5 “New” Hercules Airlifters for Poland - First Delivery this Year [COMMENTARY]

Image Credit: 3rd Airlift Wing
Image Credit: 3rd Airlift Wing

As announced by Mariusz Błaszczak, head of the Polish MoD, Poland signed an agreement aimed at the acquisition of 5 Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules airlifters, in a form of a grant within the framework of the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) programme. The first aircraft is to land at the 33rd Airlift Base in 2021, while all deliveries would be completed by mid-2024.

The Polish Ministry of Defence submitted a request concerning the acquisition of second-hand C-130Hs in September 2019, during the MSPO event in Kielce. A two-part request was submitted back then: concerning the Javelin ATGMs and 5 Hercules airframes. The second-hand airlifters were to be rapidly acquired, and they were to come from the excess stock of the US military.

“The second agreement refers to expansion of the military transport aircraft fleet.
By 5 Hercules aircraft. These aircraft are younger than the ones operated by the Polish military at the moment, thus they would improve the combat capacity. [...] Now is the time for us to arrange the details, and we can expect the Hercules airlifters to become a part of the Polish Armed Forces’ inventory shortly”, stated Minister Mariusz Błaszczak back in 2019.

The rapid plan of 2019 procurement of the C-130Hs did not succeed - the undertaking was thus delayed. The agreement changed its status on 20th March 2020. Then, a possible EDA programme transfer of these aircraft was approved. Information on C-130H airframes for Poland was also published in a report issued by the US Department of State on 15th June 2020, referring to the EDA undertaking (Excess Defense Articles), within the frame of which excess assets are transferred to the allied nations by the US military.

Rapid Delivery, Low Cost

According to the Armament Inspectorate of the Polish Ministry of Defense, the agreement signed on 12th April 2021 has a value of 14.3 mn dollars (which is less than a quarter of the value of the aircraft, estimated at the level of 60 million dollars). The agreement covers the acquisition of 5 C-130H aircraft, along with a partial modernization and airworthiness recovery, along with a transfer to Poland.

Further works - such as retrofitting and upgrades - are expected to be implemented domestically, by the WZL-2 facility in Bydgoszcz. These would be subjected to a separate contract. The scope of the aforesaid works is unknown as of yet.

The C-130Hs procured by Poland were manufactured in 1985 and decommissioned in 2017.
Since then, they have been stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) facility in Tucson, Arizona. They were selected and their technical status was assessed by the Poles, during the so-called Joint Visual Inspection. Furthermore, costs of regeneration, retrofitting, and transfer were also assessed.

AMARG stores 60 Hercules airframes, including one crashed C-130J and 20 C-130Hs - airframes for Poland would be selected among the latter. The first aircraft is expected to be ready for transfer from the United States of America to Poland before the end of this year. All aircraft are scheduled to be delivered during the upcoming two years.

The C-130H airframes in question are 15 years younger than the ones operated by the Polish Air Force now. The latter, coming in C-130E variant (five aircraft) had been procured in a similar fashion between 2009 and 2012. The introduction of new aircraft would mean that the Polish medium airlift fleet would be expanded - up to ten aircraft. After reaching the end of their lifecycles, the C-130Es would be decommissioned and probably used as a source of spares for the H version aircraft. This, meanwhile, could be coordinated in time with a tender concerning entirely new transport aircraft - the Polish Ministry of Defence had been looking for them within the framework of the Drop programme announced in the spring of 2019.

Certainly, the delivery of the C-130Hs would make it possible to maintain and expand the airlift potential the Polish Air Force enjoys, thanks to its Hercules fleet.

Maintenance and Modernization

The analytical-conceptual phase for the Drop procurement programme was suspended in July 2020. The official cause stemmed from the change of the operational requirements. One could however come to a conclusion that procurement of entirely new aircraft seemed to go down on the list of priorities, as opposed to other acquisitions. Especially in the context of actions taken to procure C-130Hs at a bargain price.

Poland would receive the aircraft at a fraction of the price of new airframes, within the framework of the EDA procedures, covering solely the cost of overhauls, transfer, and potential upgrades. The value of the five second-hand C-130H airframes was estimated, judging by their current state, at the level of 60 million dollars (ca. 40% of the original price). The Polish Ministry of Defence paid just 14.3 million dollars.

Modernization and/or modification of the aircraft is still a matter that has not been concluded. Work on that matter is to be completed domestically, at the WZL nr 2 facility in Bydgoszcz.
This has been a relevant item on the agenda, since the aforesaid facility remains competent, within the scope of C-130 overhauls.

The release issued by the Armament Inspectorate reads as follows:

“The aircraft, before being handed off to the 33rd Airlift Base in Powidz, would go through periodic maintenance (Programmed Depot Maintenance), at the WZL Nr 2 S.A. facility in Bydgoszcz, also being additionally retrofitted with equipment in line with the requirements of the Polish Air Force”.

The aircraft would thus undergo maintenance, and also receive new equipment. What scope of upgrades may be expected in case of the Polish C-130Hs? In the US forces, aircraft as such operated by the ANG are being upgraded through the digitalization of the avionics, installation of modern Rolls-Royce series 3.5 T-56 engines, and eight-bladed NP2000 propellers with automatic balancing and electronic control systems.

The aforesaid changes increase reliability and thrust by around 20%, diminishing the fuel consumption by 5%, also lowering the levels of noise and vibration. The digital avionics, meanwhile, greatly enhance the operational safety and comfort of the crew - especially important during long-haul operations. Thus, modernization within that scope would be justifiable.

Juliusz Sabak/Maciej Szopa