Special Operations Command’s AC-130H/U gunships can lay down withering hails of accurate fire, up to and including 105mm howitzer shells, in order to support ground troops.
The Marines also wanted heavy aircraft that could support their Leathernecks on the ground. The bad news was that the Corps could field about 45 KC-130J aerial tankers for the price of a 12-plane AC-130J squadron, and lighter options like the AC-27J “Stinger II” would probably tally similar costs once R&D dollars were factored in. Could the Marines change tack, and offer a modular weapon package that would let them arm their existing tankers as needed? Could armed KC-130Js offer limited fire support, while loitering over the battlefield and using their unique speed range to refuel helicopters and fast jets alike? The Harvest Hawk program aims to do just that. It would give the USMC a far less capable convertible gunship option for Afghanistan, at a cost that’s about 2 orders of magnitude below a dedicated gunship fleet. Unsurprisingly, the next service to show interest in this concept was SOCOM itself…
Gunships R Us: Equipping The Hercs
The Marines’ program is called Harvest Hawk. The initial plan is to field 3 kits, and the eventual plan is to have 3 roll-on/ roll-off kits per squadron. That would mean about 9 kits by 2011, and 12 kits when the last KC-130T aerial refueling squadron converts to KC-130Js after 2012. All USMC KC-130Js are expected to receive the wiring needed to carry the kits, which will be improved and refined over time.
Harvest Hawk Capability I involves a roll-on/roll-off set of surveillance displays and fire control electronics. This is coupled with a modular surveillance and targeting unit that takes up the rear portion of the inboard left external fuel tank, or may simply be mounted below that tank as a surveillance turret. The sensor choice was said to involve 2 candidates. Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAQ-30 TSS, which is also used in the Marines’ AH-1Z attack helicopter and has been installed in some SOCOM AC-130s, was the front runner. L-3 Wescam’s popular MX-15 surveillance and targeting turret was the competitor, but competing against the Harvest Hawk’s integrator is not a promising position; the AAQ-30 TSS won.
Harvest Hawk Capability II involves mounting an M299 missile rack for 4 AGM-114 Hellfires and/or up to 16 DAGR laser-guided 70mm rockets to the left wing, in place of the left-hand aerial refueling pod. This leaves the left wing carrying the weapons and some fuel, while the right wing retains full aerial refueling capabilities. The laser/GPS-guided GBU-44 “Viper Strike”/SOPGM has also been moved into this category.
Early testing for Capabilities I & II has taken place, initial orders have been placed, and testing of the first equipped aircraft is underway. Deployment to Afghanistan is now expected in summer 2010.
Harvest Hawk Capability III involves a modular 30mm cannon linked to the fire control, which is expected to be rolled in and mounted in the troop door. Daniel Watters of The Gun Zone writes to say that the Marines’ choice of 30mm gun will be interesting, and explains the tradeoffs:
“While the Mk 44 Bushmaster II [30×173mm] and M230 Chain Gun [30×113mm] are both nominally 30mm, their cartridges are very different….There is a major difference in size, power, and range. The Mk 44 Bushmaster II has already been adopted by the US Navy and USMC for other applications…. The 30×173mm uses a heavier projectile with a larger explosive filling, and is fired at a higher velocity [which] should have a noticeable maximum range advantage. Perhaps it would be easier to fabricate a stable mount for the less powerful M230 than the Mk 44… M230 and its ammunition are also lighter and more compact.”
US Special Forces tried fitting 30mm cannon to their AC-130U “Spooky” gunships, but found that the gun’s accuracy level wasn’t suited to their missions. In response, they implemented a “retrograde” to their earlier 25mm and 40mm weapons. The Marines say that the 30mm cannon will suit their objectives. Time will tell, but either way, the lack of pinpoint-accurate, extreme-volume gunfire will be one of the principal differences between SOCOM’s AC-130s and kit gunships like the KC-130Js or MC-130Ws.
Capability III has yet to even select a gun at this point, much less test and integrate one. According to US Navy NAVAIR: “capability III [will begin] when funding becomes available.”
Capability IV involves adding additional precision-guided weapons to the Harvest Hawk. Efforts are already underway to incorporate and test Northrop Grumman’s GBU-44 Viper Strike laser/GPS-guided weapons, which are also under consideration by SOCOM for its AC-130s. Those have been moved to Capability II deployment. Raytheon’s small “Griffin” missiles, which can replace Hellfires on a 3 for 1 basis, are also part of ongoing Capability IV efforts.
Specifics regarding additional weapon fit-outs are thin at the moment, but other options could conceivably include 81mm or larger mortars with General Dynamics’ RCFC GPS guidance kits; and potentially even small precision-guided bombs. Among other potential modifications, later Harvest Hawk phases will reportedly add stations for Hellfire laser-guided missiles on both wings, mounted on the outside of the plane’s outboard aerial refueling pods. There has even been talk of adding tube-launched precision-guided weapons that could be slid out the rear ramp, or even gravity-dropped through panels in the floor.
US Navy NAVAIR PMA-207 is also working with US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to share information on Harvest Hawk, which could become an option for all of SOCOM’s ordered MC-130Js.
A similar effort is emerging from an AFSOCOM investigation into converting its MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft along Harvest Hawk lines. The MC-130Ws are newly-converted C-130H aircraft, with 12 slated for delivery as combat replacements from 2006-2011. Their roles include infiltration/ exfiltration of special operations teams, aerial refueling including combat search-and-rescue support, and psychological operations. “Project Dragon Spear” aircraft will be armed via roll-on, roll-off kits featuring added sensors, communications systems, Hellfire/DAGR missiles, and the Adaptive Carriage Environment (ACE). Armament will reportedly include a Mk.44 30mm gun, wing-mounted laser-guided Hellfire/DAGR missiles, and a 10-tube “Gunslinger” system that can launch small precision-guided weapons like the GBU-44 Viper Strike.
Unless otherwise indicated, these contracts are managed by the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD.
June 3/10: Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a $20.9 million contract to provide interim contractor support of MC-130W modifications to install “a precision strike package” in support of US SOCOM’s “Project Dragon Spear.” At this time, $10 million has been committed by the 580th ACSG/GFKAA at Robins Air Force Base, GA (FA8509-10-C-0013).
June 2/10: Northrop Grumman announces a contract, to deliver 65 SOPGM/ GBU-44 Viper Strike munitions to the Joint Attack Munition Systems (JAMS) Project Office, within the Program Executive Office Missiles and Space at Redstone Arsenal, AL. The Viper Strikes will be delivered in 2010, for eventual integration onto the KC-130J Harvest Hawk.
April 10/10: Harvest Hawk completes Phase 1 testing at Pax River, MD, and leaves for required maintenance and continued testing at NAVAIR’s China Lake, CA range. The Patuxent River, MD Test Team included personnel from Air Test and Evaluation Squadrons VX-20 and VX-23, Operational Test Squadron 1 VX-1, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 (VMGR-352), Lockheed Martin, the Joint Attack Munitions Systems (JAMS) project office, NAVAIR’s AIR 4.6 Human Systems department, and NAVAIR’s AIR-5.1 Integrated Systems Evaluation, Experimentation, and Test (ISEET) department.
NAVAIR says that it is working a complimentary effort to test and deploy the Standoff Precision Guided Munition (SOPGM, aka. “Viper Strike”) as a stand alone capability for Harvest HAWK, and that the first aircraft is scheduled to deploy by summer 2010 equipped with the AN/AAQ-30 TSS, AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles, and SOPGM. The 30 mm cannon, which will be mounted in the left side troop door, has been deferred to a later block upgrade. NAVAIR release.
March 17/10: A Harvest HAWK equipped KC-130J from USMC VMGR-352 squadron “The Raiders” arrives at NAVAIR’s Patuxent River, MD facilities from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, CA for testing.
Jan 29/10: Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a $32.7 million contract to provide consoles for integration onto the MC-130W “Combat Spear” aircraft. At this time, the entire amount has been committed by the 667th AESS/SYKA at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH (FA8629-09-C-2445).
Jan 13/10: The 27th Special Operations Wing deploys 2 MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron in support of humanitarian operations in Haiti. The deployment is a reminder that these multi-role aircraft can be deployed in unarmed roles, with or without their advanced sensors and weapons.
The release does not mention specifics, but advanced thermal sensors can be used for tasks like to seeing heat sources in disaster situations, as well as pinpointing armed enemies on a battlefield. Canon AFB release | Canon AFB picture | Clovis News Journal
Nov 17/09: ATK announces a $20 million contract to:
”...provide 30mm PGU-46/B High Explosive Incendiary (HEI) ammunition for the ATK-produced Mk44 30mm cannon on the multi-role, MC-130W Combat Spear gunship, which will support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Contracting Office at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio awarded the contract.”
It would seem that AFSOCOM has made its 30mm gun choice. ATK will produce the ammunition at the company’s facilities in Radford, VA and Rocket Center, WVA. Deliveries will be complete in December 2010.
Sept 30/09: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta, GA receives a $21.3 million modification to a previously awarded firm-fixed-price contract (N00019-09-C-0053) for 2 Harvest Hawk capability I and II kits for the Marine Corps KC-130J aircraft. Work will be performed in Palmdale, CA, and is expected to be complete in December 2010. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, which is technically this very day.
Aug 29/09: Harvest Hawk testing begins, to verify that changes to the KC-130J’s flight characteristics are either entirely absent, or known and compensated.
The retrofitted KC-130J used an AN/AAQ-30 Targeting Sight System, and a 4-weapon Hellfire II weapons rack in place of the left-hand aerial refueling pod. The right wing can still carry fuel for aerial refueling, while the left wing carries the kit. There is no discussion of a direct fire gun, but the release does add that Lockheed Martin plans to retrofit the Marine Corps’ fleet of KC-130J aircraft with the necessary wiring to carry Harvest Hawk, so that any aircraft could be quickly converted for use. USMC release.
June 4/09: An AFSOCOM pre-solicitation notice [FedBizOpps MS Word format | WIRED Danger Zone] discusses one option for mouting precision guided weapons on the MC-130Ws:
“The goal for Gunslinger is to have 10 or more Standoff Precision Guided Munitions (SOPGMs) loaded and ready to fire in rapid succession, reload in flight, and not modify the SOPGMs or their Common Launch Tube (CLT). The Gunslinger system must be interoperable with the Government’s SOPGM Battle Management System (BMS).... If only one qualified source responds the Government reserves the right to issue a sole source contract to that qualified source.
The Air Armament Center Capabilities Integration Directorate (AAC/XR) proposes to procure Gunslinger System Engineering which will include; design and ground demonstration of the Gunslinger system using a surrogate aircraft provided by the Government or a contractor provided mock up representative of the MC-130W. The design is allowed to include both permanent and removable portions. The installation as designed shall not prevent the aircraft from performing the cargo/transport mission when the removable portion is not in place. The permanent portion shall maintain cabin pressure when the removable portion is installed as well as when it is not installed. The time to install and uninstall the removable portions shall be minimized. The goal is less than five (5) minutes. The contractor shall develop an aircraft modification package with drawings and supporting data for installing the Gunslinger system and submit it to the aircraft OSS&E authority for approval to proceed with the aircraft modification.”
May 15/09: AFSOCOM’s analogue. Gannett’s Air Force times reports that Air Force Special Operations Command’s plan to buy 16 C-27Js under the Joint Cargo Aircraft program, for conversion to AC-27J Stinger II gunships, has fallen apart with the removal of Army C-27J funding in the FY 2010 budget.
In response, they’re investigating a “Plan B” that would add roll-on, roll-off kits to its MC-130W Combat Spear fleet. The MC-130W program began in 2006 to replace combat losses of the MC-130E/H Combat Talon, but it’s based on converted C-130H models, rather than new “J” version of the Hercules.
May 8/09: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta, GA received a $22.8 million firm-fixed-price contract to develop a roll-on, roll-off armed targeting capability for the Marine Corps’ KC-130J.
Work will be performed in Palmdale, CA and is expected to be complete in December 2009. Contract funds in the amount of $15.5 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was not competitively procured (N00019-09-C-0053).
May 4/09: The USAF is also interested in this concept, and issues a PIXS solicitation for a “Precision Strike Pkg 360 Degree Situational Awareness Camera System.” The solicitation adds that:
“This system would operate at altitudes at or above 10,000 feet and act as a hostile fire indicator system to provide aircrew with the ability to virtually scan the outside of the aircraft for hostile ground threats that would possibly target them. This system is part of a broader Persistence Strike Package (PSP). The purpose of the PSP program is to add a modular PSP to a medium lift cargo aircraft, to include a medium caliber gun and Stand-Off Precision Guided Munitions (SOPGM).”
This article can be found in its original format here.