The first KC-130J Super Hercules of the French Armée de l’Air landed at Orléans-Bricy Air Base on September 19, 2019. The aircraft was highly anticipated in France, as it will allow refueling the country’s helicopters in-flight.
The aircraft is the third out of four C-130Js (two of which are refuelers) ordered from the United States by the Directorate General of Armament (DGA) in January 2016. The first two transporters had already been delivered in January and June 2018, and the second refueler is expected in 2020. The contract valued at around $550 million also includes a support system, training and operational maintenance for a period of two years.
The C-130J order is a quick acquisition to enhance the complementarity of France’s tactical transport fleet of A400M, C-130J Super Hercules and C-130H Hercules and CN-235 Casa, as well as anticipate the withdrawal of the C-160R Transall, planned for 2023. According to the French Ministry of Armed Forces, this fleet is very much in demand for external operations, especially in the Sahel region where 17 helicopters are currently deployed as part of Operation Barkhane. The four C-130Js will be used by the Transport Squadron (ET) 2 / 61 “Franche-Comté” based at Orléans – Bricy Air Base, near Paris.
“With this delivery, France joins a global community of KC-130J operators,” said Lockheed Martin in a press release. “In 2018, Germany announced the acquisition of a C-130J-30/KC-130J fleet, to be operated in partnership with France — making this first such operator relationship in C-130J history”. Indeed, by 2021 the four C-130Js should be joined by six similar aircraft ordered by the Luftwaffe. They will all be operated by a bi-national unit stationed at Évreux-Fauville Air Base, in a new infrastructure that should cost €50 million to each country.
“For the first time the French Armies will have aircraft capable of supplying helicopters”, said Florence Parly, Minister of the Armed Forces. Since February 2016, the 1/67 Pyrenees helicopter squadron is qualified to refuel its H225M Caracal helicopters mid-flight by day and night.
Once the KC-130J is operational, “the area of intervention of the helicopters is then multiplied and no longer meets other limits that the physiological capabilities of the crew and weather constraints”, comments the Ministry of Armed Forces.
Until now this mission was assured by the United States Air Force and the Italian Air Force. The A400M Atlas was initially destined to take on the role, but throughout its development it appeared that the wake turbulence the A400M formed would make it harder than expected to refuel helicopters, thus delaying the certification process.
Now, the KC-130J will undergo multiple tests for the French Air Force to define its uses and limitations. After certification to refuel the Caracal helicopter (expected by the end of the year), the Super Hercules should then proceed with another certification process: refueling the Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighter jets in-flight in 2020.
Powered by four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 turboprop engines, the KC-130J can transport 92 passengers, 64 equipped paratroopers, 74 stretchers for medical evacuations or six pallets. On a refueling mission it can carry 27,215 kg (60,000 lbs) of fuel.