Ex-U.S. Marine Corps KC-130R, currently in storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, aka "The Boneyard". This plane was formerly based at MCAS Futenma.

JSW pal Mike Yeo posted last week at his blog, The Base Leg, about a strange Japan Self Defense Forces purchase. Japan is purchasing 6 ex-US Marine Corps KC-130R transport/refueling aircraft. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency says in a statement:

The Government of Japan has requested a possible sale to provide 6 KC-130R and 30 T-56-A-16 engines being provided as Excess Defense Articles (EDA), along with the regeneration, overhaul, modifications, and logistics support for those engines. Also included are 6 non-EDA spare T-56-A-16 engines, 6 AN/APS-133 Radars, 9 AN/APX-119 Transponder Systems (6 installed and 3 spares), transportation, aircraft ferry support, repair and return, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools and test equipment, technical data and publications, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $170 million. The EDA portion of this sale is also being notified separately as required by statute.

Japan is one of the major political and economic powers in East Asia and the Western Pacific and a key ally of the United States in ensuring the peace and stability of this region. The U.S. Government shares bases and facilities in Japan. This proposed sale is consistent with these U.S. objectives and with the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.

The proposed sale of aircraft and support will help to modernize the Japanese Defense Force’s aging cargo aircraft fleet. The KC-130 will provide Japan with an improved capability for the movement of cargo and personnel in humanitarian missions. (Link)

Mike writes:

According to the DSCA release, the sale of the aircraft “will help to modernize the Japanese Defense Force’s ageing cargo aircraft fleet”, which to me, sounds a little strange, given the KC-130Rs were all ex-USAF C-130Hs built between 1974 and 1977, and transferred to the Marines with the new KC-130R designation. The aircraft were probably flogged hard by the Marines before being retired to the Boneyard between 2006 and 2008.

By comparison, Japan’s fleet of 16 C-130Hs were delivered between 1984 and 1998, which would make the oldest a full decade younger than the oldest KC-130R, and seven years younger than the newest one. And given the ops tempo of the USAF/USMC, particularly since 2001, these KC-130Rs would have probably logged more flight hours than the Japanese C-130 fleet. If anything getting the KC-130Rs increases the average age of Japan’s fleet. Which then begs the question regarding this deal: Why? (Link)

Why indeed. The planes are old, and Japan could always buy modern C-130s, or more likely brand-new C-2s. Japan doesn’t really have a use for the refueling capability since all of its aircraft utilize the boom refueling system and not the drogue system. The purchase suggests that Japan has a different role for them in mind.

There is one possibility that shouldn’t be discounted. Japan is buying them with the option of turning them into gunships.

Japan is evolving a modest amphibious capability. The Self Defense Forces have purchased Landing Ship, Tank vessels, LCAC landing craft, and medium and heavy lift helicopters. All of this equipment has a dual role; indeed, all of it was used during the 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake Disaster in a disaster relief role. Japan is an island nation, and the same stuff that can be used to bypass earthquake-mangled highways and ports smashed by tsunamis can also be used in amphibious warfare. In much the same way, KC-130Rs can be used to haul cargo throughout Japan.

Japan has been learning a great deal from the U.S. in developing a limited forced-entry amphibious capability. The Self-Defense Forces have been training with the U.S. Marines annually. One lesson of the Corps’ combat experience in Afghanistan is that it’s nice to have your own aircraft gunships. That combat experience may be rubbing off.

In 2009, the Marines created the Harvest HAWK add-on gunship kit developed for the U.S. Marine Corps’ KC-130Js. The Harvest HAWK kit adds an electro-optical targeting pod, 4 Hellfire missiles, and 10 Griffin missiles to a KC-130. The kit takes a day to install and a day to remove.

Harvest HAWK Hellfire missiles mounted to wing. DVIDS photo.

Pod of 10 Griffin missiles, part of the Harvest HAWK kit. Marine Corps photo.

Japan is buying the KC-130R, a similar but not the same model as the Harvest HAWK KC-130J. Could the -R model could be fitted with a version of  the gunship kit? Why not?

Were an adversary to occupy one of Japan’s far-flung islands, a Harvest HAWK-equipped KC-130R could devastate forces on the ground and deal with enemy strongpoints. Armed long-range gunships would solve the problem in wartime of providing direct fire support to ground forces…while solving the problem in peacetime of hauling cargo. Another dual-use capability for the SDF.

SDF gunships, hiding in plain sight. (pun avoided)



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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch