Marine Corps Considers New Cannon for Airborne Gunship

By David C. Ake
Less than a year after it successfully fielded an “off-the-shelf” gunship to improve its close-air support capabilities, the Marine Corps is already considering upgrades for its newest aircraft.

The service in 2010 took KC-130J airborne tankers and outfitted them with a kit comprising already developed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance packages and weapon systems. The Harvest Hawk, like the Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130 gunships, can loiter for long periods at night, peer down at enemies and engage them when called upon.

The program has proven successful enough for the service to consider an upgrade, the addition of a 30mm GAU-23 cannon to Harvest Hawk’s weapons configuration, said Maj. Richard Roberts, a KC-130/Operational Support Airlift requirements officer at headquarters Marine Corps aviation.

The GAU-23 is considered a low-risk choice because the Navy and Marine Corps already use it. The Marine Corps deferred adding the cannon in June 2009 because “the 30mm cannon integration technology was not sufficiently mature to allow inclusion,” Roberts said. In the future, if technology permits, the Marine Corps may bolt the 30mm cannon to the cargo floor in an arrangement that allows it to fire out of the left side paratrooper door and still remain true to the modular concept of the aircraft.

The “hawk” part of the name is an acronym for the C-130 “Hercules airborne weapons kit.”

The Marine Corps will have a contract for the sixth Harvest Hawk by the end of the year, but it awaits a decision from aviation leadership to purchase additional units beyond that, Roberts said. The first three kits have been acquired and delivered. The second will soon replace the Harvest Hawk currently operating in Afghanistan so it can be rotated into training for other crews.

The Harvest Hawk fills a gap in Marine air power, officials said. At the behest of Marine Corps Central Command, the service began developing the Harvest Hawk in 2009 when commanders put in an urgent universal needs statement requesting a weapons platform that could perform ISR with a long-loiter capability for close-air support. The first Harvest Hawk was deployed to Afghanistan in October 2010.

Unlike the fixed-wing Harrier jump jet and Cobra attack helicopter — the air-support workhorses of marines — the Harvest Hawk can remain on station for more than seven hours. It has a weapon load similar to a Cobra, giving marines support on the ground via an ISR pod mounted on the left external fuel tank. It employs Hellfire and Griffin missiles.

Along with the cannon, the Corps is considering adding Viper Strike missiles.

As of July, the one Harvest Hawk deployed in Afghanistan has fired 42 Hellfire and 11 Griffin missiles and identified eight improvised explosive devices. The total number of enemy combatants engaged and destroyed by the Harvest Hawk is classified, but a Marine Corps journalist reported in November 2010 that it killed five enemy combatants with a single Hellfire during its first weapons engagement in Afghanistan, which came less than a month after its deployment.

The operating altitude of a KC-130J Harvest Hawk is another advantage of the system, Roberts said. It is certified to engage enemies up to 25,000 feet above sea level. At that altitude it’s difficult for enemies to see or hear, he added.

“The low noise signature of the KC-130J, combined with night operations, allows Harvest Hawk crews to remain virtually undetected and employ weapons on unsuspecting enemy combatants,” Roberts said.

The Marine Corps has touted the low “fly away” cost of the system. The KC-130J is $69.5 million. Adding the weapons and IRS kits is estimated at about $10 million, keeping the price of the aircraft well below the $190 million unit cost of an AC-130. It uses the same AN/AAQ-30 targeting system as the Cobra.

“The primary role of the Harvest Hawk system is conducting multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance and close-air support, but the crew and system is flexible enough to allow re-tasking in flight,” Roberts said.

Roberts attributed the rapid fielding success of the Harvest Hawk to the urgent requests by the Marine Corps when commanders on the battlefield identified a critical operational need. If Harvest Hawk had gone through the normal procurement process of the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System, it might have taken two to three more years to deliver the weapon system to marines in Afghanistan, he said.

“Thanks to government and industry partners and the support of Congress, the Marine Corps fielded a relevant capability that meets the urgent needs of Marines in the shortest possible time. Maintaining a limber acquisition process like the existing urgent universal needs system is essential to continued acquisition success,” Roberts said.                             

David Ake served in the Army from 2001 to 2005 as an M1A1 armor crewman and deployed to Iraq in February 2004. He was a summer intern at National Defense Magazine.

Topics: Aviation

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