Here’s our first look at the Navy’s next “doomsday plane,” the EC-130J TACAMO

Lockheed Martin has presented a concept for its EC-130J TACAMO aircraft for the first time, building on a plan that emerged more than a year ago. The TACAMO, or “Take Charge And Move Out” (TACAMO) mission currently provides airborne command and control support to US nuclear deterrent forces and is currently fulfilled by the E-6B Mercury “Doomsday Aircraft” , of which 16 are in use. Recapitalizing with the new EC-130J TACAMO will take the Navy back to the future, with the Mercury having previously replaced another Hercules variant, the Cold War-era EC-130Q. The mission will however be scaled back, with the EC-130J exclusively providing command and control of the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines.

An artist’s concept of the EC-130J TACAMO was shown on Lockheed Martin’s booth at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Expo which is currently underway just outside of Washington, D.C. aircraft is shown with the long rear wires for the very low-frequency VLF communication system and exposed fairings for the satellite communication equipment on the wingtips and above the rear fuselage. Under the wingtip fairings are additional spike antennas which may well be linked to high frequency antennas. The bottom of the fuselage has blisters for the downlink antennas used to connect to the ground entry communication points. Some sort of dies also appear to be installed in the modified EC-130J landing gear fairings. This feature could also carry additional fuel, similar to those installed on the CMV-22.

howard altmann

Concept art of the EC-130J TACAMO also includes extended landing gear fairings and a domed fairing under the fuselage.

In addition to previewing what the future TACAMO platform will look like, Lockheed Martin provided an update on the current status of the program.

“Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules previously served as the US Navy’s TACAMO platform, successfully supporting the mission for many decades,” Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Stephanie Sonnenfeld Stinn said in a statement. The war zone. “We are ready to support the US Navy’s TACAMO modernization effort with the unmatched and unrivaled C-130J Super Hercules. As the most advanced Hercules ever built and flown, the Super Hercules offers a unique blend of capabilities to potentially support TACAMO’s mission-critical and fail-safe.

Meanwhile, Christopher Hurd, public affairs officer for the Airborne Command, Control and Strategic Communications Program Office (PMA-271) at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, confirmed to The war zone that the office is working on purchasing three unconfigured, full-length C-130J-30 aircraft for TACAMO testing. “The first test aircraft will tentatively arrive at Naval Air Station Patuxent River [Maryland] within the FY26 timeframe,” added Hurd.

US Navy

The first generation Hercules-based TACAMO aircraft, the EC-130Q.

Although the EC-130J had previously served as a TACAMO platform, the decision to replace the four-jet E-6B, some of the latest Boeing 707 airliner derivatives built, with a turboprop platform was at some surprising ways. While the cargo-focused fuselage of the Hercules offers considerable capacity for avionics and equipment, a derivative of the twin-engine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft or even the KC-46 Pegasus tanker seemed most likely. There’s also no shortage of business jet-based platforms that might have been candidates, although it’s doubtful that a smaller airframe would have offered the stowage capacity for trailing cables as well as the necessary size and stamina of the crew.

Hurd explained that an analysis of alternatives “indicated that a small, locally produced, four-engine aircraft is optimal for TACAMO’s recapitalization”, apparently making the C-130 the only option for the role.

“The C-130 is currently widely deployed within the Department of Defense and deployed to various bases around the world, creating operational support synergies to prove the execution of TACAMO,” Hurd added, noting the logistical advantages , maintenance, and training offered by a platform that is already in widespread U.S. and allied service, including with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

US Navy

A US Marine Corps KC-130J takes off from Lockheed Martin production facilities in Marietta, Georgia en route to VMGR-252 at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

Hurd also stressed that the C-130J-30 meets the required performance parameters, including the ability to continue its task with one engine inoperative, “regardless of when and where it occurs in the profile of mission”. Sources told The War Zone that the EC-130J would also dramatically increase the number of airfields the TACAMO could stay alert to and operate from, making them more survivable and less predictable than the E-6. . Upgrading and supporting will also be much easier than with some airliner airframes.

TACAMO’s unique mission profile also requires pilots to put the aircraft into a very steep, tight turn at slow speed, to ensure that the VLF communication system antenna is as close to vertical as possible, to to maximize transmission efficiency. These tricks are usually repeated, often for hours at a time, to send messages.

“Accelerated testing on a proven airframe will reduce the time to achieve initial operational capability, if all expectations are met during testing,” Hurd explained.

There have also been other recent developments with the program, including the award of a sole-source contract to Collins Aerospace for the VLF communications system, while an open competition will lead to the award of a contract for mission systems integration.

In a significant change from the E-6B it replaces, the EC-130J TACAMO will, at least initially, be designed for the TACAMO mission only. Currently, the Mercury performs both TACAMO duties for Navy ballistic missile submarines and the Airborne Command Post (ABNCP) mission for the U.S. Air Force, which is to maintain communications with intercontinental ballistic missiles ( ICBM) and bombers. Before the E-6B consolidated the two roles, the ballistic missile support mission was performed by the EC-135 Looking Glass.

US Air Force/Airman 1st Class JT Armstrong

Members of US Strategic Command stand in front of a US Navy E-6B at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota in 2016. The crew operates as an airborne command post, having the ability to command and control US STRATCOM ICBMs.

With the EC-130J TACAMO initially only responsible for TACAMO, the implication here is that the new aircraft will supplement the existing E-6B fleet, at least for a while.

Complete retirement of the E-6Bs would then require a substitute for the ABNCP mission, perhaps by further adapting the EC-130Js or fielding a new platform. The latter could even point out that the ABNCP mission has passed from the Navy to the Air Force.

Potentially, the Air Force’s Survivable Airborne Operations Center, which is being developed primarily to replace the service’s fleet of E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, also known as National Airborne Operations Centers (NAOCs), could provide follow-up for the ABCP mission. . However, from what we know so far, the Survivable Airborne Operations Center is mostly touted as a successor to the E-4B. If so, and the SAOC will be a 747-based platform as planned, it seems unlikely that the Air Force will want to acquire and operate a fleet similar to the size of the current 16 E fleet. -6B. . After all, the current E-4B fleet has only four aircraft. An inventory somewhere in between is possible, however.

US Air Force/Lance Cheung

An aircrew from the 1st Airborne Command and Control Squadron boards an E-4B during a mock alert mission at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

It should be noted that for some time the Air Force and Navy considered a new common platform that would directly replace the E-6B, but that project appears to be over by 2020.

Going forward, therefore, questions about airborne nuclear control and communications missions have yet to be answered, with a distinct possibility that the current joint mission will be replaced by service-specific platforms. If that happened, there would be another interesting parallel with the older EC-130Q. After all, when this aircraft served the Navy in the TACAMO role, the Air Force in the meantime operated the aforementioned EC-135 for its ABNCP mission.

Whichever direction the future of the Navy and Air Force’s doomsday aircraft may take, the arrival of the EC-130J will help solve the problems posed by an aging fleet of aircraft. ‘E-6B Mercury which has now been in service for over three decades.

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