In just about a year the Indian Air Force (IAF) will begin receiving the first of six C-130J Super Hercules airlifters it has purchased for $1 billion, the aircraft signaling a paradigm shift in the manner in which the armed forces train for specialised operations.
For the first time, the IAF will be able to conduct precision low-level flying operations, airdrops and landings in blackout conditions as the aircraft will be equipped with an infrared detection set (IDS). And, to ensure 80 percent availability of the aircraft at any given time, its manufacturer Lockheed Martin has offered a long-term maintenance contract to the IAF on the lines of the ones it has with the US Air Force and the air forces of Australia, Britain and Canada.
The six aircraft for the IAF are currently on the production line in a cavernous building the size of 76 football fields with the first one due to roll out in December.
"That is when the IAF will gets first look at the aircraft. After flight tests and other trials, the aircraft will be handed over in the first quarter of 2011," Jack Crisler, director of the C-130J programme, told a group of visiting Indian journalists, adding that the sixth aircraft was scheduled for delivery by the end of 2011.
The C-130J primarily performs the tactical portion of an airlift mission. The aircraft is capable of operating from rough, dirt strips and is the prime transport for air dropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.
The flexible design of the Super Hercules enables it to be configured for many different missions, allowing for one aircraft to perform the role of many. Much of the special mission equipment added to the Super Hercules is removable, allowing the aircraft to quickly switch between roles.
To this end, the six C-130Js will primarily be deployed for the operations of the Indian Army's Special Forces, even as the IAF mulls the purchase of another six aircraft, some of them configured as midair refuellers.
"Some of the other six could well be the MC-130J version," said Robert A. Lowe, Lockheed Martin's business development director (Air Mobility), adding that the tankers could refuel both fixed wing and rotary aircraft.
As for the maintenance contract, Abhay Paranjape, Lockheed Martin's India director for the C-130J programme, said: "On our part, we have made the offer, promising 80 percent of aircraft availability at any given time."
"We are awaiting the IAF's response," he added.
Should this come through, it will be first time the IAF will have outsourced aircraft maintenance.
Meanwhile, the first of the 18 IAF crews that will be trained on the C-130J will arrive here in October. "We are planning to train 18 crews in three years," Crisler said.
The C-130Js will operate out of the IAF's Hindon Air Base on the outskirts of New Delhi and Lockheed Martin has already begun constructing facilities for them at the base.
These include hangers and maintenance facilities, as also a cockpit simulator and a weapons system trainer.
"So advanced is the simulator that a pilot can literally walk from it to the aircraft," Crisler pointed out.