Marine KC-130Js May Lose Their Missile-Firing Harvest Hawk Kits

The future of armed Marine KC-130Js is in question as a fight in the Pacific brews, but new electronic warfare capabilities are on the horizon.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The future of the Harvest Hawk armament kits for Marine Corps KC-130J tanker/transport aircraft are increasingly uncertain as focus shifts to planning for future high-end conflicts.


The future of the Harvest Hawk armament kit for Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules tanker/transport aircraft is facing uncertainty as the service questions whether this capability would be relevant in a future high-end fight. The U.S. Air Force's AC-130J Ghostrider II gunships are now being dogged by a similar debate amid a broader shift away from lower-intensity counter-insurgency operations. Other new capabilities, like the Intrepid Tiger II electronic warfare system, are on the horizon for Marine KC-130Js, and these aircraft could potentially make use of the Air Force's Rapid Dragon palletized cruise missile launching system down the line.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Adam Foushee, the Deputy Program Manager of the Tactical Airlift Program Office at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), provided an update on the Harvest Hawk system to The War Zone and other attendees of the annual Modern Day Marine exposition earlier today. NAVAIR acts as the central manager for aviation and other related programs for the entire Department of the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps.

A Marine Corps KC-130J with the Harvest Hawk kit installed. USMC

"So I will say what I'm allowed to say on Harvest Hawk, which is it is currently still a program of record," Foushee said in response to a question about the program's future. "But that hasn't been decided yet ... [in] terms of whether it's going to continue to be sustained, which it currently is, or if it's going to be discarded."

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Harvest Hawk, the initial version of which was first tested in 2009 and deployed operationally the following year, is an add-on kit for the KC-130J that enables to employ of precision-guided munitions. Various improvements and additions to the system, which is also designed to be rapidly installed and removed as required, have been made over the years.

The main munitions available for use with Harvest Hawk currently are the AGM-114 Hellfire and AGM-176 Griffin missiles. Efforts have been underway to integrate AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGM), GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs, and a 30mm automatic cannon into the Harvest Hawk package. The GBU-44/B Viper Strike glide bomb was also used from early on with Harvest Hawk.

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A sensor turret under the nose with electro-optical and infrared cameras and a roll-on/roll-off operator station are also part of the Harvest Hawk kit. The original version of the system had the sensor turret in a podded configuration under the left wing. The turreted sensor system also gives Hercules aircraft equipped with this kit a limited secondary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.

Marines load Harvest Hawk's roll-on/roll-off operator station onto a KC-130J. USMC

Now, after nearly 15 years in Marine Corps inventory, "there has [sic] been some talks about whether or not that [Harvest Hawk] is still relevant for tomorrow's fight," Lt. Col. Foushee explained.

Harvest Hawk came into being in the midst of the Global War on Terror and was heavily driven by the demands of conflicts in the late 2000s, especially for the Marines in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was also raging at the time. Like the Air Force's much more heavily modified AC-130s, Harvest Hawk-configured KC-130Js were primarily intended to operate in permissive environments with little to no air defense threats, and still then generally at night.

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The U.S. military has since shifted its focus to preparing for potential high-end conflicts, particularly a potential major fight with China in the Pacific. It is not surprising then that questions have emerged about how Harvest Hawk might slot into those plans, if it does it all.

The Air Force is similarly looking at how it might change the configuration of its AC-130J Ghostriders to better align with planning for a future high-end fight. This could include deleting their iconic 105mm howitzers and adding in new longer-range munitions and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. The Air Force also just recently shelved a project to test a laser directed energy weapon system on an AC-130J.

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Whatever happens to Harvest Hawk, the integration of stand-off munitions could be one option for the Marine Corps to maintain an armed capability for its KC-130Js that could be more relevant in a future major conflict. The Air Force is already actively developing a palletized munition system called Rapid Dragon that has been tested on MC-130 and EC-130 special operations variants of the Hercules, as well as C-17 cargo aircraft. To date, the Rapid Dragon has been tested primarily as a means for enabling those aircraft to launch AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles. The system is designed to be modular and readily adaptable to launching other payloads, as well.

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"The Marine Corps does have some interest in that [Rapid Dragon]. We actually did participate in some Air Force testing, I think it was last year," Lt. Col. Foushee said today. "So there is interest there. But as [with] most things with the C-130, Air Force is the lead service on that... So, we are keeping in close contact with the Air Force for Rapid Dragon."

Marine KC-130Js are still set to get other additional capabilities in the future beyond new weaponry, including a subvariant of the Intrepid Tiger II electronic warfare system. It is unclear whether this will be a podded version, which KC-130Js could potentially carry under their wings, or a roll-on/roll-off package similar to what has been developed for use on the MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor.

A podded AN/ALQ-231(V)3 subvariant of the Intrepid Tiger II system on a Marine UH-1Y Venom helicopter. USMC
Graphics showing components of the roll-on/roll-off AN/ALQ-231(V)4 Intrepid Tiger II system for the MV-22B Osprey and how it is intended to be installed on that aircraft. USMC

It's also not clear what specific functionality will be found on the Intrepid Tiger II system for the KC-130J. Existing versions of the system offered communications and other jamming capabilities, including the ability to disrupt certain remotely triggered improvised explosive devices on the ground, as well as secondary signals intelligence and radio direction-finding functionality. The ability to detect and jam enemy radars is something the Marines have been working to add to versions of the system, as well. You can read more about Intrepid Tiger II overall here.

As of 2022, the Marine Corps' stated goal was for some version of Intrepid Tiger II to reach initial operational capability on the KC-130J in the 2026 Fiscal Year.

Adding some mix of Intrepid Tiger II capabilities to Marine KC-130Js would make good sense and could be especially useful in future expeditionary and distributed operations. With an electronic warfare suite offering both jamming and ISR functionality, KC-130Js could provide Marine units at forward locations additional benefits in terms of force protection and general situational awareness. Since the retirement of the service's EA-6B Prowlers, the Marines have lacked a dedicated aerial electronic warfare platform. Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jets and UH-1Y Venom armed light utility helicopters carrying podded subvariants of the Intrepid Tiger II systems, as well as the robust electronic warfare suite found on the service's F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, have certainly helped fill this gap already. The Corps is also very actively looking at new uncrewed aircraft, potentially including a variant of the stealthy XQ-58 Valkyrie drone, to help provide additional aerial electronic warfare support.

An AV-8B Harrier jump jet with an AN/ALQ-231(V)1 Intrepid Tiger II pod on the inboard station under its left wing. USN

Intrepid Tiger II on KC-130J would also just offer valuable self-protection capabilities for those aircraft themselves, the need for which would only be more pronounced in any future high-end fight.

In the context of forward operations in the Pacific, retaining the Harvest Hawk kit could be beneficial. The KC-130J could offer the Marines a single aircraft that can do forward refueling, which will be critical, transport and logistics, as well as force protection, electronic warfare and surveillance, and even all during the same sortie, from austere bases. Adding stand-off strike via Rapid Dragon would add another layer of capability. Still, dropping Harvest Hawk would be the most logical if any capability needs to be removed to make room for others, in terms of budget, training, and sustainment. Regardless, the KC-130Js will be absolutely essential to a Pacific fight.

If nothing else, amid planning around the potential for a major conflict, especially in the Pacific region, the future of the Harvest Hawk armament kit for Marine KC-130Js is now very much in question.

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