One official Air Force photograph is worth a thousand words on the subject of tactical airlifters. Here we see a “vanilla,” non-Special Operations C-130 doing a tactical takeoff from a dirt strip somewhere in Afghanistan, presumably in the Taliban-infested south or east. (For fun, note the wheel at right belonging to the air controllers’ motorcycle. Vroom vroom.)
Short-notice air supply is key to mobile operations far from the big bases. Two years ago, back when the British Army still took responsibility for security in southern Iraq, the Maysan battlegroup patrolling the Iranian border was mostly dependent on C-130s and Merlin choppers landing on improvised airstrips. It wasn’t easy — one C-130 was destroyed — but worth it to escape the unhealthy gravity of the fortified bases. Counter-insurgency operations often require staging deep into the boonies. And for that, we need airlift: C-130s and, in a couple years, the new C-27J.