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Harvest Hawk, l'ultima cannoniera volante

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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 wanted heavy aircraft that could support their Leathernecks on the ground. The bad news was that the the Corps could field 45 KC-130J aerial tankers for the price of a 12-plane AC-130J squadron.

Could the Marines switch tacks, and offer a modular weapon package that would let them arm those tankers as needed? Could armed KC-130Js offer limited fire support, while loitering over the battlefield and using their unique speed range to refuel helicopters and fast jets alike? The Harvest Hawk program aims to do just that, giving the USMC a less-capable convertible gunship option, for far less than a dedicated fleet would cost, to deploy to Afghanistan by summer 2009…

The initial plan is to field 3 kits, and the eventual plan plan for Harvest Hawk is to have 3 roll-on/ roll-off kits per squadron. That would mean about 9 kits by 2011, and 12 kits when the last KC-130T aerial refueling squadron converts to KC-130Js after 2012. The kits will also be improved and refined over time.

Phase 1 of the program will ne undertaken by Lockheed Martin, in order to add the basics: a modular surveillance and targeting pod taking up the rear portion of the inboard left external fuel tank, an AGM-114 Hellfire missile rack on the left wing, and a modular 30mm ATK cannon rolled in and mounted in the troop door.

The sensor choice is said to involve 2 candidates. The front-runner has to be Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-30 TSS, which is also used in the Marines’ AH-1Z attack helicopter and has been installed in some SOCOM AC-130s. L-3 Wescam’s popular MX-15 surveillance and targeting turret is the competitor, but competing against the Harvest Hawk’s integrator is not a promising position.

US Special Forces tried fitting 30mm cannon to their AC-130U “Spooky” gunships, but found that the gun’s accuracy level wasn’t suited to their missions, and implemented a “retrograde” to 25mm and 40mm weapons. The Marines say that the 30mm cannon will suit their objectives. Time will tell, but either way, the lack of pinpoint accurate, extreme-volume gunfire will be one of the principal differences between SOCOM’s AC-130s and USMC Harvest Hawk KC-130Js.

Daniel Watters of The Gun Zone writes to say that the Marines’ choice of 30mm gun will be interesting, and explains the tradeoffs:

“While the Mk 44 Bushmaster II [30×173mm] and M230 Chain Gun [30×113mm] are both nominally 30mm, their cartridges are very different….There is a major difference in size, power, and range. The Mk 44 Bushmaster II has already been adopted by the US Navy and USMC for other applications…. The 30×173mm uses a heavier projectile with a larger explosive filling, and is fired at a higher velocity [which] should have a noticeable maximum range advantage. Perhaps it would be easier to fabricate a stable mount for the less powerful M230 than the Mk 44…
M230 and its ammunition are also lighter and more compact.”

Later Harvest Hawk phases will reportedly add stations for Hellfire laser-guided missiles on both wings, mounted on the outside of the plane’s outboard aerial refueling pods. There has also been talk of adding tube-launched precision-guided weapons that could be slid out the rear ramp, or even gravity-dropped through panels in the floor.

Specifics regarding additional weapon fit-outs are thin at the moment, but options could conceivably include 81mm or larger mortars with General Dynamics’ RCFC GPS guidance kits; Northrop Grumman’s GBU-44 Viper Strike, which is under consideration by SOCOM for its AC-130s; and potentially even small precision-guided bombs.

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Chain Gun