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.