The Corps' 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines said they needed it. Now Marines across the fleet are going to see a smarter -- and meaner -- air refueling capability.
Adding another arrow to its quiver, the Corps is moving quickly with an ambitious plan to arm one of the service's aviation workhorses with intel-gathering capabilities and a trio of weapons systems.
For less than the cost of an AC-130 gunship, the Corps plans to build for its fleet of KC-130J Super Hercules nine mission kits that will include an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor, as well as three separate weapons systems, according to Marine Corps Maj. J.P. Pellegrino.
"We're not building a gunship, we're building a mission kit," Pellegrino stressed.
The Corps is not permanently attaching weapons to the plane, but is engineering a mission kit that will convert the normally static KC-130J into a deadly prowler in the sky.
Dakota Wood, a former Marine lieutenant colonel and a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the move to arm the air refueler will keep adversaries guessing.
"What you would like to do is keep the enemy off balance and complicate your enemy's defensive problem," Wood said.
The Corps envisions the system to work primarily as a surveillance tool, allowing the ISR sensor to feed-real time video to Marine commanders while the aircraft lingers over an area of responsibility, often refueling other aircraft.
Marine Air Ground Task Force commanders operating across Afghanistan currently have little to no persistent surveillance capability. The new mission kits will change that.
"We can operate day and night from very high altitude," Pellegrino said. "Say we have two airplanes in theater and I need extra ISR out tonight. While you are giving gas, you keep an area under surveillance."
And the diverse weapons portfolio included in the mission kit makes the upgrade especially lethal.
Plans call for a set of three weapon platforms: Four AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, a Mk44 Bushmaster II 30mm cannon hung out the left paratroop door, or precision-guided munitions dropped from a lowered rear ramp.
Together, the munitions provide the aircraft with a range of capabilities: precision-guided munitions to take out a house, but not the neighborhood, cannon fire to suppress approaching forces and a set of missiles to strike an armored vehicle.
The entire system -- ISR sensor and the three weapons -- would be manned by a fire control operator at a mobile, roll-on/roll-off control terminal.
Currently, the Corps plans to pull weapons systems officers from the F/A-18 community.
Long term, a separate military occupation specialty will be developed that may even be open to senior noncommissioned officers, Pellegrino said, but for now mission urgency demands wizzos camp out in the back of a refueler-transport to man this new system.
From origin to implementation, the move to create these mission kits has been remarkably fast, especially by government standards.
"We're moving as quickly but safely as possible," Pellegrino said.
Last year, 2/7 deployed to Afghanistan aiming to train Afghan forces, but quickly became absorbed in fighting, largely off in rural outposts and far-flung valleys.
"They were in distributed ops, small units throughout the countryside, and they started sustaining casualties," Pellegrino said. "Commanders asked, 'How can you give us some sort of enduring (surveillance) capability so we know what's going on out there.' "
Commanders in Afghanistan forwarded an urgent universal needs statement asking Corps planners to engineer a kit that could keep an eye on Marines under threat far from garrison. And it'd be nice if it could kill bad guys, too.
The Corps is working with Naval Air Systems Command and industry partners to design the kits. They're building them now and testing is expected to launch in June.
Three of these mission kits are expected to be ready by the end of this year, with two headed straight to the field and one reserved for training. The plan is to produce nine kits -- three for each air refueling wing.
"It's always the adaptability of the force and the innovation of the people that gives you a winning edge over your competitor," Wood said.
-- Bryant Mitchell