 mission profile was dominated by
transoceanic aerial refueling of fixed wing jet aircraft. With some
notable exceptions (e.g. the resupply operations during the Battle of
Khe Sahn) the KC-130 had a minor tactical role in Vietnam. When
contrasted with the crucial tactical role the helicopter played in
Southeast Asia, it is easy to understand why doctrine written circa 1970
is dominated by helicopter employment.
Nearly a quarter of a century later the same equipment, albeit
updated, is still being used. Likewise, these doctrinal publications do
not yet reflect the implications of Foward Presence and Crisis Response
outlined in the 1991 National Defense Strategy. In that doctrine is
limited to equipment capabilities, this situation does not indict the
Corps. Forward thinking officers have already framed future doctrine
and equipment development priorities within the concept of long-range,
self-deployable, over-the-horizon assault capability. To this end the
force-multiplier effect of the KC-130 is germane. The KC-130
multi-mission capbilities should be fully developed and utilized to
maximize MAGTF combined arms synergy.
Just as the KC-130 lacks a doctrinal home, it also lacks an
organizational home within Marine aviation. Where exactly does the
KC-130 fit for planning, programming, policy, and budget purposes? The
Aviation Weapons Branch (APW) at Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) places
the KC-130 program in the Assault Support division for planning and
programming. Within the Aviation Plans and Policy (APP) section the
KC-130 program falls under the purview of fighter and attack
tactical-fixed-wing action officers. In the past the Fleet Marine
Forces (FMF) have placed the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadrons
(VMGR) under the Marine Air Control Group and the Marine Wing
Headquarters Squadron. Currently, the VMGR squadrons are
administratively assigned to fixed-wing and rotary-wing Marine Air
Groups but are operationally controlled by the Marine Air Wing.
Administratively this discussion is a mute point, but it is indicative
of the institutional quandry of "what do we do with the Hercs?"
In response, the leadership of the KC-130 community has realized
that it must proactively articulate and train to the capabilities of the
aircraft. Herein the Herc community must make a home for itself. In
this vein, the Training and Readiness Manual ,which outlines aviation
training standards, and the KC-130 Tactical Manual, the specific
"how-to" tactical employment guide, have been rewritten and expanded to
reflect the broader assault support capabilities that the KC-130 can
provide. Furthermore, at the 1991 KC-130 Operators Advisory Group
conference, the squadron commanders recognized the need to fill crucial
acquisition and policy billets in Washington, D. C. to give the KC-130
community a voice "inside the beltway." Currently, field grade officers
from the KC-130 community are being rotated into these billets at HQMC,
the Pentagon, and at Quantico. Also the community is well represented
at the annual Assault Support Symposium whereas before 1990 it was not
Concurrently, there is also a strong conviction within the
community that the KC-130 is a tactical fixed-wing asset and not "Marine
Military Airlift Command." A corresponding change in operational
emphasis struggles to prioritize tactical employment and training above
routine administrative airlift. This is a constant battle. The band
will always need transport and the aircrews will always need tactical
training. Both can be accommodated but tactical training should have
the overriding priority. It will take nothing less than a full
commitment to training to make aircrews capable of operations which
fully maximize the aircraft's tactical employment potential.
So where does the KC-130 fit into MAGTF operations? Simply stated
the KC-130 exists to support the MAGTF. Thus the primary operational
focus of the VMGR squadron should be MEU(SOC) support.
Long-range-night-vision-capable assault support to the MEU commander is
long overdue. These capabilities are technologically and fiscally
Currently, however, KC-130 operational employment priorities are
not on the MEU. There are too many administrative airlift commitments
and too few "Hercs." This results in the common tendency to sacrifice
training in order to meet an administrative logistical commitment. One
might say the KC-130 is used in general support of the Marine Corps vice
in direct support of the MAGTF. This results in the underutilization of
its tactical capabilities. On every level of command the KC-130
community must effectively articulate the value of its organic tactical
capabilities in order to ensure that anticipated MAGTF assault support
requirements are met.
It is important to note that the KC-130 is the only aircraft in the
Marine inventory involved in each of the six doctrinal functions of
Marine aviation. In the Antiair Warfare and Offensive Air Support
roles, the KC-130 increases the range and time-on-station of fighter and
attack aircraft through aerial refueling. The Air Reconnaissance,
Electronic Warfare, and Control of Aircraft and Missiles functions are
augmented by "roll-in roll-out" modules such as the Direct Air Support
Center (DASC) and the Senior Warrior electronic intelligence van which
are placed in the cargo bay of the KC-130. These airborne capabilities,
coupled with the station time of the Hercules, expand the MAGTF
commander's operational reach with eyes and ears above the horizon. All
of these capabilities, to include helicopter aerial refueling and
long-range logistical sustainment, are categorized under Assault
Support. These capabilities bridge command and control, intelligence,
and logistical shortfalls within the ACE, GCE, and CSSE that would
otherwise be provided through agencies exterior to the MAGTF.
The Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) mission
statement delineates the tasks the KC-130 performs as follows:
1. Tactical aerial refueling for fixed-wing and rotary-wing
2. Long-range aerial refueling for air-movement of Fleet
Marine Force squadrons
3. Air-landed and air-delivered transport of troops,
supplies, and equipment
4. Operate to and from established airfields, expeditionary
airfields, and tactical landing zones
5. Rapid-ground-refueling (RGR) of fixed-wing and rotary-wing
6. Evacuation of casualties and non-combatants
7. Provide a platform for airborne command post functions
While these assault support tasks have changed little since the
acquisition of the KC-130 in 1961, they have expanded and evolved with
technology and tactics. The KC-130 was originally purchased primarily
as a long-range aerial refueler designed to provide logistical support
in secure areas. Over the years, however, the assault support mission
envelope has expanded. The KC-130 is now more frequently placed in
hostile tactical situations in direct support of the MEU(SOC). Recent
examples include Operation Sharp Edge in Liberia and Operation Eastern
Exit in Somalia.
While careful mission planning substantially decreases direct
exposure to known threats, the limitations of the present fleet of
KC-130 aircraft severely restrict the tactical employment options
available to the MAGTF commander. The tactical limitations of the
current KC-130 have become increasingly apparent as the Marine Corps
takes on greater expeditionary responsibilities in a volatile post
cold-war world. Likewise, the relative importance of the KC-130 to the
MAGTF commander has increased. The KC-130 is the only long-range
assault support capability organic to the Marine Corps. While its
flexibility of employment and mission capability are a testimony to the
enduring utility of the KC-130, its present tactical limitations
highlight follow-on capabilities crucial to its future viability. The
following list provides a general outline of necessary capabilities and
1. Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS)
2. Forward Looking Infared (FLIR)
3. Heads-up Display (HUD)
4. Defensive electronic and infared countermeasures
5. Integrated communication and navigation suite to include
Satellite Communication (SATCOM) and the Global Positioning System (GPS)
6. Variable Speed (refueling) Drogue (VSD)
7. High speed low-level air-drop capability
8. Improved range performance
The 1992 Mission Area Analysis 33: Assault Support (MAA-33) study
concludes that due to material deficiencies the "Marine Corps possesses
a marginal capability to provide the required assault support to the
MAGTF of 1999." (18:1) "Part and parcel" to these material deficiencies
is the impending retirement of nearly half of the Marine Corps KC-130
fleet. The KC-130 is not specifically mentioned in the MAA-33. This is
probably due to the relative near term focus of the analysis. MAA-33
looks out to 1999 which is the same year the projected KC-130 shortfall
Specifically mentioned, however, in the MAA-33 analysis is the MLR.
Currently the most pressing need in the Assault Support community is a
replacement for the aging CH-46. The CH-46 is rapidly approaching 30
years of operational service and has already undergone one service life
extension. The airframes are old, dynamic components have marginal
rework tolerance, and the maintenance man-hours per full-mission-capable
flight hour has climbed almost asymtotically. The similarities between
the CH-46 and the KC-130 "F" are replete.
So what options can the Marine Corps pursue in order to prevent the
KC-130 "F" from turning into another CH-46? The KRA study directive
identifies four specific alternatives to be examined:
1. Allow the KC-130 "F" to retire without replacement
2. Develop a C-17 "tanker variant" to replace the KC-130 "F"
3. Institute a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for the
KC-130 "F" aircraft (SLEP II)
4. Procure an updated KC-130 "T" (KC-130 "T Plus") (19:4)
As previously mentioned, under current circumstances retirement of
the "F" model without replacement is not a viable option. The FSPG
validated the current inventory. Also the anticipated acquisition of
the MLR and VMAO dictates a level if not a slightly increased inventory
of KC-130 aircraft into the out-years. In any case, wholesale
retirement of airframes in the 1998 through 2005 time-frame would
necessitate closure of two of the three active duty VMGR squadrons.
Presently, this would precipitate a critical shortfall in assault
support to the FMF.
The next option, acquisition of a C-17 tanker, may be dubbed the
"gold-plated giant." The C-17 is cost prohibitive in fiscal terms and
in manpower requirements. Furthermore, while technologically feasible,
a tanker variant has not been developed. Research and development costs
would be in addition to the 300 million dollar unit cost of the baseline
C-17. This amount dwarfs the 35 million dollar fly-away cost of
Lockheed's updated C-130 "T Plus." Additionally, the C-17 provides
strategic inter-theater mobility which is a role much different from and
well outside the purview of the KC-130 tactical intra-theater assault
The third option, institution of a SLEP for the "F" model, is not
ideal but may be feasible. It should be noted that a SLEP extends
airframe life only and due to budgetary limitations only partially
remedies the reliability and maintainability factors of airframe
longevity. Additionally, it should be noted that the "F" models have
already undergone one SLEP. To assess which aircraft would qualify for
another SLEP, a service life assessment program (SLAP) would have to be
instituted. (9:1) The SLAP would differentiate which airframes are
capable of continued service through installation of a structural data
recording system (SDRS). This differentiation would be based on a long-
term fatigue life assessment and therefore would need to be instituted
in the near term to effectively designate airframes to undergo SLEP
prior to reaching the 1998-2005 "F" model operational service life
Additionally, a three-phase Avionics System Improvement Package
(ASIP) upgrade is underway. The ASIP program was designed to provide
baseline survivability, reliability, and maintainability (SR&M) upgrade
for the KC-130 fleet. Additionally, the ASIP does not include any of
the necessary survivability modifications - each of which must be
individually funded. Furthermore, ASIP was to have been completed by
1993 but due to budgetary constraints will not be complete until 1997.
This out-year funding delay runs up against the service life of the "F"
model. It is apparent that while cost-effective for upgrading the
capabilities of the newer "R" and "T" models, only those "F" models
which qualify for SLEP should undergo ASIP.
Of equal concern is the material condition of the aircraft. A
30-year-old airplane is like any other aging machine. It requires
meticulous attention to chronic problems such as fatigue cracks,
corrosion, and dry-rotted wiring. These problems serve to increase the
maintenance man-hours per flight hour ratio. Since the SLEP and ASIP
only partially forestall "F" model retirement, "a new family car" is
also part of the long term solution.
In summary, procurement of the KC-130 "T Plus" is the optimal
solution. Its acquisition would maximize commonality with the "R" and
"T" models and would require no additional manpower. Most importantly,
it would incorporate the increased range, payload, survivability, and
mobility enhancements outlined above making it fully capable of
performing the multi-function assault support mission. Fiscal
constraints, however, dictate that the Marine Corps adopt an out-year
funding strategy for long-term procurement of replacement aircraft.
These new aircraft would replace the "F" model aircraft while "letting
the dust settle" to reveal a clearer picture of the true number of
KC-130 aircraft required to support the Marine Corps of 2010.
The long-range assault support capabilities of the KC-130 have been
crucial in recent operations such as Shard Edge, Eastern Exit, Desert
Storm, and most recently in Provide Hope. Much like the primary
structural member of a bridge gives it rigidity and strength, the KC-130
is integral to Marine Corps power projection through its
force-multiplying, multi-mission capabilities. However, the KC-130 "F"
is quickly reaching the end of its operational service life. A
replacement must be found to prevent a critical shortfall in assault
In an era of declining defense budgets new aircraft acquisition
will encounter increasing recision. For a relatively small investment
though, the Marine Corps could maximize the utilization of its own
Hercules fleet by retiring its oldest airframes, updating the remaining
inventory, and by acquiring KC-130 replacement aircraft. For the Marine
Corps, the sister services, civilian, and foreign military customers
there is no replacement for a C-130 except a C-130. It is the "DC-3" of
military transport in the last half of the twentieth century and will
continue to fill that role well into the next.
No the dust has not settled on what the Marine Corps of 2000, much
less the Corps of 2010, will look like. In any case, the Marine Corps
would be well served by investing in its KC-130 fleet now to ensure its
assault support requirements of the early twenty-first century are met.
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