AC-130J Ghostrider

The recent news that the Air Force is planning to retire its fleet of AC-130H Spectre gunships had all the usual suspects up in arms, howling how the Air Force was again shirking its commitment to Close Air Support.

Well, maybe. But the AC-130H fleet is aging badly, and  the airframes, the avionics and the weapons are all tired and expensive to maintain and operate.

A couple years ago, looking to supplement its already stretched thin fleet, the Air Force undertook an interim program to modify some Special Operations MC-130s to “Combat Dragon” specs with a so-called Precision Strike Package, with a 30mm Bushmaster chain gun, and the ability to employ the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and the AGM-176 Griffin guided bomb.

The program was very quick, and quite successful, and the Air Force has decided to buy a fleet of about 30 new build, dedicated AC-130J gunships, similarly armed, but with fully integrated avionics and adding the famous 105mm cannon.

The Marine Corps’ similar Harvest Hawk program also employs the Griffin and Hellfire, but is designed to be convertible back to a standard cargo hauler, or to a hose and drogue tanker.

This picture shows a GAU-23 mounted on an H model C-130.

Note the IR/FLIR/Laser designator turret under the nose, and the second one on the landing gear sponson.

The first AC-130J recently made its first flight. It will eventually replace the current fleet of AC-130H and U variants.

Harvest Hawk Debuts

We’ve had our eye on the Marine Corps KC-130J for a while now, especially since we first heard the Marines wanted to add a “strap-down” gunship kit to the aircraft as a sort of poor man’s AC-130 gunship. The AC-130 is just the ticket for supporting light infantry on the ground, but at around $200 million a pop, the Marines just can’t really afford any (especially if they plan of buying $150mm F-35B Joint PowerPoint Fighters!). So the Marines are looking for a “gunship-lite” to supplement their existing Close Air Support and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets.  The Air Force was looking at using a variant of the C-27J as a cheaper complement to the AC-130. The Marines took a slightly different route.

The Marines decided to build a kit that could be installed on any of their growing fleet of KC-130Js. Under a program called “Harvest Hawk” they’ve added a sensor suite, Hellfire missiles, and the little known Griffen small missile.

And now it appears the Harvest Hawk has drawn its first blood:

Since 2003, KC-130Js have played a vital role in transporting coalition forces and cargo throughout Helmand and Nimroz provinces; however, the latest KC-130 to enter the area is providing a new kind of support.

The KC-130J “Harvest Hawk” of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), has all the same capabilities of a KC-130J “Hercules,” but the Harvest Hawk carries four Hellfire and 10 Griffen GPS guided missiles and houses an infrared and television camera.

Its mission is to provide close air support, conduct intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions and find improvised explosive devices.

“This aircraft is not traditional – yet,” said Maj. Marc Blankenbicker, a fire control officer for the Harvest Hawk.

There is only one Harvest Hawk operating in Afghanistan, and it is used to fill the gaps where coverage from other aircraft isn’t available; it operates in a role similar to that of an F/A-18, explained Blankenbicker, who is originally from Avon, Conn.

Though the Harvest Hawk only began its first deployment in October, it has already had its first weapons engagement Nov. 4.

“We supported [3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment] in Sangin when they were in a fire fight,” said Blankenbicker. “We shot one Hellfire missile, and the battle damage assessment was five enemy [killed in action].”

From the article by Marine SGT Deeane Hurla.

Well done.

When I raised the possibility of using platforms such as the C-130, P-3 and S-3 as long loiter CAS and ISR platforms with an acquaintance in the strike fighter community, he was aghast. The thought that non-fighter types might be capable of performing the mission was incomprehensible to him.

But as Eric L. Palmer (where I found this story) points out elsewhere on his blog, the key link in the chain that from platform to target is the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC- what we used to call a forward air controller).  He’s the guy that is mostly in control of the attack. He’s the guy that makes the real decisions in the shooting chain.

Here’s some history of the development of the Harvest Hawk program. And I think there’s a lesson here about letting the Marines develop weapon systems. They seem to do well when they operate on a shoestring to achieve a very narrow objective, but when given sway over a program such as JSF, they just can’t achieve a reasonable objective on a reasonable timeline or budget.