Like Hercules, its mythical namesake, the C-130 airlifter is powerful and versatile. Capable of operating from rough, dirt air strips, the four-engine turboprop has been used to ferry troops into war zones, fight forest fires and deliver relief supplies into areas wracked by natural disasters for half a century.
Longevity has become the Achilles heel for many of these aircraft, however. "The aging C-130 fleet faces many challenges, including obsolete parts, costly structural repairs, and noncompliance with air traffic management requirements," U.S. Air Force officials told Congress in March.
In 2001, the Air Force committed to rejuvenating many of these aging icons by tapping Boeing to spearhead the $4 billion C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP). The plan was to replace outdated analog technology with standardized glass cockpits in 519 of the older C-130s. The newer C-130Js are not part of the modernization.
The C-130 AMP program faced its own Herculean challenges, however, including ethical, technology and management difficulties. Finally, it rang up cost overruns large enough to trigger a reevaluation this year under strictures of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment, language added to the 1982 defense authorization act to limit cost growth in major weapons programs.
Surviving that inquiry a still relevant but smaller program, C-130 AMP is nearing key development and production milestones and looking to expand in size. However, the program’s eventual fate may be shaped by competing interests, budgetary concerns and a shifting strategic environment — forces beyond the control of even this Hercules.
Disclosed this spring, the breach of Nunn-McCurdy may prove a turning point for the program. The law mandates congressional and Defense Department reviews for a program with unit costs that have grown by more than 50 percent since initial estimates. C-130 AMP costs "went through the roof... up 160 percent," said Mike Crisp, deputy director, Operational Test and Evaluation/Air Warfare (DOT&E) at the Department of Defense. DOT&E is responsible for reviewing the performance of major weapons acquisitions.
Crisp said he puts the lion’s share of the blame for this increase on the Air Force. The service did not "provide what I would call a stable program" and, specifically, failed to keep program specifications up to date, he said.
Many modifications generated at local command levels "were not reflected in the baseline documentation that was being controlled by the higher authorities."
Consequently, Boeing bid for and won the contract based on specs indicating there were six baseline C-130 configurations, Crisp said. Once into the program, the contractor "found out there were 519 different configurations."
The added complexity spurred costs as the number of unplanned modifications grew and rippled through the development process. Also, as it inducted aircraft, Boeing discovered a backlog of technical change orders the Air Force was supposed to have done at the depot level. "Boeing was more than willing to do these for a price," Crisp said.
"With any unprecedented system, the devil is in the details," said Dud Smith, senior software technologist at GE Aviation Systems, formerly Smiths Aerospace Digital Systems, which is supplying the C-130 AMP mission processor and other systems. "It was known at the beginning of the program that we were going to have variants, though, they were probably not as well defined, even (by) the Air Force, at the onset."
The problems were compounded by the taint associated with Darleen Druyun’s tenure as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and management. Druyun, who served in her position when the AMP contract was let, was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2004 and fined $5,000 after she admitted giving Boeing favorable treatment while discussing a well-paid position with the company. The program was delayed as the Defense Department Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) "looked into the letting of the contract." That scrutiny added yet another wrinkle to AMP by directing portions of the contract to be re-competed.
The development phase of AMP is worth about $1.2 billion to Boeing, while the production phase will be worth $3 billion and installation about $300 million, according to Teal Group. Those figures do not reflect recent reductions in the program’s scope.
Government and commercial entities could end up competing for that work. The original plan was that Boeing would do a third of the installs and that military Air Logistics Centers in Warner Robins, Ga., and Ogden, Utah, would divide the balance, said Mike Harris, Boeing vice president and program manager for C-130 AMP.
"GAO and the Air Force have stated... they intend to compete production," Harris said. "I don’t really have a schedule for that, but it is probably a couple of years away."
In the Nunn-McCurdy assessment, "the Joint Staff reaffirmed the need" for modernized C-130 type airlift "but determined that there was not a need for all of the 519 aircraft slated to be upgraded but rather 388 — a number that includes C-130J aircraft still being produced and brought on line," Crisp said.
The assessment also determined there were "no alternatives out there available at a lower cost, the estimates we have now are reasonable, and... the management structure is adequate to control the cost," said Harris. "The Nunn-McCurdy exercise, which lasted a couple of months, was very painful but the result has been great."
However, the Joint Staff green-lighted the upgrade of only 222 aircraft after discovering that the Air Force could only fund that many. The service was tasked "to come back with a strategy" to make up the balance of the requirement, Crisp said.
During the reevaluation, the program pressed ahead with development.
Boeing is on track to roll out "Core Complete One" this month, a few weeks ahead of schedule, Harris said. Core Complete is a baseline software platform for all of the C-130 variants, said Smith. It will include most of the in-flight applications and is certifiable to RTCA DO-178A for flight critical applications. The platform will give the system a 25-percent boost in functionality, said Harris.
Core Complete is the second stage of a three-build process, the first being the flight-test software the program has used since September 2006. The third and last build, which will be rolled out in two phases, will probably add "another 25 to 30 percent functionality," Harris said. The two third-build phases are slated to fly in February and April next year, respectively, and except for any last-minute software issues, "that will be it," he said.
Meanwhile, Boeing expects to take delivery of its third aircraft — a C-130H3 variant — "around Thanksgiving," said Harris. The second aircraft, designated H2.5, made its maiden flight in March. The inaugural AMP aircraft, an H2 model, took flight in September 2006.
The cycle time for performing the upgrades "is getting smaller and smaller, so I hesitate to put a number on it," said Harris. Thanks to management refinements and lessons learned, the second airplane was "AMPed" in about 43 percent less time and at 41.6 percent less cost than the first, "so we are on a pretty good slope to get to our goal of $7 million" per aircraft.
The upgrade "is not real complex," said Harris. "We have two main processors, which Smiths Aerospace (now GE Aviation Systems) designed for us; we have a brand new cockpit, and they are tied together in the classical sense. We are not breaking in any new technologies." It is, though, "a real sexy cockpit" with six flat-panel displays and two Rockwell Collins Heads-Up displays, Harris said.
The program uses an open-system avionics architecture, which integrates off-the-shelf avionics from the Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft and the C-17 airlifter.
At the nuts and bolts level, piping is being installed in the cockpit to draw out heat and boost reliability. Boeing also is replacing 60 percent of the airplane’s wiring and deploying around the airplane seven Aircraft Interface Units that link the legacy analog systems into the main processor.
The upgrade will yield many benefits. For example, the C-130s will be able to continue worldwide operations since they will meet mandatory Global Air Traffic Management requirements. The program will spur cost savings by eliminating the need for a navigator and reducing the crew size from four to three.
Cockpit standardization will allow mission planners "to schedule crews from one (aircraft) to another," said Harris. Also, Boeing and the Air Force designed a cockpit that would "decrease the workload and increase the safety of the crew during times of stress."
The many C-130 design variations have elevated the stress level of AMP contractors, however. It has been "one of the major challenges from the very beginning and still exists to some extent," said Harris. In all, 2,156 C-130 A through H series aircraft were built and delivered through 1996 when production was halted, according to Teal Group.
"Not only is each variant different but each (aircraft) is kind of unique because of what they have been through over the decades and how they were built," said Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group vice president of analysis.
The aircraft were built before computer aided design and manufacturing, and "holes are in different places, gauges are in different places, so making them common is big a challenge."
Integrating the old and new technologies "turned out to be a much bigger job than we thought... because of the magnitude of the variability out there," said Robert Yonen, Boeing lead engineer for C-130 AMP. "We had to use more (Aircraft Integration Units) than we originally planned," and those units had to be more powerful, which drove wiring changes.
The challenges do not end with the technology. There are political, budgetary and strategic concerns that are likely to shape the C-130 AMP’s future.
In the near term, the C-130 AMP is very much in the running to upgrade part or all of the 166 additional aircraft the Air Force requires. The service is slated to brief the status of the Nunn-McCurdy assessment and its plans to fulfill the remaining "C-130 type" requirement at a Defense Acquisition Board meeting next year, said Crisp. That requirement could be filled by the C-130 AMP or Lockheed Martin C-130J. In this face-off, Crisp said, AMP has the distinct advantage of cost.
Opting for the less expensive C-130 AMP seems to be the "eminently sensible way of doing fleet management," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.
"But among those that cash checks, things can look very different, and they may be able to convince folks that it makes far more sense to buy these bright, shiny new C-130Js rather than to try to put new wine into old bottles."
That view is bolstered by "the profound uplift that the defense budget has witnessed over the past five years," Pike said.
The growing budget, together with changing strategic needs, may also spur the emergence of a new airlifter capable of hauling the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) equipment.
"I would have to say there is a foreseeable end to the line for the C-130 because FCS has mobility requirements that the C-130 can’t address," Pike said.
If not a new aircraft, there may need to be a new AMP.
"During the Nunn-McCurdy process, we (were) looking at a schedule where we were ‘moding’ aircraft in 2024," Crisp said. "By the time we go to modernize them, the technology we are modernizing with will be four or five generations behind."
C-130 AMP Suppliers
The following is a list of suppliers to the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program provided by lead contractor Boeing.
GE Aviation: Mission Processor, Flight Management Systems and various other avionics units
Rockwell Collins: Multifunction Displays, Head-Up Displays and Radios
Northrop Grumman: APN 241 Weather Radar and Terrain Following Software
Raytheon: Military GPS System
Honeywell: All Weather Flight Control System and Inertial Reference Unit
Telephonics: Interphone Communication System and Communication Navigation Control Panel
Goodrich: Air Data Smart Probes and Digital Fuel Quantity System
Major Software Suppliers
Georgia Tech Applied Research: Integrated Defense Avionics Software
Major Airframe Suppliers
Labinal: Wire Harnesses
A Turnkey Avionics Platform
The C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) has been a technology challenge and a business opportunity for GE Aviation Systems.
GE is one of 23 major suppliers to the program – a group that includes Northrop Grumman, Telephonics and Raytheon, along with about 230 other vendors, said Mike Harris, Boeing vice president and program manager for C-130 AMP.
Like other suppliers, the company toiled to refine its technology to meet the complex and shifting AMP requirements, often adding capacity and innovations to its technology base as the program progressed. These innovations are by no means "one-ofs," as GE is integrating them into its Software Common Operating Environment (SCOE).
C-130 AMP benefited from developments, while GE advanced SCOE’s position as a turnkey avionics application for future government and commercial projects.
GE Aviation Systems, the product of GE’s acquisition of Smiths Aerospace in May, is contributing several applications to the C-130 AMP, including flight management and navigation systems and multi-function displays. However, its main contribution has been the mission processor that supports those and other applications in the new C-130 glass cockpits.
That platform is built on SCOE, which includes an ARINC 653 compliant, partitioned operating system developed by Wind River Systems, Alameda, Calif., and the GNAT Pro Ada 95 compiler and development environment by AdaCore, based in New York City.
For the C-130 AMP, GE Aviation Systems modified SCOE in key ways; for example, building input/output capability on top of the operating system to support the various cockpit applications. The platform could easily support 25 to 30 applications, said Dud Smith, senior software technologist at GE Aviation Systems.
It was "a major technology effort," requiring "additional hardware and implementation schemes," said Smith, but it was necessary to meet "the performance (requirements) of a federated system." GE also developed a file system for cockpit applications design ed to prevent data loss during disruptions.
In addition, the AMP also "pushed" the company to expand its operating environment into formerly uncharted territory as it developed a "communication mechanism" that allows applications on different boards, Smith said.
Meanwhile, the AMP benefited from similar work GE Aviation was doing for the Boeing 767 tanker and 787 Dreamliner programs. For example, software safety requirements were higher for the 787, so GE built into the "common package platform" it provided to all of these programs, including AMP, capabilities that give it DO-178A certification. The C-130 AMP required only B-level certification.
GE’s partners also contributed innovations to SCOE to meet the AMP requirements.
AdaCore’s GNAT Pro Ada compiler allowed the C-130 AMP program to reuse suppliers’ software assets, and to adapt them to a partitioned operating system. This reuse resulted in substantial savings compared to redevelopment from scratch, the company said. A compiler translates high-level source code to binary components suitable for execution by the operating system.
As part of its contract, originally from Smiths Aerospace, AdaCore ported the compiler, tools and run-time libraries to work with the ARINC 653 platform. AdaCore developed a new version of the Ada run-time library certifiable to DO-178B Level A, and worked with Verocel, Westford, Mass., to develop certification evidence for it. The company also provided an Ada binding to the ARINC 653 application executive (APEX), the interface between the operating system and application software.
"At one level, we were providing an Ada compiler, but that was the easy part in terms of putting together a complete technology, end-to-end system," said Robert Dewar, AdaCore president and CEO. "There were a lot of details in getting an ARINC 653 system working smoothly in terms of all the supporting tools."
Change management was an overriding issue, said Ed Falis, senior software engineer at AdaCore. "We had already had prototypes built over earlier versions of Wind River’s operating system," but in C-130 AMP "there was always something new that needed to be changed.
"One of the biggest challenges was the definition and implementation of a suitable Ada subset for the platform," said Falis. The subset needed to be certifiable for applications and run-time support "at a reasonable cost point" and capable of reusing "software resources from other programs with minimal change in the ARINC 653 environment."
Eventually, AdaCore put together "the largest Ada subset that we know of, produced specifically for DO-178A certifications," said Falis. "It is quite robust (and) should save application developers a lot of effort during the process of porting to the new environment."
All of these and other changes prompted by AMP are being rolled into the SCOE offering. "If you think about what GE has done here with the SCOE effort, in conjunction with AdaCore and Wind River, it’s really an experiment in product line engineering, trying to put together a platform in such a way that you can accommodate both spec change and support of variant configurations with minimal waste," said Falis.
The payoff: "We are hoping to be using it in the C-130J upgrade and across a lot of applications," Smith said. — Ed McKenna
Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications and BAE Systems are entitled to reimbursement from the U.S. Air Force for proposal preparation costs associated with the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP), according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in July.
In this most recent decision, GAO reiterated a 2005 ruling saying the companies are entitled to be repaid for costs incurred during the bidding process. The Air Force has said it adequately reimbursed the companies. However, the report from GAO said those claims are "inconsistent" with its 2005 ruling.
"Per the GAO ruling, the Air Force will reimburse Lockheed Martin for C-130 AMP protest costs. Timing and amount are still in negotiation," the Air Force said in a statement. "The timing and amount of reimbursement to BAE and L-3 Communications for C-130 AMP protest costs are still in negotiation."
An L-3 spokesperson said the company does not comment on protests. BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin did not return calls seeking comment. — Emily Feliz