At first glance, the Marine Corps’ hottest new weapon looks just like a standard cargo plane. For the “Harvest Hawk” gunship, the external differences are subtle. A sensor pod jutting from one of the under-wing fuel tanks of the KC-130J aircraft. A rack under the left wing for four Hellfire missiles. A clutch of 10 smaller Griffin missiles fixed to the ramp. With these $10-million add-ons, plus extra training for the crew, any similar plane in the Marine Corps inventory becomes a cheaper version of the Air Force’s powerful, custom-made AC-130 gunship.
The first Harvest Hawk-modified C-130 arrived in southern Afghanistan in October — just 18 months after the Marines first announced the program — and launched its first air strike on Nov. 4. “We supported [3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment] in Sangin when they were in a fire fight,” Harvest Hawk crewman Maj. Marc Blankenbicker said. “We shot one Hellfire missile, and the battle damage assessment was five enemy [killed in action].” The November strike was an important milestone for Marine aviation, and for the Pentagon’s new approach to buying weapons.