C-130Js and Their Evolving Role in the RAAF

By Robbin Laird

In an article published in 2015, we looked at how the C-130Js were being used by the RAAF after they had added C-17s, and KC-30As and were anticipating the arrival of  the C-27J,

2015-09-24 By Robbin Laird

The USMC is as integrated a force as exits as a 21st century combat force.  They use their KC-130Js in a very flexible role supporting their air-ground-sea combat team.  They have seen a major transformation with the coming of the Osprey, whereby they are the paired asset, and with the range and speed of the Osprey, have become the core interactive element in reshaping ow the Marines can insert force.

Additionally, with Harvest hawk, the Marines have pushed the boundaries of how a C-130J can operate in the battlespace. The Harvest Hawk is a modified KC-130J which brings ISR, C2 and weapons into the battlespace as part of the Marine Corps force.  Its changing role has brought with it changes in how the aircraft is operated and how pilots and crews are trained.

The Royal Australian Air Force is undergoing changes with regard to its own C-130Js equivalent to the USMC.  But how the change has come about and its trajectory is different from that of the USMC. 

But clearly, the RAAF C-130J community working with the Australian Army in the throes of transforming jointness would be a good partner with the Marines in thinking through evolving concepts of operations for 21st century operations.  And perhaps we might see that unfold in future engagements by the Marines during their Darwin rotation.

One impact of the Plan Jericho approach will be to expand the range of collaboration in which the RAAF engages in as it works its approach to transforming jointness.  Clearly, the USMC would be a good partner in this journey, and not the least of which the Darwin rotation provides a rich soil within which an expanded aperture is clearly possible.

During my visit to Australia in August 2015, I had a chance to visit the C-130J community in Australia located at Richmond Air base.  I discussed the changes underway with Group Captain Carl Newman, CO of 84 Wing and Wing Commander Nick Hogan, CO of 285 Squadron. 

With the coming of the C-17 and the KC-30A, the role of the C-130Js changed fundamentally.  Strategic reach is provided by the new aircraft with the lift role of the C-130J significantly reduced.  And with the coming of the C-27J, the regional lift role is reduced as well. 

This means that the C-130J has been and is being modified to play a different role, one closely connected with the transformation of the working relationship between the Australian Army and the RAAF.

This can be done to provide a specialized insertion package, or as part of a rapid mobility tool to start the process of rolling in a ground force, along the lines envisaged with the coming of HMAS Canberra. 

The new LHD is being shaped for its future role in the Australian Defence Force, and the evolving working relationship between the Army and the RAAF is clearly part of that shaping process.

Air Mobiity Group, Air Commodore Richard Lennon, highlighted the basic shift fromAir Mobility Group functioning largely as a garage storing tanking and lift assets which transport and fuel assets to its broader engagement in a much broader role in the battlespace and with it its ability to engage with and support ground, air and naval forces.

In particular, there is a concerted effort to augment the ability of the RAAF to go with ground forces to support operations, rather than just take them to operations.

In part this is about technology – adding comms and ISR links – but much more broadly a change in the concepts of operations and training, about which my meetings at Richmond with the C-130J squadron provided more details.

It is also about changing the role of the lifters and tankers in terms of how they will be equipped and operate in the battlespace.

They can function as nodes, IT transit elements, C2 enablers or repositories, but more generally, the question is how to use the real estate on the tanker – both outside and inside – to expand its role in the battlespace?


In the case of he C-130J, the plane is being modified with command and control, ISR, and other equipment to provide a means to take ground forces – special forces or the Australian Army – into an area of interest and then continue to support those forces. 

The graphic below provides a broad look at how the transformation of the aircraft is being done.

Credit: Second Line of Defense
Credit: Second Line of Defense

A number of communication and ISR links have been or are being put into the plane to allow for multiple interactions with forces so that the C-130J can perform in a lead force insertion package.  At the same time, new techniques are being learned by the crews to perform force insertion or expeditionary missions.

Among the key changes underway are the ones which can be seen in the accompanying table.

The transformation of the C-130J role clearly requires a shift in how the crew operates the aircraft and thinks about its operational role.  And operational experiences fold into the thinking about how to re-shape capabilities of the platform to reshape its role as well.

As Group Captain Newman noted with regard to operations to support the humanitarian mission in Iraq during Operation Okra, the performance of the C-130J in the mission was hampered by an absence of organic ISR.  If the plane had been able to identify more effectively in the drop space the nature of the threat and the where the desired recipients were, then the team could have been more effectively and more valuable to the rest of the force working the humanitarian mission.

As a result, the RAAF is thinking through possible requirements that may demand organic ISR for the aircraft, in addition to the new ISR linkages enabled by communications upgrades on the aircraft as well.

Group Captain Newman also focused on ways the new capability might be used to provide a variety of specialized force insertion packages. 

“As we shape the capability of the C-130J to operate as an insertion package, we can then provide a variety of specialized tool sets in effect to the commander.  In effect we are becoming a swiss army knife working with the embarked forces, which provides a broader range of options to the commander.”

Group Captain Newman underscored that the changing role for the C-130J meant changing the training approach for the crews as well as developing enhanced training opportunities with the Australian Army as well. 

Wing Commander Nick Hogan is in charge of the RAAF’s C-130J training squadron and he focused on how the shift was from a largely rigid training system to a flexible one.  In effect, when the C-130J was used predominately as a lifter, training took several months and delivered pilots and crew to support transport similar to airline practices.

As the new capabilities began to roll into the aircraft, bolt-on training modules were added which simply extended training time. But starting in 2012 a fundamental reworking was set in place whereby integration of the various elements into a baseline training system was shaped.  The crew required appropriate training to allow them to approach the aircraft as if it were a swiss army knife with the ability to use every blade.

This has also meant changes to the simulators supporting the program.  The main shift has been from training with the core CAE-operated simulator, to shaping a variety of innovative simulator tools adjacent to the core simulator, which can reduce the time needed in the training program to be operating the core simulator.

Credit: Second Line of Defense
Credit: Second Line of Defense


This not only saves money, but also expands training time available to work through various key Swiss army knife tool sets, which need to be learned.

A key aspect of the way forward was expanding the exercise regime with their joint and coalition partners. Obviously, working with the Australian Army is a key part of the way ahead.  This month, the RAAF and the Australian Army exercising together to work through how best to leverage the new capabilities of the C-130J to work with the Army as an insertion and supporting force. This activity, Exercise IRON MOON, is one of a series of Navy, Army and Air Force exercises employing a range of maritime, land and air surveillance and response capabilities  where, clearly, the evolving capabilities of the C-130J provide an important force multiplier to this community.

With regard to coalition partners, the RAAF worked its first Live Virtual Constructive Training Exercise in a full flight mission simulator with the USAF.  Richmond and Williamtown were connected to Nellis and the Wedgetail and the C-130Js were linked into a Nellis Red Flag exercise along with the Canadians who brought their own C-130J into the exercise.  To do this required setting up new security procedures, data and comms links, but this is simply the beginning of reshaping coalition training capability going forward 

Clearly, in thinking through operations in the expanded battlespace which the Pacific represents, LVCT is a key tool set.  My visits to Fallon and Nellis have underscored how important LVCT is to the US forces; and clearly for the coalition forces as well. 

At the Williams Foundation seminar, the former head of Nellis, Lt. General Lofgren had highlighted the importance of LVCT to shaping the way ahead to transform the forces; my visit to Richmond demonstrated that steps are clearly being taken down this path.

But transforming jointness is not a one-direction effort.

The RAAF is changing its capabilities to expand ways to work with the Army.  The Army needs to reshape how its various assets connect with and operate with the RAAF.  Nowhere is this more the case than with Army Aviation.  The Tigers, and MRH90s need to clearly work with the RAAF as those assets operate off of the HMAS Canberra, for example.

According to Group Captain Newman, these steps are starting to be taken.  There is a long way to go down this path of transforming jointness however and clearly Plan Jericho will enhance the RAAF’s ability to contribute to this process.

The video shows the support to Army forces discussed in the interview for Exercise Northern Shield 2015.

A Company of Army Commandos have parachuted out of three Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft and dropped into the waters of Exmouth, Western Australia to fight and defeat a simulated enemy during the inaugural Australian Defence Force Exercise Northern Shield.

The Special Forces contingent descended into Exmouth against the setting sun, loaded into zodiac watercraft and moved to a beach landing site, before conducting a late night raid to clear role player combatants occupying several buildings near a defense facility.

Exercise Northern Shield 2015

Exercise Northern Shield is an Australian Defence Force (ADF) training activity where high-readiness forces deploy quickly to North Western Australia in response to a simulated security threat.

It incorporates force preparation activities, Special Forces activities, land force maneuver, air mobile operations and maritime activities.

This is the first time Exercise Northern Shield will be held.

The exercise will entail deploying land forces by air as well as establishing an enhanced air presence in the region, specifically in Learmonth and Exmouth, and simulating support to maritime security operations.

Approximately 1000 Army and Air Force personnel  are directly participating in the exercise.

Editor’s Note: Air Commodore Richard Lennon, the head of the Air Mobility Group, added a significant comment about the AMG’s transition, which is directly relevant to the C-130J transformation discussed in this interview.

I like the term Mission Simultaneity for the air mobility fleet as well as the fighters.  

Whilst not fifth gen, it reflects the fact that one aircraft can insert a force (maybe through airdrop), provide ISR over watch both before and after the insertion whilst acting as a C2 node.

Previous doctrine might have had three different aircraft providing that level of capability.

Air Commodore Lennon was commenting on this point:

But the redesign does not stop by simply introducing F-35s into the mix; it is about reshaping the whole approach to air combat, which “Hawk” Carlisle described in his interview.

As one RAF officer involved with the F-35 and Typhoon transition has put it:

‘Mission Simultaneity’ is the way we are describing it and the RAF uses this description already in the next wave of Air Power doctrine.