Thursday, May 26, 2016

Marine Harvest Hawk

If a policeman spends all day, day after day, year after year, helping old ladies cross the street, he eventually tends to forget that his main job is preventing crime, not being a crossing guard. 

Similarly, if the military spends all day, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, fighting very low end threats, they eventually tend to forget that their main job is to fight and win high end, high intensity wars.  The problem is that part of forgetting what their main job is, is the inevitable drift away from being high end combat capable.  They begin purchasing low end equipment, abandoning high end combat tactics and developing low end ones, shedding tanks and artillery in favor of light vehicles, researching non-lethal weapons, incorporating females into combat units out of a misguided emphasis on sociology instead of combat, buying patrol vessels for “presence” missions instead of warships, and so on.

The latest example is the Marine Corps’ move to convert their KC-130J Super Hercules cargo/transport/tankers into poor man’s gunships by adding the Harvest Hawk equipment.  As any professional soldier will tell you, there are never enough cargo/transport/tanker aircraft available for what needs to be done.  Converting such precious aircraft to second rate gunships is wasting a valuable platform. 

Risking such aircraft in a combat scenario is even dumber.  And for what?  The accuracy of the Harvest Hawk kit is marginal and the weapon load is small (Capability II is 4 Hellfires and 16 70mm rockets).  This add-on is not going to turn a KC-130J into an AC-130 Spectre gunship.

“… 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.” (1)

The Marines envision additional capabilities being added over time.  Come on, haven’t we learned our lesson about never ending developmental costs?  If the Marines really want a gunship then buy an AC-130 and be done with it. 

It’s possible that there may be some utility for a poor copy of a gunship in the low end conflicts we seem mired in but I have to ask, “Why are we wasting valuable time, money, and resources developing questionable low end capabilities when the rest of the world is gearing up for high end combat?”  If we had no imminent high end threats (like Russia, China, NKorea, and Iran) flexing their muscles and gearing up for war then, sure, why not waste some time with yet another low end gimmick?  However, that’s not the case.  We’re in an arms race and possible countdown to war whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  We desperately need to develop supersonic cruise missiles, high end anti-ship missiles, intermediate range ballistic missiles, a naval air superiority fighter, a Bradley replacement, a new AAV-ish armored landing vehicle, and the list goes on.  What we don’t need is a Harvest Hawk gimmick that is going to tax already scarce aircraft and risk them in unnecessary low end combat.

Harvest Hawk - Poor Man's Gunship

Yeah, but, you say, we still have to deal with low end threats year after year and this Harvest Hawk can help us do that.  My answer to that is send an armored division to wherever the low end threat is and crush it.  Turn the division loose, exercise some serious explosive power, accept some collateral damage, and be done with it.  ISIS, for example, would be a one month live fire exercise for a WWII Gen. Patton and an armored division and there would be no threat left after a month.  Any collateral damage or civilian deaths would be far less in the long run than allowing ISIS to continue killing people day after day on a never ending basis.

You deal with low end threats by crushing them, not by allowing the threat to linger and developing gimmicks like Harvest Hawk that just perpetuate the threat.



  1. I have no strong feeling on the AC seems a bit of a waist considering other priorites.

    But i do continue to STRONGLY agree with you on the ISIS issue !

  2. I have to say I agree that it's ridiculous that we allow (for example) 10,000 people to be killed by ISIS because we're too scared of public opinion to risk 100 people getting killed by us as collateral damage to save them.

  3. How many divisions went into Iraq to achieve mission accomplished in 30 days ?

  4. The current overseas operations budget is $74 billion for 2017.
    The answer why there isnt a heavy invasion of Syria /Iraq is the US cant afford it and it probably wouldn't fix much more the previous wars did.

    1. The US can afford it. What we can't afford is to spend decade after decade tied up in MidEast conflicts with no resolution. A single, hard hitting intervention and quick withdrawal is cheap.

      What would it fix? Nothing other than saving the lives of countless thousands of people who would otherwise be killed by ISIS. It would also eliminate one source of terrorism and put other terrorists on notice that that way of life ends in a short span. No one is under the delusion that it would solve any of the longstanding problems in the region.

  5. Harvest Hawk is another pointless program for the reasons you outline, but I have a different take on the implications.

    COIN and these endless (pointless?) interventions suggest that rather than creating gunship wannabbees, the USN/USMC might want to create a specialized wing (4x squadrons or about 60 aircraft) dedicated to COIN that would allow the rest of naval aviation focus on high-end warfare (A2A, strike warfare, ASW...).

    Something along the lines of a durable, modernized Douglas A-26 Invader with turboprops or turbofans is what is needed. On station endurance must be at least 6-hours, the aircraft must be fully pressurized for operations above 6,000 meters, and 3-4 aircrew positions are needed and will be occupied just to work the radios (ground, artillery, and air control). Primary weapons are the radios (not joking), followed by 70mm rockets, 5” rockets, hellfire, the odd SDB, and air dropped 120 mm mortar bombs. A aerodynamic belly turret that allows for all aspect engagement of troops could be useful.


    1. Agree completely. I've argued for a two tier naval force - not the old hi-lo warship concept but, instead, a peace (low end) force that can do the anti-piracy, presence, show the flag, foreign country training, VBSS, etc. These patrol level ships can be built to commercial standards with only minimal self-defense weaponry because they would not be expected to fight.

      I've even thought about a modernized Essex carrier with a wing of Tucano's or some such for the pickup truck plinking that we seem so insistent on doing.

      As usual, your comments are on the money!

    2. Someone should do a post on a modified Marine aviation group such as you describe.

    3. Ahem, I think I just added a paragraph or two!

      BTW, check your e-mail...


  6. "I've even thought about a modernized Essex carrier with a wing of Tucano's or some such for the pickup truck plinking that we seem so insistent on doing."

    I think the problem with line of thinking is by the time you have a carrier, even an escort carrier, and lets face it, three is one, so you need three of those, and a destroyer, or at least a frigate, just in case someone has an accident and mistakenly fires a few AShMs at it.
    That can come from the general fleet though

    On top of that you need 60ish aircraft.

    All of the above requires its own spares and training pipelines, and is unlikely to be considered prime posting, pulling the candidates who just dont have better options.

    And for all that, you get a couple of HMGs, a couple of rocket pods, and maybe a couple of missiles or bombs.

    Or you buy a few dozen more AC-130s.
    You tap in to the C-130 pipelines for most of the spares and crews, and the extra attack is an extra boost prestige mission, not a second place.

    1. TrT, you're totally missing the big picture! :)

      Here's what an Essex-ish/Tucano-ish carrier does for the big picture.

      1.It allows Nimitz/Ford class carriers to stay home and train for high end combat and get their COMPLETE MAINTENANCE (emphasis, not shouting - comments don't have an easy underline function for emphasis). So, we save huge operating costs since the supercarriers will be tied up pierside much of the time.

      2.An Essex only needs a single Burke escort. Remember, these will only be used in permissive environments so an escort is not needed but we'll provide one just to be safe. Again, huge cost savings. All the rest of the supercarrier escorts will be home with their carriers, also undergoing training and maintenance.

      3.With the supercarriers home training and maintaining, the "action" will be with the Essex/Tucano's. What sailor wouldn't want that. That assignment would probably become the prime assignment!

      4.We're currently launching Hornets who are generally bringing back most or all of the weapons. That's a waste of airframe hours for almost no return. The few weapons that the Tucano can carry are just the right amount needed to plink a pickup truck.

      5. Do we really want to continue risking our frontline Hornets plinking pickup trucks? Wouldn't you rather lose a Tucano if you have to lose something?

      6.We can put the Hornets into depot level maintenance and cut down the worthless airframe hour expenditures. Instead, we can get the Hornets up to speed and get the training hours back up so that we can surge a combat ready force when needed.

      I can go on but you get the idea. In the big picture, this idea is all benefit and no drawback. You just have to see the big picture.

  7. I believe the Harvest Hawk idea is one of the better run programs to come out since 9/11. It has modest goals, and uses current technology in a creative way: conventional C-130 platforms armed with small guided weapons.

    I served at one point in a Marine KC-130 squadron after 9/11. I left the unit prior to the fielding of the Harvest Hawk program, but since then I have talked to some flight crew members and I've kept up on the program's progress online.

    Marine KC-130 crews are incredibly flexible. My squadron conducted real world missions overseas that went from aerial refueling of helicopters/fighters to logistics runs to aerial personnel/cargo drops.

    In 2003 KC-130s landed close behind leading Marine regiments on the push to Baghdad to refuel them on the ground when the speed of advance was important.

    With small modifications of just a few hours a Marine Hercules can carry a command team and their communications gear for battle management of ground units.

    I firmly believe that Marine KC-130s are the most flexible of any C-130 in the US military. That is not just because of the flight crews, but also of a leadership that knows and needs that multi-role capability used regularly.

    The Marine Corps noted during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 that nighttime KC-130s in refueling orbits near the battle would be mistaken by some terrorists below for AC-130 gunships. After all, every C-130 sounds alike when overhead. While that was sometimes used for deception operations during the battle, it begged the question: what if a KC-130 could hit targets?

    An AC-130 is a fearsome, awesome weapon. But it is a very expensive, single mission aircraft. Depending on who is your source a new AC-130J goes for at least $115 million, and I think the number is closer to $200 million. And the aircraft cannot do aerial refueling, cargo missions, or airdrops; ever. There are too many modifications to the plane for the cannons, howitzer, and sensors.

    Whenever the Marine Corps examined buying AC-130 gunships they always got sticker shock. Marine infantry have loved AC-130s since Vietnam. The source you cite states that when the USMC looked at replacing earlier KC-130 models like the F/R/T with the J model about a decade ago they figured they could buy 45 KC-130J or 12 AC-130J for the same amount of money, which sounds about right. The Corps wisely went with the multi-role tanker model instead of the single mission gunship.

  8. With the development of small precision guided munitions (PGM) a new approach was tried. Equipping a C-130 with small, modular weapons and a modest targeting system that could be installed or removed as needed. The aircraft could still haul cargo or refuel aircraft. It would not have 105mm or 40mm cannons, but it would have PGMs of various types.

    For targeting the system is the same as in the AH-1Z for affordability. No all weather radar like on the AC-130 that can improve the accuracy of any guns.

    For me, the cannon option in the Harvest Hawk program was more of an aspiration than a likelihood. If it could be done cheaply, then great. But if it was too difficult to do, then dropping it was fine as well.

    The Hellfire missile was an initial option because of its proven track record. But from the beginning it was seen as a backup to the GBU-44 Viper Strike and AGM-176 Griffin glide bombs. They are half the weight of a Hellfire, yet have double the range when dropped from the altitude a C-130 flies at.

    Initially glide bombs were launched from a rack that was fitted to the drop ramp. It worked but meant the aircraft had to be depressurized. A new idea, nicknamed the Derringer Door, replaced one of the paratroop doors on the side with one that allowed the plane to release two glide bombs at a time from a fully pressurized aircraft at cruising altitude. This is important as I'll explain.

    An AC-130 must fly a predictable left-handed pylon turn at a lower altitude to place its weapons on target. A plane releasing glide bombs doesn't need to do that. Once released, a GPS guided weapon can immediately turn and head for the target regardless of the launch aircraft's heading.

    A Harvest Hawk with a Derringer Door can fly at a higher altitude than a AC-130 can when responding to a mission tasking.

    This means a KC-130 Harvest Hawk can immediately respond to a greater area with precision firepower. Not the high-volume of firepower a 25mm Vulcan or 40mm Bofors can provide, but a few well placed rounds immediately.

    Or to put it more bluntly: "warheads on foreheads".

    With the proliferation of man-portable missiles (in the class of the SA-14/18) C-130s will in the future need to fly at higher altitudes to survive. The proof of that is how much precision firepower is being added to the new MC-130W and AC-130J platforms.

    Right now, Harvest Hawk KC-130s are fitted with the modified door and a rack for 10 glide bombs. But there is nothing keeping the aircraft from carrying a lot more.

    And keep in mind the Harvest Hawk birds will still be able to do other missions like aerial refueling. The only real downside I see is that the modified planes will have one refueling pod instead of the two normally onboard if they carry Hellfire missiles.

    Otherwise they can refuel jets all day long, and help occasionally when something "time sensitive" needs to be struck.

    In an ideal world we would have drones, fighters, and other assets available (like the AC-130). The reality is KC-130s are often in the vicinity of where Marines are fighting, loitering for 6-14 hours at a time.

    1. WgM, it's good to see you back. I'll try to prove worthy of a second opportunity.

    2. As ever, a well written rejoinder.

      The entire Harvest Hawk issue centers on target identification and accuracy. If the HH kit rivals a Spectre gunship then I'm all for it. However, the few scraps of information I've read suggest that the accuracy is insufficient unless there is a very large, clear area around the target - in other words, this system is not suited for troops in contact which would, presumably, be its main use.

      The other aspect is target identification. It does no good to have pinpoint accuracy if you can't find and ID targets. There is even less information available on this aspect but what I can glean suggests that the HH kit is inadequate for the kind of target location and discrimination required.

      If the target location/identification and accuracy are subpar, then this truly is a poor man's version of a gunship and a waste of time. If, on the other hand, the targeting and accuracy are of sufficient performance then this may be useful. I've already read that AFSOC rejected the kit as inaccurate. If you can find any documentation to the contrary, I'm open to it.

      There is also, of course, the issue of risking supposedly scarce and vital aircraft playing tag with potentially lethal ground forces. The Marines have indicated how vital these aircraft are and the idea of risking them as a marginally effective gunship is baffling. Your own listing of the various roles the KC-130 already fills suggests the importance of the aircraft and the questionable wisdom involved in risking them.

      Finally, close air support and gunship combat is not something that can be effectively done by untrained personnel. The Air Force gunship crews train exclusively for the role in order to master target identification, ground force doctrine, battlefield comms, weapons employment, ROE's, etc. Asking a Marine KC-130 crew to be effective at a task they don't train for and only occasionally might undertake is asking for combat ineffectiveness, at best, and friendly fire tragedy, at worst. The military is so caught up in, and enamored with, technology in isolation that they fail to realize that a given piece of tech is only as good as the operator(s). Hand in hand with technology goes proper training, doctrine, tactics, and experience. Doing a task once in a while does not lend itself to acceptable performance and is a recipe for tragedy.

  9. I'm not sure where the perception of inaccuracy is coming from. The sighting system is from the AH-1Z helicopter gunship. The glide bombs, Hellfire, and 70mm rockets are all either laser or GPS guided. The only weapon not precision guided would be the 30mm cannon, and it looks like that will not be added anytime soon, if ever.

    I do not see air strikes as taking a majority of the KC-130 community's time. Most of the flight hours have to go to what already goes on: aerial refueling, logistics support, air delivery of cargo/personnel.

    Right now, each Marine Expeditionary Unit has at least two KC-130s tasked to it. If the MEU is in the eastern Mediterranean, the birds are in Sigonella or Souda Bay; Bahrain if the MEU is in the gulf. Most of the missions will be refueling of V-22s, AV-8s, etc.

    All any MEU CO will think of an armed KC-130 is as an option of last resort after drones or fighters are unavailable.

    Many of the KC-130 pilots I worked with lat moved from various platforms such as the F-18 and AV-8; even a few from helos, bringing their experiences with them. All of them take the mission to heart. No one will be dropping ordnance if there is doubt about the situation.

    As to the future this article states how the USAF sees it:


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.