Marine Corps teaches old plane new tricks in Afghanistan
One of the US military’s most seasoned aircraft has found a new purpose as a one-of-a-kind weapon for the Marine Corps in support of troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
The US military has relied on the C-130 Hercules platform for a variety of tasks including air-to-air refueling, and cargo and troop transportation for more than 50 years. But the Marine Corps, in partnership with Lockheed-Martin, has recently created a unique variant of its KC-130J by outfitting an existing plane with what has been dubbed the Harvest Hawk weapons system.
“It’s a brand new capability for the Marine Corps and it’s proving itself very well,” said Capt. Joel D. Dunivant, a KC-130J aircraft commander with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., who is currently deployed to Afghanistan. “I’ve been a KC-130 pilot my whole time in the Marine Corps, but this is a new capability for us to support the Marines on the ground.”
The Harvest Hawk system includes a version of the target sight sensor used on the AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopter as well as a complement of four AGM-114 Hellfire and 10 Griffin missiles, a modular, precision-guided missile system typically employed on unmanned aerial vehicles. The system expands the role of the KC-130J for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) beyond its traditional level of support to include close air support against enemy positions and providing surveillance to disrupt improvised explosive device emplacements.
“Harvest Hawk, for me, is an opportunity to help the guys on the ground,” said Capt. Bradley C. Stadelmeier, with VMGR-352, a co-pilot for the Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J.
Even with its expanded capabilities, Harvest Hawk crewmembers said the aircraft retains its original capabilities in refueling and transportation. Crewmembers said the Harvest Hawk KC-130J has been used to refuel other coalition aircraft in Afghanistan, and that the entire system can be removed in less than a day if necessary.
The Harvest Hawk first saw service in the Afghan skies in late 2010. Nearly six months since its inception, the aircraft has spent hundreds of hours in the air supporting coalition troops.
“I was highly skeptical of this program until I was on the ground side,” said Capt. Christopher Klempay, the air officer for 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. “Now, my opinion is that this is one of the best missions the Hercules can provide the ground force commander.”
Supporting Marine Corps ground forces and coalition partners is one of the primary missions for the Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J, and both aircrew and Marines on the ground said its ability to stay in the air for long periods of time, providing both surveillance and close-air support is a primary reason for its success.
“It’s great to be a part of something that helps Marines get home safely at night,” said Cpl. Jessica M. Egan, a crew chief with VMGR-352, who serves with the Harvest Hawk detachment.
Additionally, the aircraft’s laser-guided weapons allow for pinpoint accuracy, helping to ensure insurgents are neutralized with minimal impact on the Afghan people and their property.
“The Harvest Hawk is the close air support platform of choice for counter insurgency in Marjah, where collateral damage is a major concern,” said Klempay. “The fire control officers, who sit in the back of the Hercules, are the best in town because they have the ability to devote 100 percent of their attention looking for the enemy on their video imagery and talking to the forward air controllers.”
In addition to its standard complement of officer and enlisted crew, the Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J is manned by two fire control officers to monitor and control the weapons and surveillance systems. These Marines, either AV-8B Harrier pilots or F/A-18 Hornet weapon systems officers, bring their expertise in close air support and serve as a vital link between the Marines on the ground and the aircraft supporting them.
“The tools are a little different, but the job is similar,” said Maj. Marc E. Blankenbicker with VMGR-352, the lead fire control officer for the Harvest Hawk detachment, whose primary duty in the Marine Corps is as an F/A-18 weapon systems officer. “It’s very rewarding to take a skill set from one aircraft and translate it to another aircraft.”
Both Marines in the air and Marines on the ground have cited a recent mission as a hallmark of the Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J’s effectiveness. On March 14, the aircraft stayed airborne approximately 10 hours, expending its entire complement of Hellfire missiles providing close air support for multiple Marine Corps units operating across Regional Command Southwest.
“That Harvest Hawk was on a general scan for IED emplacers. They found four individuals digging in the road, saw them drop something heavy into a hole in the road, and the battalion determined these individuals to be hostile,” said Klempay of one of the requests the Harvest Hawk KC-130J supported that day. “The Harvest Hawk launched a Hellfire, neutralizing the enemy threat.”
Blankenbicker explained the KC-130J supported two other Marine battalions operating the same day, eliminating a number of enemy fighters.
“The Harvest Hawk is a great platform. I can talk directly to the pilot and we can improve each other's situational awareness on the spot,” said 1st Lt. Charles Broun, a platoon commander with Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 5th Marine Regiment. “Throw in the precision ordnance it carries and it is an outstanding combat multiplier.”
“Being in the aviation community, as an aircrew, gives you a unique perspective as what the infantry battalions do every day,” said Blankenbicker. “You see where they live; you see the villages where they work. We see firsthand the efforts of the units that we’re here to support.
“Whenever you are enabling a Marine battalion to better do their job,” added Blankenbicker. “That’s a good feeling.”
By Staff Sgt. Christopher Flurry, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd)
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