AC-130 Gunships for the USMC

If you’ve done any appreciable amount of reading about the Vietnam War, you know that one of the grunt’s best friends in the air was the AC-130 Specter gunship, affectionately known in those days as “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Both the AC-130H and third-generation AC-130U Spooky pack a lethal combination of L60 40mm Bofors and M102 105mm cannons — yes, that’s 105mm, as in the light artillery piece. The AC-130U also boasts a GAU-12 25mm rotary cannon.

The AC-130U operates primary in support of special operations forces. Not surprisingly, the average Joes on the ground would like a piece of this devastating air support action, so the Marine Corps began looking at options. The problem, especially in today’s environment of shrinking budgets, was the price tag: a single 12-plan squadron of AC-130Js (the USMC variant) would cost as much as 45 KC-130J aerial tankers.

The Corps is used to dealing with budget constraints, however, and in that spirit began considering creative solutions. Their answer was the Harvest Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit (HAWK), which retrofits KC-130J tankers with a weapons package. The tankers tend to loiter over the battlefield anyway, since they can refuel both helicopters and jets, so why not make use of their spare time for fire support?

Harvest HAWK consists of four component sets formally called Capabilities. One is a palletized surveillance and fire control electronics package combined with a sensor pod that mounts on an external fuel tank hardpoint; the second is a rack for some combination of AGM-114P Hellfire missiles and DAGR 70mm laser-guided rockets, which also mounts on a hardpoint. Capability III is a 30mm cannon that mounts in the troop door, and Capability IV is a cargo ramp-mounted rack called “Gunslinger” that can carry a variety of munitions, with the Griffin A missile from Raytheon currently the mainstay.

Though a Harvest HAWK-equipped KC-130J is certainly not as capable as the AC-130U — which shouldn’t be surprising given the blending of two very different mission profiles—this option is also significantly less expensive. Future munitions options for Capability IV include the GBU-44 Viper Strike, which can be either laser- or GPS-guided, and a rocket-powered version of the unpowered Griffin designated Griffin B, which have the potential to further enhance the offensive capabilities of Harvest HAWK.

With only 8 AC-130H and 17 AC-130U aircraft in the inventory, the additional capability offered by Harvest HAWK will be welcome—which may be the reason why SOCOM itself has also taken an interest in the project.