The Right to Bear Arms: Gunship Kits for America’s C-130s
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. Lighter options like the AC-27J “Stinger II” would probably tally similar costs, once R&D dollars were distributed among such a small fleet. 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 envelope to refuel helicopters and fast jets alike? The Harvest Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit (HAWK) program aims to do just that. It gives the USMC a far less capable convertible gunship option in Afghanistan, but the cost is 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 US Marines: KC-130J Harvest HAWK
The Marines’ initial Harvest HAWK plan is to field 3 kits, but 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, plus “Blue Force Tracker” to keep tabs on friendly troops, and ROVER to communicate with them. Outside the cabin, a modular surveillance and targeting unit 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, won. 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.
Harvest HAWK Capability II involves mounting an M299 missile rack for 4 AGM-114P Hellfires and/or up to 16 DAGR laser-guided 70mm rockets to the left wing, in place of the left-hand outboard aerial refueling pod. This leaves the left wing carrying the weapons and some fuel, while the right wing retains full aerial refueling capabilities. Capability IV (see below) was also moved up, and the 10-tube rear ramp “Gunslinger” system and precision weapons were effectively added to this increment.
After early testing for Capabilities I & II took place, initial orders and testing followed. Deployment to Afghanistan started 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 is interesting, and explains the tradeoffs:
“While the Mk 44 Bushmaster II [30x173mm] and M230 Chain Gun [30x113mm] 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 30x173mm 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.” ATK finalized a roll-on/off palletized kit for the GAU-23 cannon in mid-2012, which may help funding become available.
Capability IV originally involved adding additional Standoff Precision Guided Munitions (SOPGMs) to the Harvest HAWK, but that got moved ahead to Capability II. They’re dropped out of a 10-tube “Gunslinger” launcher that fits on the rear ramp, but their future involves a new pressurized “Derringer Door”. That 10-tube launcher switches in for the regular paratroop door, allowing Harvest HAWK planes to drop weapons without depressurizing the cabin, and/or asking those inside to don oxygen masks.
Efforts were already underway to incorporate and test Northrop Grumman’s (now MBDA’s) GBU-44 Viper Strike laser/GPS-guided weapons on the KC-130Js, and they were under consideration by SOCOM for its AC-130s. Raytheon’s small “Griffin” missiles were also added. The rocket-powered Griffin B can replace Hellfires on an M299 launcher, on 3 for 1 basis. For the C-130 fleet, however, the unpowered, gravity-dropped Griffin A seems to be the mainstay. Other weapons are likely, especially from US SOCOM. One weapon they have confirmed funding for is Textron’s cylindrical 64-pound C-LAW, whose airburst devastates soft ground targets over an area the size of a football field.
Specifics regarding additional weapon plans are thin at the moment, but other options could conceivably include 81mm or larger mortars, using General Dynamics’ RCFC GPS guidance kits; tiny missiles like the NAVAIR/DRS Spike; and spinoffs from the explosion of small precision-guided bombs entering the market: Lockheed Martin’s Scorpion, MBDA’s Saber, etc. Later Harvest HAWK phases will reportedly add stations for Hellfire laser-guided missiles on both wings, instead of just the port wing. The M299 launchers would be mounted on the outside of the plane’s outboard aerial refueling pods.
US AFSOC: MC-130W Combat Spear/ Stinger II
A similar effort is emerging from US Special Operations Command.
US Navy NAVAIR PMA-207 has been working with US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to share information on Harvest Hawk, and a US SOCOM program is now converting its MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft along Harvest Hawk lines. Similar kits could also be fielded for SOCOM’s forthcoming HC-130J Combat King II and MC-130J Combat Shadow IIs, and they may even spread beyond that.
MC-130W. In the near term, their MC-130Ws are newly-converted C-130H aircraft, with 12 delivered as combat replacements from 2006-2011. MC-130W base roles include infiltration/ exfiltration of special operations teams, aerial refueling including combat search-and-rescue support, and psychological operations. Key additions above the based C-130H include a strengthened tail to cope with low-level drops; improved avionics and navigation that integrates GPS, AN/APN-241 radar, and AN/AAQ-38 Infrared systems; a full suite of top-of-the-line threat detection and countermeasures gear; and a communication suite that includes satellite communications with data burst, making it hard for enemies to locate the plane by tracking its transmissions. A UARRSI dorsal receptacle lets any boom-equipped aerial tanker refuel it in the air, while the MC-130W can itself act as a refueler for hose-and-drogue equipped aircraft or helicopters, using its Mk 32B-902E refueling pods.
The other difference from previous AFSOC gunships involved precision ranged weapons. MC-130Ws will have a 4-rail wing-mount for laser-guided AGM-114P Hellfire missiles or 70mm laser-guided DAGR rockets, and a 10-tube “Gunslinger” system that can launch small precision-guided weapons.
All 12 MC-130Ws will soon be converting to “Project Dragon Spear” aircraft, which add roll-on, roll-off kits featuring added sensors, communications systems, the Adaptive Carriage Environment (ACE), and weapons. Some sources refer to those as “AC-130W,” but the official USAF designation remains MC-130W.
Dragon Spear weapons will include a GAU-23 dual-feed 30mm gun with about 500 rounds, with the assembly bolted to the floor of the plane. It fires single shots or short bursts, instead of the “wall of lead” that’s associated with an AC-130H/U gunship, or the Vietnam-era C-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” whose upgraded descendants still serve in Colombia and Indonesia.
The MC-130W represents an acquisition departure for SOCOM, who stood up its 1st Joint Acquisition Task Force in June 2009 to handle the initial MC-130W conversion and buy. The project had a minimum capability model in less than 90 days, and deployed a working aircraft within 18 months. The experience has gone well enough that SOCOM is reportedly considering using JATFs on other projects.
It has also led to a shift in mindset, wherein a government-owned “Precision Strike Package” will sit at the core of SOCOM’s new gunships.
AC-130J. Up to 32 new AC-130Js are now expected to serve alongside the 12 new AC-130W Dragon Spears, replacing existing AC-130H/Us. Initially, the AC-130Js will use roll on/off kits from the Dragon Spear project in an HC-130J airframe. Eventually, they’ll install their own “Precision Strike Package” that includes a side-firing 30mm GAU-23A chain gun, wing-mounted GBU-39 GPS-guided SDB-I bombs, and laser-guided AGM-176 Griffin missiles launched from a “Gunslinger” attachment on the read cargo door. It may eventually add a side-firing 105mm howitzer like existing AC-130H/Us, and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles like the Marines’ KC-130J Harvest Hawks, but those aren’t currently funded. These weapons will be controlled from a dual-console Mission Operator Pallet in the cargo bay, which will include multiple video, data, and communication links.
Contracts & Key Events
Unless otherwise indicated, these contracts are managed by US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD.
FY 2015 – 2016
KC-130J Harvest Hawk upgrade plans.
July 4/17: Dynetics has been contracted by the USAF to deliver 70 GBU-69/B Small Glide Munitions (SGMs), with options to buy 30 more. With a value of $10.9 million, the missiles are reportedly scheduled to be installed on AC-130 aircraft operated by the service. Dynetics’ Stand-Off Precision Guided Munition (SOPGM) beat out competition from Textron’s G-CLAW, Raytheon’s Griffin and Northrop Grumman’s Viper Strike munition, as is was the only one of the competitors to satisfy the competition’s full requirements.
December 7/15: The US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and US Navy are to collaborate on the development of a laser mounted weapon for the AC-130 aircraft. The move comes as the Navy has been developing and researching energy directed weapons with their Laser Weapon System, which saw deployment aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce last year. The lasers success will be the basis for a cooperation between the two branches, and how this can aid the development of a similar system for aircraft. The AC-130 will conceivably see a miniaturized version of the one used on the USS Ponce, and possess both offensive and defensive capabilities. It is hoped the lasers will help gunships disable enemy systems and improve identification of targets on the ground. This would avoid incidents such as the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October.
Nov 3/14: KC-130J USMC Plan. The USMC’s Aviation Plan to 2030 [PDF] has its own entry for the KC-130J Harvest Hawk, which currently uses AGM-114P2A Hellfire, AGM-176B Griffin, and GBU-44 Viper Strike precision weapons:
“MROC Decision 19-2012 reduced the total kit inventory objective from 9 kits to 6 kits with 3 kits each going to 2d MAW and 3d MAW. A total of 10 aircraft are modified to employ the Harvest Hawk kits with 5 modified aircraft in 2d MAW and 5 modified aircraft in 3d MAW. Beginning in 2015, the mission kit will receive sensor and fire control system upgrades to address system obsolescence and eliminate deficiencies, while sustaining relevancy through transition from P2A hellfire to the P4 Hellfire.”
2017 will kick off a slew of improvements, from the Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP) radio replacement; to Hellfire missile upgrades as noted above; to a switch from the AAQ-30 TSS surveillance and targeting turret used on USMC AH-1Zs, to the MX-20 used on Navy P-8A sea control aircraft. It will also begin to replace the Fire Control Station with a Mission Operator Pallet like the AC-130J’s. Blue Force Tracker battlefield management is already on board the Harvest Hawks, and its Link-16 aerial counterpart will begin retrofits in FY 2018, along with other fleet-wide C-130J Block 7.0/8.1 upgrades like Mode 5 IFF, GPS approach capability, ADS-B (out), RNP/RNAV, and a new flight management system. FY 2019 will see the beginning of JAGM missile integration, offering a dual-mode radar/laser-guided option beside the laser-only AGM-114P4 Hellfire.
FY 2013 – 2014
AC-130J flies; AC-130J details; Hellfires for AC-130W; DOT&E report re: SOCOM’s fleet highlights an armoring problem.
May 22/14: AC-130 Upgrades. At the annual SOFIC conference, SOCOM’s systems acquisition manager for standoff precision-guided munitions, Erich Borgstede, says that they are just beginning to fit AGM-114 Hellfire missiles on the AC-130W/Js. They’ve also developed a laser-guided small diameter bomb [SDB-I is a 250 pound GPS-only weapon] that will be fielded this summer.
“According to slides presented at the briefing, SOCOM is also looking at the potential of using helmet mounted displays, digital map upgrades, and using mobile devices to help do mission planning in the near future.”
Those changes would also apply to their HC/MC-130 fleet. Sources: Defense News, “SOCOM soon getting more capable, deadlier Ospreys and C-130s”.
March 28/14: AC-130W support. Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a sole-source $14 million firm-fixed-price, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for contractor logistics support of the AC-130W’s precision strike package. Contractor logistics support employees also deploy with aircraft in support of special operations Missions.
$10.9 million is committed immediately, using FY 2014 O&M funds. Work will be performed at Cannon Air Force Base, NM, and is expected to be complete March 31/15. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center’s Special Operation Forces Contracting Division, at Robins AFB, GA manages the contract (FA8509-14-C-0001).
Jan 31/14: AC-130J. The USAF flies a fully-converted AC-130J gunship for the 1st time, at Eglin AFB, FL. They also appear to have scaled the program back a bit:
“A total of 32 MC-130J aircraft will be modified for AFSOC as part of a $2.4 billion AC-130J program to grow the future fleet, according to Capt. Greg Sullivan, the USSOCOM AC-130J on-site program manager at Det. 1.”
The Pentagon’s recently-released DOT&E report for FY 2013 had placed the AC-130J program at 37 aircraft. Sources: USAF, “New AC-130J completes first test flight”.
Jan 28/14: DOT&E Testing Report. The Pentagon releases the FY 2013 Annual Report from its Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). Their focus is on US SOCOM’s variants: HC-130J/MC-130J Combat King II CSAR/ Commando II transports, and AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunships. The USAF intends to field 37 HC-130J Combat King IIs developed to Increment 2 capability, 57 MC-130J Commando IIs developed to Increment 3 capability, and 37 AC-130J Ghostrider gunships that will be converted from MC-103Js (TL: 94 MC-130Js produced).
The AC-130J program conducted a Preliminary Design Review in March 2013 and a Critical Design Review in August 2013, and 1st flight was expected in January 2014. The PSP weapon set is planned in 3 increments, and both development and the Live Fire Alternative Test Plan (ATP) will leverage some data from the C-130H-based AC-130W. The core problem across this fleet involves the enhanced electrical system and in 400 Amp power supply, which is required for Increment 3 upgrades and AC-130J gunship conversions. At present, the fleet is limited to a 200 Amp system. This was also concerning:
“Armor requirements and the amount of armor differ significantly between the AC-130U and AC-130J aircraft. The AC-130U armor was designed to provide protection to the aircrew stations, personnel, ammunition, and critical systems against a single 37 mm high-explosive incendiary round at a range of 10,000 feet, while the AC-130J’s primary crewmember positions and oxygen supplies should be protected against single 7.62 mm ball projectile at 100 meters [DID: just 330 feet, where bullet velocity is higher] …. The planned armor layout on the AC-130J does not include the Mission Operator Pallet, which should be considered a “primary crewmember” position and protected in accordance with the associated Force Protection Key Performance Parameter (KPP).”
The 37mm criterion isn’t random: most AC-130 kills over Vietnam involved 37mm guns. It isn’t rare for gunships to face enemies that can deploy 14.5mm – 23mm guns, to say nothing of the common .50 cal/ 12.7mm caliber. Even an unarmored C-130J would be a difficult kill for a 12.7mm machine gun. With that said, it sounds like they’ve left the crew nearly unprotected, in an aircraft that’s designed to go where the enemy is shooting. That does require an explanation.
June 4/13: AC-130J Sub-contractors. The AC-130J Ghostrider will be equipped with a configuration of QinetiQ’s enhanced LAST lightweight composite armor. Protection will depend on how much they use, and LAST’s aerial density is 37 kg/m2. Protection up to 7.62mm armor piercing is the minimum useful level, and seems to be the AC-130J’s standard. SOCOM could certainly justify higher levels, especially in critical areas, but they’d rather make the weight tradeoffs in an airplane that’s already packed with heavy gear. Jane’s adds that:
“A total of 37 AC-130J aircraft will replace AFSOC’s eight ageing AC-130H platforms, a significant increase from the 16 originally planned. It is understood that the procurement of the additional platforms will allow the 12 AC-130W Dragon Spear/Stinger II platforms currently performing gunship duties to revert back to their baseline MC-130W Combat Spear [multi-role] configuration.”
Sources: QinetiQ NA, “QinetiQ North America’s LAST Armor to Protect C-130 Aircraft” | IHS Jane’s, “New armour for AC-130J gunships”.
March 20/13: Hellfire? US SOCOM fixed-wing PEO Col. Michael Schmidt (USAF) confirms that they’re looking to add AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles to the AC-130W’s “Precision Strike Package,” using F-15 racks mounted on the AC-130W’s hard points. Money has to be found in the budget, but he’s confident that it will happen at some point.
Since the AC-130J Ghostrider will initially be fielded with the same Precision Strike Package, AC-130W integration could end up extending to the new fleet. Sources: Defense Tech, “Air Force set to arm AC-130W with Hellfire missiles”.
Dec 20/12: AC-130W Support. Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a $7.9 million contract modification for “logistics support of the Precision Strike Package on the AC-130W aircraft, Stinger II Program.”
The location of the performance is Cannon Air Force Base, NM. Work is expected to be completed by Dec 31/13. The AFLCMC/WIKAA at Robins AFB, GA manages the contract (FA8509-12-C-0001, PO 0006).
AC-130J production begins; Griffin, G-CLAW, and GAU-23 weapons; Derringer Door introduced; MC-130W to become Dragon Spear.
Aug 27/12: G-CLAW. Textron Defense Systems announces a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with U.S. Special Operations Command’s Program Executive Office – Fixed Wing, focused on Textron Defense Systems’ Guided Clean Area Weapon (G-CLAW). The GPS-guided cylinder will be integrated into SOPGM launch tube dispensers, and receive flight and weapon safety certifications. From there, Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM will conduct inert and live-fire demonstrations from a tactical carrier aircraft such as the MC-130W Dragon Spear. Integration activities will culminate in an end-to-end, live-fire demonstration.
The 64-pound CLAW was actually designed as a safe sub-munition for cluster bombs, like the GPS-guided CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon. Instead of releasing hockey-puck shaped guided explosives to take out tanks, the entire tube is a weapon, whose air-burst is lethal to troops and unarmored vehicles over an area the size of a football field. A number of safety features ensure that it never becomes an unexploded ordnance hazard.
July 23/12: AC-130J. Production begins in Marietta, GA, but the gunship is actually built as an MC-130J Commando II. It will become an “AC-130J” (vid. Feb 19/12 contract) when it’s equipped with a “Precision Strike Package.” When queried, Lockheed Martin representatives said that:
“The initial contract is to cross-deck the current MC-130W equipment to the new AC-130Js. The PSP referenced here is a new package.”
AC-130J Initial Operating Capability is scheduled for 2015, and AFSOC expects to order 16. Lockheed Martin.
July 9/12: MC-130W. ATK announces that a rapid prototyping effort has created a modified variant of their Mk44 Bushmaster Automatic Cannon for MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft. The 30mm gun is now officially known as the GAU-23, and uses ATK’s PGU-46/B High Explosive Incendiary (HEI) ammunition for its missions.
ATK adds that in June 2011, the U.S. Air Force announced the conversion of 12 of its MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft to the Dragon Spear configuration.
The US Marines may also be interested, now that the technology is mature (vid. Aug 17/11). The MC-130W Dragon Spear will bolt the GAU-23 in, but ATK has developed a Roll-On/Roll-Off (RO/RO) pallet and weapons mount for use on other aircraft, like the USMC’s KC-130Js.
May 2012: Naming. The MC-130W Dragon Spear is renamed the AC-130W Stinger II, while the AC-130J picks up the designation “Ghostrider”. Sources: USAF Fact Sheets.
May 14/12: Lockheed Martin in Marietta, GA receives an $18.4 million firm-fixed-price contract that buys 3 Harvest HAWK sets, and pays to modify 7 KC-130Js with Harvest HAWK installations.
Work will be performed in Palmdale, CA (90%), and Marietta, GA (10%), and is expected to be complete in June 2014. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/12. This contract was not competitively procured, pursuant to 10 U.S.C. 2304c1. US Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Md., is the contracting activity (N00019-12-C-0094).
April 16/12: Viper Strike. MBDA announces that its GBU-44/E Viper Strike scored “multiple direct hits”, after being launched from the KC-130J’s new “Derringer Door” during developmental testing at China Lake, CA. Viper Strike also proved out its new fast attack software load, designed to improve performance against time sensitive targets.
Feb 23/12: Derringer Door. US NAVAIR announces successful testing and fielding of a Harvest HAWK “Derringer Door” pressurized launcher, which will be used instead of the “Gunslinger” system on future aircraft. The 10-round set replaces the plane’s paratrooper door, and lets the plane launch small precision-guided munitions like Griffin, without depressurizing the cabin and forcing the crew to use oxygen gear. By freeing up the cargo ramp, it also lets KC-130J Harvest HAWKs continue to perform cargo missions, while keeping the weapon launcher on board.
Like the rest of the Harvest HAWK kit, the Derringer Door system is removable.
Nov 7/11: KC-130J-HH stats. Inside the Navy reports [subscription] on Griffin usage in Afghanistan:
“Less than a year after first introducing it to the fleet, the Marine Corps has already used the Harvest Hawk… to fire 74 Hellfire and 13 Griffin missiles… while also providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, a Marine aviation official said here recently.”
KC-130J Harvest Hawk deployment & reports; Scorpion tested; Viper Strike precision munitions bought.
Aug 22/11: Viper Strike. Northrop Grumman announces an unspecified additional contract to deliver “multiple” GBU-44 Viper Strike GPS/laser guided mini glide bombs to the Joint Attack Munition Systems (JAMS) Project Office at Redstone Arsenal, AL. Deliveries will begin in 2011, for eventual integration onto the KC-130J Harvest Hawk. See also June 2/10 entry.
All the Viper Strike munitions on Harvest Hawk will now carry the latest software load, which greatly enhances the weapon’s effectiveness against moving targets. In recent testing at China Lake, CA, Viper Strike scored multiple hits against moving vehicles in various scenarios.
Aug 17/11: KC-130J-HH. The USMC is looking at upgrading its KC-130Js for better close-air support to address known limitations (vid. July 28/11 entry). Maj. Richard Roberts told National Defense magazine the addition of a 30mm GAU-23 cannon to Harvest Hawk is again under consideration, which if confirmed would let the program meet its Capability III milestone. The possibility of this graft was reviewed back in 2009, but the integration tech was deemed too immature back then.
According to National Defense, as of last month the 1 Harvest Hawk deployed in Afghanistan had fired 42 Hellfire and 11 Griffin missiles and identified 8 IEDs. A 2nd unit will soon be rotated in so that the 1st one can be used for training purposes.
July 28/11: KC-130J-HH. The USMC discusses Harvest Hawk operations, noting that the Harvest Hawk contingents don’t yet have close-air support experience, so the Marines are drawing fire-control officers from its F/A-18 Hornet fighter, AV-8B Harrier II fighter, and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter units. With respect to the aircraft’s usage:
“One Harvest HAWK flew for about 10 hours and fired its entire compliment of Hellfire missiles during combat operations in Afghanistan, March 14. An F/A-18 Hornet can only fly for an hour and thirty minutes without tanker support, according to [VMGR-252 fire control officer Capt. Thane A.] Norman. “Currently, we have a Harvest HAWK temporarily assigned to our detachment with 2nd MAW (Fwd.),” said [VMGR-252 commander Lt. Col. Charles J.] Moses. “It provides coverage for eight to 10 percent of joint tactical air requests in their area of operations, which is a significant number considering it’s only a single aircraft.”
Feb 25/11: MC-130W. Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a $22.3 million contract modification for interim contract support under the Dragon Spear program, to help provide and install precision strike packages in 12 MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft. At this time, $10.4 million has been committed by the WRALC/GRUKA at Robins AFB, GA (FA8509-10-C-0013; PO0003).
Feb 8/11: MC-130W & lasers. Defense News quotes SOCOM chief Adm. Eric Olson, who says the MC-130W Dragon Spear went from concept to flying with a minimum capability in less than 90 days, and deployed in 18 months. It has already deployed to Iraq, and is now flying in Afghanistan. Defense News adds that:
“The four-star admiral also touted a system used in Afghanistan that involves an “airborne-mounted overt laser that projects a beam that illuminates a spot on the ground.” Commanders “are finding more and more uses for an illuminated spot on the ground,” he said. “It can prevent fratricide, it can cause people to muster against a target, it can have a powerful psychological effect if you are standing in the beam.” SOCOM officials are currently building tactics, techniques and procedures for the system.”
While Adm. Olson was not specific, C-130s are certainly natural platforms for that kind of system.
Feb 4/11: KC-130J-HH stats. Marines of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Detachment A, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), are preparing to return from a 6-month deployment at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan to their home at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, CA. VMGR-352’s KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft performed a number of transport and aerial refueling missions, while pioneering the “Harvest HAWK” kit’s use on the front lines.
Overall VMGR-352 crews completed 7,852 sorties and reached 7,897 flight hours. They also tracked 25,190 assault support requests, 65,815 additional passengers and 23,629,371 pounds of cargo. The Harvest Hawk completed 93 sorties, flew more than 565 hours and completed 191 joint tactical airstrike requests. USMC.
Nov 23/10: KC-130J-HH Action Report. Official report of a USMC KC-130J Harvest HAWK supporting 2 squads of Marines with India Company, 3rd Bn., 5th Marines. The squads ran into an attempted ambush, and the USMC explains what happened after that:
“The Marines immediately began firing at the enemy and gained superior firepower. The fight intensified as Marines were under fire from medium-machine-gun and small-arms fire. The Marines then played their trump card, calling in 60 mm and 120 mm mortars and close air support. An UH-1 Huey and an AH-1W Super Cobra fired hundreds of rounds, and a KC-130J ‘Harvest Hawk’ fired a Hell-Fire Missile. Artillery Marines played their part as well, firing multiple GPS-guided shells. The firefight lasted about two hours and killed an estimated 8-10 enemy fighters, said 1st Lt. Stephen Cooney, the executive officer with India Company, 3rd Bn., 5th Marines.”
October 2010: KC-130J-HH deploys. The lone production KC-130J Harvest Hawk deploys to Afghanistan, with the USMC’s VMGR-352.
Harvest Hawk deploys
MC-130W operational; Contracts from SOCOM and USMC.
Sept 24/10: MC-130W. L-3 Communications TCS, Inc. in Warner Robins, GA receives a $29.4 million contract which would modify up to 4 MC-130Ws to install a precision strike package. At this time, no funds have been committed by the WR-ALC/GRUKA at Robins Air Force Base, GA (FA8509-20-C-0027).
Sept 21/10: MC-130W. L-3 Communications TCS, Inc. in Warner Robins, GA adds $15.8 million to a previous contract to install the Precision Strike package in 8 MC-130Ws. That’s on top of $45.2 million that had been committed before, raising the contract to $61 million. The WR-ALC/GRUKA at Robins Air Force Base, GA manages this contract (FA8509-09-C-0037; Action Under PZ0001).
Sept 14/10: MC-130W. Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, NV receives a $12.5 million contract which will provide consoles for integration onto MC-130W aircraft. At this time, all funds have been committed by the ASC/WISS at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH (FA8629-09-C-2445).
June 17/10: Scorpion drop. One of Lockheed Martin’s Scorpion precision glide-bombs is successfully flight tested in a 5,000 foot drop from a C-130. The small glide bomb uses a combination of GPS/INS and semi-active laser (SAL) guidance to hit a target 1.65 miles away, at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ. These Scorpion weapons have already been used in combat by CIA drones, but the C-130 test is new.
Scorpion was developed under the Small Smart Weapon program, which began in 2006. It’s just 21.5″ long and 4.5″ wide, with a range of up to 10 miles if it can glide from altitude. The system is modular, and the front guidance section will be switchable between a human-directed laser seeker, self-guiding imaging infrared (IIR) matched to pre-programmed target sets, or semi-autonomous millimeter wave radar. The warhead section is also a module, with multiple options. Overall weight is under 35 pounds. The weapon is carried by fitting up to 3 Scorpions on a conventional Hellfire rail, or up to 2 in a tube launcher. Lockheed Martin release | Scorpion product page | CBS News | Tactical Life | Washington Post | Comparison with Hellfire II.
June 3/10: MC-130W. 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: Viper Strike. 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 integration onto the KC-130J Harvest Hawk.
April 10/10: KC-130J-HH Phase 1 Done. 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.
End Harvest Hawk Phase 1
March 25/10: SOCOM Plans. Aviation Week DTI reports that U.S. Special Operations Command will base its future AC-130J gunship on the government-owned “Precision Strike Package” design used in the MC-130W. The February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review will replace 8 AC-130H Spectre gunships with 8 new “AC?130Js,” based on the C-130J, instead of the earlier model C-130H that forms the core of the MC-130W. Another 8 AC-130Js will be added on top, giving SOCOM 17 AC-130U Spookys, 12 MC-130W Combat/Dragon Spears, and 16 AC-130Js.
SOCOM officials also hope that a modular design will let them easily add new capabilities to the fleet in future, creating what US SOCOM Deputy Acquisition Director James Geurts describes as “a family of precision strike capabilities that we can port onto different [Special Operations Forces] platforms.” The difference between SOCOM’s approach and the USMC’s Harvest Hawk will involve a greater emphasis on precision strike, instead of suppression.
Specific AC-130J requirements are still in flux, but FY 2011’s budget asks for $9.9 million in initial funding. The first serious funding is reportedly slated for FY 2012.
March 17/10: KC-130J-HH. 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. Source.
Jan 29/10: MC-130W. 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: MC-130W. 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: MC-130W Gun. 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.
Concept definitions; Initial contracts; Testing begins.
Sept 30/09: KC-130J-HH. 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: KC-130J-HH. 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.
Harvest Hawk testing begins
“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 analogues. 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: HH R&D. 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: SOCOM PSP 360. 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).”
Additional Readings and Sources
Background: Projects & Aircraft
- FedBizOpps solicitation (April 13/09) – Harvest Hawk modification to KC-130J Aircraft. The initial solicitation involves 3 kits, and adds “As the sole source designer, developer, and manufacturer of KC-130J aircraft, LM is uniquely qualified to meet the United States Marine Corps (USMC) summer 2009 deployment schedule.”
- Lockheed Martin – KC-130J Super Tanker
- USAF Fact Sheet – AC-130H/U Gunship
- USAF Fact Sheet – AC-130W Stinger II. Formerly the MC-130W Combat Spear/ Dragon Spear. Aircraft cost lists around $150 million: $108 million for the fully equipped plane + $39 million for the PSP weapon package. The PSP lists ATK’s 30mm GAU-23/A cannon, Boeing’s GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, and Raytheon’s AGM-176 Griffin-B missile.
- USAF Fact Sheet – AC-130J Ghost Rider. Will include a 105mm gun as well as the PSP. “The first AC-130J aircraft is scheduled to begin developmental test and evaluation in January 2014. The first squadron will be located at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., while other locations are to be determined. Initial operational capacity is expected in fiscal 2017 and the last [37th] delivery is scheduled for fiscal 2021.”
Background: Associated Equipment & Weapons
- Lockheed Martin – TSS
- Jane’s – Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-30 Target Sight System (TSS) (United States)
- L-3 Wescam – MX-15Di
- DID – A Spookier Spooky, 30mm at a Time. That was the idea, anyway.
- ATK – M230 30mm Chain Gun Automatic Cannon
- Designation Systems – Boeing/Lockheed Martin (Rockwell/Martin Marietta) AGM-114 Hellfire
- DID Spotlight – Raytheon’s AGM-176 Griffin Mini-Missiles.
- DID Spotlight – GBU-44 Viper Strike: Death From Above
- Defense Update – Griffin Small Tactical Munition. Griffin and STM are actually 2 separate weapons. Explains the difference between Griffin A (used on the MC-130W) and Griffin B.
- Lockheed Martin – Scorpion. Small precision glide weapon similar to NG’s Viper Strike and Raytheon’s Griffin. No longer listed on the Products page.
- DID – Mortars from Aircraft? The Shadow Knows… Small RQ-7 UAVs could soon carry GPS-guided mortars, and other weapons.
- DID – Pocket Gunship: From AC-XX to the MC-27J Praetorian. Italy is the 1st customer, after US SOCOM declined.
- DID – Jordan’s Pocket Gunships: Converted CN-235s. The buy was announced at IDEX 2011, and could create a light gunship analogue to SOCOM’s proposed AC-27Js.
News & Views
- Strategy Page (Feb 16/11) – Gunships Come Out Of The Darkness.
- Defense News (Feb 8/11) – SOCOM Moved Quickly To Create Daytime Gunship.
- NDIA National Defense (August 2010) – Special Operations Aviators Gear Up for Aircraft Upgrades .
- Aviation Week DTI (March 25/10) – Socom Refines AC-130J Gunship Plans.
- Flight International (April 2/09) – US Marine Corps plans to convert KC-130J tankers into gunships.
- Aviation Week (Aug 18-25/08) – Marine Gunship.
- Gannett’s Marine Corps Times (April 24/08) – Corps weighs gunship firepower options.