KC-130J Harvest Hawk Operations In Afghanistan

The message received by the battalion watch officer in the operations center was as urgent as it was precise: “Second platoon is in sustained contact. Ground commander is requesting Harvest Hawk for an immediate priority JTAR [Joint Tactical Air Request]. Advise estimated arrival time when able.”

The US Marines taking enemy fire in Afghanistan who sent that message weren’t making a general request for close air support. They weren’t trying to flag down a fighter in the area with a couple of bombs to spare, although any help would have been appreciated. What those ground troops wanted was one specific aircraft overhead to make their problem go away—and make it go away right now.

The specially configured armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, variant of the KC-130J Super Hercules tanker called Harvest Hawk was soon on scene, and the crew took care of the problem. Since its combat debut in October 2010, crews flying this aircraft have been busy.

With its long loiter time, multiple radios, sensor to find and track insurgents or vehicles, and, most importantly to the Marines on the ground, its ability to launch a laser-guided Hellfire or Griffin missile and have those weapons hit exactly where and when needed, Harvest Hawk quickly became a Big Stick.

“The close air support [CAS] tasking for Harvest Hawk will make your eyes water,” noted Maj. John Butler, the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 (VMGR-252) detachment commander in Afghanistan in 2011–2012. “Our launch total was considerably more than Marine Harriers, Navy Hornets, and even Air Force A-10s. With only one aircraft, we shot close to half of all the kinetic weapons launched in theater in the nine months we were there.”

“Before Harvest Hawk got to Afghanistan, naysayers called it useless,” added Capt. Dusty Cook, a VMGR-252 Harvest Hawk pilot. “But we have effectively connected Harvest Hawk to the Marine ground force. While we were in Afghanistan, we flew just about every day watching, relaying information, or prosecuting targets. Units all over Helmand Province regularly began requesting us by name. The British began calling us the Helmand Rock Stars.”

An Urgent Need
Harvest Hawk is the latest in a series of military aircraft modification efforts developed under the broad name “Harvest.” HAWK is actually an acronym that stands for Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit, but Harvest Hawk has become the generic, and much more generally used, name.

“Harvest Hawk is an accelerated Marine Corps program to meet an urgent needs statement from the Marine ground combat element in theater,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Moses, then the commander of VMGR-252, the oldest continually active squadron in the Marine Corps. “It is MIR [multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance] tied to CAS in a permissive air environment that is persistent beyond any other platform.”

That persistence was the main reason the KC-130J was chosen. “A fighter pilot has maybe forty-five minutes on station before having to refuel,” observed Capt. Thane Norman, a VMGR-252 Harvest Hawk fire control officer, or FCO. “In Harvest Hawk, we can be up for ten or more hours. We can stay with a foot patrol from the time they start until the time they finish.”

The Super Hercules, known as a Battleherk to the Marines, also has sufficient electrical power and room for the Harvest Hawk equipment. “This platform has allowed us to add things such as video uplink and Blue Force Tracker,” noted Capt. Michael Wyrsch, an FCO and the VMGR-252 Harvest Hawk training officer. “The biggest limiting factor with Harvest Hawk is imagination.”

Using existing components, the Harvest Hawk kit was developed in eighteen months by a joint Marine Corps, Lockheed Martin, and Naval Air Systems Command team. “Development was only supposed to take six months,” noted Moses. “Integration of the separate elements proved to be a bigger challenge than expected. Still, Harvest Hawk took a lot less time to get into the field than similar programs.”

Three aircraft have been modified, with one currently assigned to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division test facility at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland; one with VMGR-352 at MCAS Miramar, California; and one with VMGR-252 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. Current plans call for three additional Harvest Hawk kits, making a total of six operational aircraft. Four additional operational KC-130Js will be wired to accept the Harvest Hawk equipment.

Harvest Hawk 101
Externally, what sets Harvest Hawk apart from other KC-130Js is underneath the left wing. Instead of a KC-130J hose refueling pod on the outboard wing station, there is an M299 quad-mount Hellfire missile launcher from an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.

The AGM-114P Hellfire II, with a twenty-pound high-explosive antitank warhead, is the primary weapon. In the first two Harvest Hawk deployments, one each from VMGR-352 and VMGR-252, crews launched more than 100 Hellfires, recording nearly all direct hits.

“It’s a somewhat choreographed routine to get the four missiles loaded,” notes Sgt. Robert Elcyzym, a VMGR-252 load crew team leader. “We use a four-man team and a special trailer and load platform. Loading Harvest Hawk is different. At certain points, we have to lift the missiles over our heads.”

The electro-optical, infrared, and laser targeting sensor, called a Target Sight Sensor, or TSS, comes from an AH-1Z Super Cobra and is mounted in an empty external fuel tank on the left inboard station. The sensor can see individual targets clearly from more than ten miles away.

Internally, the fire control console, or FCC, and the mission computer from the Navy’s SH-60 Seahawk multipurpose helicopter are mounted to a reinforced 463L cargo system pallet installed in the KC-130J’s cargo compartment. Two additional display monitors are permanently installed on the flight deck primarily to allow the pilot to see the sensor images the FCO is watching and to allow the copilot to look at the FalconView display that combines aeronautical charts, satellite images, and elevation maps along with other information. The pilot also has a consent-to-lase and fire button located near the throttles.

The final component in the Harvest Hawk kit is the launcher, avionics, and associated equipment for the AGM-176 Griffin missiles. These missiles, which have a smaller warhead and less powerful rocket motor than Hellfire, were originally housed in a cargo ramp-mounted box launcher. To fire this missile, crews would have to go on oxygen and depressurize the aircraft prior to lowering the ramp for launch. Because of the increased difficulty and the missile’s shorter range, Griffins were launched against targets only about ten percent of the time.

Harvest Hawk aircraft now have a dual missile launcher for Griffin located in the left paratroop door along with what is called a wine rack that holds ten missile launch tubes. This launcher, called a Derringer Door, allows the crew to keep the aircraft pressurized during launch. A third type of weapon, the GBU-44 Viper Strike glide bomb, is now being tested on Harvest Hawk. Viper Strike, which is used primarily by Special Operations Forces, is also launched through the Derringer Door.

“With four Hellfire and ten Griffin, Harvest Hawk can carry more precision guided munitions than any other aircraft in the Marine Corps,” said Wyrsch, who, before becoming an FCO on Harvest Hawk, was a Harrier pilot. “We can still refuel other aircraft from the aircraft’s right hose if necessary. We did that several times to help fighters during poor weather. We even refueled Harriers from my old sister squadron.”

In The Sandbox
“Harvest Hawk is a roll-on/roll-off kit, but we never rolled it off,” noted Moses. “We were in such demand, we ended up making one long flight per day. We weren’t figuring that kind of demand for the aircraft. Our maintainers did an amazing job. We only missed a couple of missions and those were because of problems with the TSS, not the aircraft.”

The VMGR-252 Harvest Hawk detachment flew as hard crews during its deployment, with three FCOs, two aircraft commanders, and two copilots, with a day-on, day-off flight schedule for flight deck crews and two-days-on, two-days-off schedule for FCOs. Crews, including loadmasters and what the Marines call crewmasters, were averaging approximately 110 flight hours per month, well above the overall in-theater norm for all US forces. During poor weather, Harvest Hawk was sometimes the only aircraft airborne.

“We had been tracking a target for several hours when the call came in that a ground unit in another area needed immediate help,” recalled Wyrsch. “We got the tasking, transited to the area, got the nine-line [the standard radio format for transmitting ground target location and description information] while we were still twenty-five miles out, got the sensors correlated, made the attack plan, confirmed we were looking at the right thing, cleared the airspace, and took out the target in nine minutes. We got back to tracking the original target after about fifteen minutes elapsed time.”

The Harvest Hawk radio call sign quickly became widely known. “The ground community liked us a lot. One time, a ground unit heard us when we radioed in during a maintenance check flight,” said Cook. “They asked if we happened to have ordnance. Fortunately, we did, and were able to help them.”

Squadron crews launched approximately sixty Hellfires during their deployment with a near 100 percent success rate without a single civilian casualty. But launching missiles wasn’t all the Harvest Hawk crews did. “Even on the days we didn’t shoot, any ground Marine would tell you that just having us up there with eyes-on was enough,” noted Butler. “Many times, keeping guys out of an engagement was just as important as firing on range.”

Sometimes just showing up was enough. Harvest Hawk crews generally fly at medium altitudes to maximize time on station. On one mission, the crew was observing a group of insurgents engaging a Marine ground unit. The insurgents had a central gathering point where they were using children as a buffer and forcing the children to resupply the snipers with ammunition.

After several hours of watching this battle play out, the crew came up with a plan. They received clearance and then made a high speed pass—slightly below minimums—and popped self-defense flares normally used to defeat heat-seeking missiles. The startled insurgents dispersed, and the Marine ground unit was able to accomplish its mission.

Coordinated Crew
“We flew with the same guys over and over in Afghanistan. I knew what they were thinking, and they knew what I was thinking,” noted Wyrsch, who now has more flight time in Herks than he does in any other aircraft. “We just about got to the point that we could communicate with hand signals and grunts.”

The seven-member Harvest Hawk crews, by necessity, become an integrated team. The aircraft commander is the airborne supervisor of flying, deconflicting the airspace and clearing out friendlies—other US or coalition aircraft—prior to a missile launch. He also helps develop the target attack plan with the FCO and, once the aircraft is in position, gives consent first to fire the targeting laser and then to launch the missile.

The copilot is in charge of the basics—navigating and flying the aircraft, using the aircraft’s seven radios to communicate with air assets, ground commanders, and, as necessary, higher command headquarters. The crewmaster, a flying crew chief who normally runs the refueling panel, changes the radio frequencies and looks out the window as another set of eyes.

In the aircraft’s cargo compartment, the primary FCO locates, tracks, and designates the targets; coordinates surveillance; and talks directly with troops on the ground. The second FCO, sitting next to the primary FCO at the FCC, is the backup. “We have to swap out jobs over the course of the mission,” noted Norman. “Our job would be very difficult if we didn’t. Staring at the screen for hours, it’s very easy to fixate and miss something.”

In addition to their usual job, the two loadmasters act as scanners or as different sets of eyes to help the FCOs scan the sensor picture. They now also load the Griffin launch tubes into the Derringer Door. “There is nothing like reloading missiles in flight and then shooting them, particularly when bad guys are shooting at our guys,” noted SSgt. Debusk Lau, a Harvest Hawk loadmaster. “It’s very rewarding. We normally don’t get to see the end result unloading pallets.”

During an attack, the combined job of the flight deck crew and the FCOs is to get the aircraft in the optimal position to shoot. The aircrew adjusts each attack depending on the target.

Once the target is designated and locked, the aircraft is in position, and the pilot has received permission from battalion to fire and then has given his consent to fire, the FCO lifts the cover on the Hellfire launch button and pushes it. “After all the radio chatter and making sure we have the target correlated, it gets very quiet when the FCO says ‘Rifle’ and the missile goes off the rail,” says Capt. Josh Mallon, a Harvest Hawk pilot and the squadron weapons officer. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”

Hellfire missiles quickly reach supersonic speeds coming off the launch rail and have a very short time of flight. “The FCO has to take the sonic boom from the Hellfire into account,” noted Norman. “Shoot too far out, and the bad guys will hear it before the missile impacts.”

“After a shot, we’d get instant feedback. The messages changed from ‘We’re taking effective fire’ to ‘Yeah! Take that,’ although not in those exact words,” noted Cpl. Tom Wiklow, a Harvest Hawk loadmaster. “We know we made a difference.”

Battlefield Innovation
“I truly believe if you give a capability to professional Marine aviators, they will come up with better ways to get the job done,” said Moses.

Originally deployed to Camp Dwyer, where the Marine combat jets were based, VMGR-252 later moved to Kandahar, the main C-130 base in Afghanistan. “When we arrived in Kandahar, we found a ROVER [Remotely Operated, Video Enhanced Receiver] screen in a box,” noted Cook. “ROVER is designed for a ground control center, but it gives an incredible view of the entire battlefield. So we put the screen on the aircraft to see if it would work.

“Our airframe guys built a stand for the ROVER screen and put the antenna in the bubble [In combat, the C-130 flight deck escape hatch is often replaced with a clear bubble that gives a crew member an unrestricted view around the aircraft], zip tied the wires out of the way, and turned it on,” Cook recalled. “We were getting the Scan Eagle feeds, the Predator feeds, and even the Harrier feeds. We could follow a battle in a different area of operations. With ROVER, we were able to talk to the Forward Air Controller and the Combat Operations Center to track the firefight through the people who were fighting it. ROVER really helped us maintain situational awareness.”

The I in ISR stands for intelligence. “When we started, the Intel guys would look at our tapes and take several days to get a package back to us,” noted Wyrsch. “We put Intel troops on the aircraft, and they started looking at the tapes in near real time. We could get an intel package back in just several hours.”

“We had a table ratcheted down on a pallet in the back of the aircraft to work from,” recalled 1st Lt. Ben Reeks, one of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing intelligence specialists. “We were giving on-the-spot imagery interpretation. We could determine if the subject of interest was a person or a dog and why that subject was doing what it was doing. We would also look for what we call patterns of life. Insurgents often had ‘tells’ so that we could pretty much figure they had hidden an IED, for instance. We could build an intelligence highlight package on the aircraft and ship it off to other units shortly after landing. We were able to quickly exploit what we were seeing.”

The lessons learned by the Cherry Point crew were passed to the Miramar crews for their second Harvest Hawk deployment in 2012, just as VMGR-352 had passed lessons learned from its first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. The two units overlapped each other for about a week to pass knowledge and complete the mission handover. “Every detachment has made this mission better,” noted Moses.

Going Forward
One major lesson learned is that, with the very heavy tasking in theater and as many as 140 flight hours in one month—the maximum allowed, more than one Harvest Hawk crew is needed on future deployments. A formal training program has now been established at both operational units.

“We want to bring the KC-130J community up to speed and depend less and less on TACAIR personnel for Harvest Hawk,” noted Wyrsch. “I left my Harrier squadron, went to Miramar for a month to train on the KC-130J, got familiar with the Harvest Hawk system, got my live training shots, and was out the door for Afghanistan. That’s not going to work anymore. We have to grow the community from within.”

“We had seven officers and six enlisted personnel on our Harvest Hawk deployment,” said Butler. “Now, we are training ten officers with only two FCOs coming from the fighter community. We know what’s needed. We will have four dedicated FCOs on the next det, for instance, so the same guys are not flying day after day. Eventually, we’ll have crew members with hundreds of hours in this aircraft before we deploy. We have quality, but we’re not there yet on quantity.”

Harvest Hawk ground school consists of twenty-two classes in three days on close air support and multi-image reconnaissance; on the FCC and the TSS; on what the forces on the ground are doing and why; on radio procedures, particularly communicating with ground forces; and on aircraft basics, such as where the crash axe is located.

A recently installed desktop FCC simulator prepares the crew members for the five qualification flights. The second simulator event for a new FCO is with the aircraft commander, and the two train side by side. The simulator schooling covers the same profiles as the actual training flights: day weapons employment; integrating with ground forces on CAS and MIR missions; and urban CAS where shot geometry and zero civilian casualties are important considerations. The capstone is a live fire mission in which each FCO launches a Hellfire and a Griffin.

The instructors, who sit on the flight deck or behind the student FCOs, often simulate communications from the ground forces. But more and more, training flights are with actual ground forces the Harvest Hawk crew will be working with in theater. “Every ground unit at Camp Lejeune wants to train with Harvest Hawk,” noted Norman, a former F/A-18 backseater. “There is high demand to train with us. One British unit is making a special trip to North Carolina to train with us.”

During a detailed debrief after a flight, students own up to mistakes, review the attack profiles with the instructors, and go over how each mission element could have been done better. Details are important. After one mission, Wyrsch told students what level to set the volume on the radios—the more important radios should be kept at a higher volume.

The urgency of the Harvest Hawk mission is emphasized during training. “It’s important for a crew to get a well-planned shot off quickly,” said Wyrsch, who will soon enter F-35 pilot training. “The consequences of a missile being on target thirty seconds late versus being on target three minutes late because the aircraft had to go around are dramatic for that Marine on the ground.”

“I helped, but I was also able to facilitate help when the ground Marines needed it,” concluded Cook, who will be one of three pilots flying Fat Albert, the C-130 support aircraft for the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team in 2014. “Harvest Hawk has become a real partner to the Marine air and ground forces. But we’re just getting started. Anything we can do to make the good guys’ jobs easier, we’re going to do it.”


Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.
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