When it comes to military contracting like this, it doesn't seem to matter which party occupies the White House or controls Congress. It doesn't even seem to matter how many planes the Air Force puts on its additional "unfunded" wish list beyond the Pentagon's official request, because Congress so often buys more. Sure, some years Congress doesn't provide. In 2010, the Air Force asked for 12 Herks in its main request and put two more on its unfunded wish list, yet Congress only gave it six. And sometimes money is pushed around from one year to another or from one bucket to another, making it challenging to track through the intentionally hard-to-understand (and not even auditable) Pentagon labyrinth.
At the present time, the military is asking both for more standard C-130Js (to replace old or heavily used Herks) and for new AC-130 gunships as well as Special Operations MC-130 variants on the plane in the questionable belief that these will be "invaluable" for fighting insurgents and terrorists. This means that the abolition of earmarks isn't all that big a deal for Lockheed.
But that doesn't stop it. Even with the threat of sequestration looming, and the Pentagon asking for seven new Herks in 2013, the House still inserted funding for 14.
What will happen in this year's request? We don't know yet, because it's late in coming thanks to sequestration. But Lockheed isn't worried: even while threatening sequestration layoffs, the company forecasts record profits this year.
And why should it worry? As of last October, it had contracts to build 337 more Herks for the Pentagon and a variety of foreign countries. In November, it scored the program's biggest foreign military sale ever, $6.7 billion to build 25 of the planes for the Royal Saudi Air Force. It has three NextGen models in the works, including a wider version (suitably named the XL) to carry oversized new Army equipment. And with the Air Force starting to think about replacing the C-130 (again), Lockheed has already secured a spot as one of the two companies developing prototypes for that future plane with its nifty "Speed Agile" design. Besides, judging by the Pentagon's ongoing experiences with Lockheed's F-22 and F-35 advanced fighters, whose costs have hit the stratosphere, any next generation "trash hauler" is bound to carry a strikingly higher initial sticker price than the C-130J—and that, of course, is before the inevitable cost upticks begin.
Out the Window
C-130s have a special place in my heart. The first military aircraft I got to ride in was a Coast Guard Herk. An Air Force C-130 got me out of Iraq. Now that the 928th Airlift Wing is no more, I get a little wistful when I fly through Chicago and all I see out the window are private cargo hangars.
Or at least I did before I wrote this story.
But not to worry. There are plenty of other airports around the country with excess C-130s just sitting out there on the tarmac, gathering dust.
Jeremiah Goulka, a TomDispatch regular and former RAND Corporation analyst, writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com.
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