The final assembly of the first special-mission C130J Hercules fighter aircraft has begun.

The air force awarded Lockheed a contract to build the special mission HC/MC-130J to replace aging fleets of combat search and rescue HC-130s and air force special operations MC-130s.

C-130J, a multimission aircraft, is engaged in high-tempo peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in multiple combat theatres.

Lockheed C-130 programmes vice president Ross Reynolds said that this new special mission configuration of the proven C-130J will give the US Air Force unparalleled capability for combat search and rescue, personnel recovery and special operations missions.

The new aircraft is based on a KC-130J tanker platform and features a range of provisions to support special mission operations.

These provisions include enhanced service life wing, the enhanced cargo handling system, a universal boom refueling receptacle, an electro-optic / infrared sensor, a combat systems operator station, dual military SATCOMs.

In August 2009, up to 22 HC/MC130J aircraft had been authorised by the department of defence acquisition decision memorandum.

The in-line production of this configuration reduces cost and schedule and will allow the aircraft to achieve initial operational capability by 2012.