January 4, 2012:
The U.S. Air Force has taken a U.S. Marine Corps idea for an "instant gunship" and developed an "instant reconnaissance aircraft" along the same lines. The "instant gunship" is known as "Harvest Hawk" and it's a system that enables weapons and sensors to be quickly rolled into a C-130 transport and hooked up. This takes a few hours and turns the C-130 into a gunship (similar in capabilities existing AC-130 gunships). The sensor package consists of day/night vidcams with magnification capability. The weapons currently consist of ten Griffin missiles and four Hellfires. These are lightweight missiles, so more can be carried.
The "instant reconnaissance aircraft" is known as "Senior Scout" and it quickly equips a C-130 with equipment that enables the transport to collect visual and electronic data from areas it flies over. On the larger C-130J, this leaves room for the aircraft to carry passengers and cargo as well as Senior Scout. This means that a C-130J that regularly makes trips between two bases can just as regularly carry out surveillance on the ground below. The route the C-130J follows on these cargo runs can be modified a bit to suit intelligence needs on the ground.
Harvest Hawk enables marine KC-130J tankers to be transformed into gunships with the addition of the portable weapons and sensors. The marines had long noted the success of the U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships that SOCOM (Special Operations Command) uses. But they couldn't afford them, as an AC-130 costs more than three times as much as a marine KC-130J aerial refueling aircraft. But the marines developed a solution. This is something the marines often do.
The KC-130J is the latest, and largest, USMC version of the C-130 transport used for aerial refueling. The KC-130J can also carry cargo and weapons (bombs and missiles) hung from the wings, thus the Harvest Hawk version of the KC-130J.
The big thing with gunships is their sensors, not their weapons. Operating at night, the gunships can see what is going on below in great detail. Using onboard weapons, gunships can immediately engage targets. But with the appearance of smart bombs (GPS and laser guided), aerial weapons are more available to hit any target that is found. So Harvest Hawk would be able to hit targets that were "time sensitive" (had to be hit before they got away), but could also call on smart bombs or laser guided missiles for targets that weren't going anywhere right away. Most of what Harvest Hawk does in Afghanistan is look for roadside bombs, or the guys who plant them. These marines want to track the bomb planters back to their base and then take out an entire roadside bomb operation.
Ultimately, the air force and SOCOM saw the potential for the Harvest Hawk approach replacing custom built AC-130 gunships. There would still be a need for specially trained gunship crews. But they, and the several cargo containers of Harvest Hawk gear, could be held ready to go wherever they are most needed. SOCOM will be using their version of Harvest Hawk (the Precision Strike Package) in their MC-130 transports (which are already equipped for all-weather operations).
The success of Harvest Hawk has got the air force considering other "ro/ro" (roll on/roll off) applications, thus saving the cost of custom aircraft for many jobs and providing more opportunities to use specialized aircraft.