Back in May during the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) said it was looking into the development of a plane that could take off from and land on water in support of special operations units. Now, the Air Force is moving ahead with plans for such an aircraft.

AFSOC wants to use the venerable MC-130J Commando II aircraft and equip it with pontoons. This will make one of the world’s most versatile aircraft frames even more so. AFSOC is planning to fly a prototype in the next 17 months. 

During SOFIC, Special Operations Command’s Program Executive Officer – Fixed-Wing Air Force Colonel Ken Kuebler said the engineering challenge would be difficult but the capability would create even more challenges for enemies in the near future.

“It just gives us a lot of capability as we look toward a great power competition,” Kuebler said.


Look to the 60s

Lockheed designed a C-130 amphibian “Hercules on Water” (HOW) back in the 1960s but never built it. HOW’s original design had called for a boat-like hull with outrigger pontoons. Now, the special operations community’s interest may call for those plans to be dusted off. 

C-130 Seaplane model
Lockheed built a model of an amphibious C-130 in the 1960s with a boat-like hull and outrigger pontoons. (Lockheed Martin)

AFSOC said that adding removable pontoons to the MC-130J will increase the aircraft’s versatility allowing it to land on lakes or close to shore thus freeing it from needing to land on a regular airstrip. 

AFSOC’s Deputy Division Chief for Science, Systems, Technology, and Innovation Lt. Col. Josh Trantham, said that the possibilities for use of an amphibian C-130 are nearly endless. “Seaborne operations offer nearly unlimited water landing zones, providing significant flexibility for the joint force.”

The current MC-130J Super Hercules has been modified to infiltrate and exfiltrate enemy airspace to deploy, recover, and resupply American special operators in enemy territory. The proposed C-130 variant will allow AFSOC crews to expand their operational space into maritime environments and give them water landing capabilities.

The artist’s conception provided by Lockheed Martin includes huge pontoons. These could increase drag, shorten the aircraft’s range, and cut down on its combat load. The 1960s concept would seem to be a better option, as the aircraft would still retain most of its range and payload capabilities, and still be able to land either on water or on a runway. 

C-130 floatplane
Artist’s concept of a C-130 floatplane with large pontoons. (Lockheed Martin)

As the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) shifts its emphasis from counterterrorism to near-peer warfare, in which large bases may be either knocked out or unavailable, it wants to be able to operate in austere conditions with limited infrastructure.


A Valuable Asset in Many Operations

Back in May, Colonel Kubler intimated to the media during a roundtable discussion that the MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Capability (MAC) program would be a candidate for what he described as “emerging threats” with near-peer adversaries in the Pacific as it can operate in and around the ocean’s small islands. 

China, it should be noted, is working on the AG600 a large amphibian aircraft of its own. The AG600 is expected to have a significant military role, in supporting the islands the Chinese have constructed in the South China Sea, which they claim as part of their territory. 

The U.S. Coast Guard would also be very interested in an amphibian C-130 airframe as it would radically increase its search and rescue capabilities allowing it to pick up survivors from the ocean directly, as long as surface conditions allow it. 

The New York Air National Guard currently operates the LC-130 “Skibird” aircraft, which is outfitted with skis and rockets to help it land on and take off from Antarctica where it resupplies scientific stations.

AFSOC is testing prototypes virtually on the Digital Proving Ground, using digital and computer-aided designs. The command believes that this will allow for physical prototypes to be built quickly.