A Super Hercules refuels an Osprey over the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in 2012. Both were with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Rein.), 24th MEU. (Gunnery Sgt. Chad Kiehl/Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps’ future hinges on an oft-ignored “secret weapon” already circling the battlefield — the KC-130J Super Hercules.
The decades–old aircraft is probably the last thing on a grunt’s mind when he kicks in a door (unless, perhaps, it’s equipped with a Harvest HAWK weapons system for close air support). But, chances are that at some point many of the consumable goods that are in his pack — water, batteries, cartridges, chow — traveled from a logistics hub to the fight aboard a Super Hercules.
The aircraft, based on an airframe that first took flight in 1954, will grow in importance, according to Marine expeditionary unit commanders and pilots, who are now seeing the highest operational tempo in years. As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down and the service resets itself with an eye toward the Pacific, Africa and crisis-response missions, the KC-130J’s multi-role, multi-mission nature is key to the service’s ability to fight anywhere, anytime.
“They are a hard requirement when a MEU — any MEU — is operating for an extended period of time in a split or disaggregated configuration,” wrote Col. Scott Campbell, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s former executive officer, in a Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned report published earlier this year.
MCCLL recommended that a dedicated KC-130J detachment be forward-deployed to support MEUs for the entire duration of their float “to enhance reach and responsiveness.”
“They must be universally prepared for humanitarian assistance, crisis response, embassy bombings — just about anything,” said Maj. Angel R. Hooper, an aircraft maintenance officer with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352. Hooper deployed with the 15th MEU, under Campbell, in Oct 2012 as the KC-130 detachment officer in charge.
“I agree [with the report’s assessment],” she said. “We are not a ‘nice’ to have, but a ‘must’ have.”
The strategic necessity derives from the aircraft’s ability to bridge long distances alone or when paired with other platforms like the MV-22 Osprey. It can boomerang the Osprey across continents if need be by refueling it on the ground — even at a makeshift landing strip — or in the airspace neighboring the objective.
It can transport man and machine thousands of miles. It can conduct resupply missions through airdrop or by landing on short and unpaved airstrips or highways. It can conduct battlefield illumination missions or provide close-air support with unmatched time on station and devastating effect on enemy forces.
The aircraft “has been around since about the 1950s,” said Capt. Sean Roach, commander of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 in Okinawa, Japan. “The fact that the military keeps re-buying it is a testament to how reliable it is and how it always gets the job done.”
The flexibility that KC-130J crews offer means they are being called on more and more frequently. While Roach said he thinks most Marines appreciate the role the aircraft fills, they don’t necessarily understand how busy the crews and maintainers are, whether deployed or not. The average lance corporal might spend 12 hours a day maintaining the aircraft to keep them ready because they are undergoing so many hours of flight, he said.
Of course, the heart of the aircraft is its four-man crew.
The job requires patience and nerves of steel. At times, pilots can find themselves at the stick for 18 hours or more, listening to the hypnotic drone of the aircraft’s four turbo prop engines. Moments of tense activity can punctuate that tedium when landing at night, in bad weather on a short airstrip or refueling a helicopter, near stall speed, at low altitude, over water.
The margin for error is zero.
The Super Hercules is a jack of all trades and master of — all. Without it, the service’s ability to project combat forces in a post-Afghanistan operating environment, where units will have to cover thousands of miles in regions with limited infrastructure, would grind to a halt.
Crisis response & disaster relief
Two recent and high-profile operations highlight the sorts of missions the KC-130J will likely find itself conducting with increasing frequency — crisis response and humanitarian assistance.
In January, Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, using the Super Hercules. The Morón, Spain-based unit flew from Spain to Djibouti before punching onward to South Sudan where they pulled more than 20 embassy personnel out of the country amid violence between factions on the brink of civil war.
“The distance we flew ... about 4,200 miles in order to support the embassy in Juba, that’s like going from Anchorage [Alaska] to Miami,” said Col. Scott Benedict, who commanded the crisis response force from July until the end of January.
The Corps’ other aircraft, even the Osprey which boasts speed and range, could not have made the trip without refueling. The KC-130 allowed the response force to travel quickly to the site, conduct a speedy mission and prevent a potential catastrophe.
Units like the crisis-response force — built around almost a thousand Marines, 12 MV-22B Ospreys and four KC-130J refeulers — can’t count on local airbases or wait for traditional amphibious ships to move into place. It either takes too long or requires permission from local governments that may not be willing partners.
The same challenges posed by speed, distance and access often affect MEUs. With the shift toward the Pacific and the new emphasis on Africa — large regions with poor infrastructure — the rugged Super Hercules becomes the key to accessing all corners, according to commanders.
Violent unrest isn’t the only crisis the aircraft helps mitigate; it’s also integral to disaster relief operations. When Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in November, KC-130 crews delivered many hundreds of tons of humanitarian assistance.
“Every time we have had humanitarian assistance missions, in one day we have been able to reach anywhere in Asia,” Roach said. “Right after the storm passes, we can reach them the same day, bring the forward command element into whatever small airfield in the Philippines or Thailand, assess the situation and then bring follow-on forces.
Hooper said deploying to the Philippines for Operation Damayan in the wake of Haiyan was one of her most memorable experiences as a KC-130J pilot.
“We got to show that the C130s are capable of not just supporting in a combat environment, but also very capable of the softer side of the Marine Corps,” she said. “We were able to get out there and do some good things for mankind.”
Hooper and her crew were able to evacuate victims, deliver relief supplies and transport local security forces around the country.
Whether rescuing embassy personnel or transporting humanitarian relief supplies, it is the aircraft’s ability to carry large amounts of cargo staggering distances and land on an austere, unpaved dime that makes it indispensable to the Marine Corps’ shifting identity, she said.
But not all commanders realize the power at their disposal.
“I think most commanders are just now starting to learn what our capabilities are,” Hooper said. “I think to the layman, we look like we just haul cargo and fuel.”
Hooper said there are few problems they can’t solve — especially for a MEU commander operating over long distances. Under Campbell, for example, she and her crew were taking off and landing on 3,000-foot grass or salt strips and 2,700- foot paved strips, she said. Many large, modern aircraft need 10,000 or more feet of runway.
“In that particular aspect, we were in the business of knocking people’s socks off. I’ve never had more people say to me, ‘I didn’t know you guys could do that,’ ” she said.
Roach agreed, adding one crucial detail.
“There are a lot of airfields in Asia where nobody can land but us,” he said.
Given the Corps’ future reliance on rotary wings, aerial refueling is perhaps the aircraft’s most significant mission. It can also be one of the most harrowing, depending on the platform being refueled.
“The most challenging thing is helicopter refueling at night,” Hooper said. “In my opinion it is the most varsity skill set to execute. You are at low altitude, very close to stall speed, putting the aircraft in its least maneuverable state. Then you are inviting the helicopter to attach itself with rotors just feet away, at night, while wearing NVGs. You have to be on your ‘A’ game if you are doing that.”
If something goes wrong and the aircraft stalls, for example, there is little chance of recovering at low altitude and air speed.
But it is a critical capability and when paired with the Osprey — which is significantly easier to refuel than a helicopter because it behaves similar to a fixed wing aircraft, Roach said — the two aircraft make a formidable team.
“The KC-130J, providing air-to-air and ground refueling, doubles the range of three aircraft found in the MEU’s aviation combat element: the MV-22B Osprey, CH-53E Super Stallion and AV-8B Harrier,” said Col. Matthew G. St. Clair, the 26th MEU commanding officer who deployed from March to November. “This expanded range extends the operational reach of the MEU and enhances the capability of those aircraft, allowing them to fly greater distances, carry more gear and increase their loiter time over the objective.”
He described the KC-130J as “mission critical” in all operational planning, from embassy reinforcement to humanitarian relief.
“Whether it’s dropping a reconnaissance element in support of advanced force operations, extracting Americans from a foreign airfield, or delivering much needed commodities/supplies to an ally after a natural disaster, the KC-130Js provided a MEU commander and the Marine Corps with an immediate capability to project combat power over significant ranges.”
That pairing becomes even more important in a post-Afghanistan operating environment, said Maj. Carl Forsling, an aerial refueling instructor with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204, out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina. With the likelihood of fewer overseas bases and ships, the Super Hercules and Osprey “level the playing field,” he said.
Additionally, each is able to fill in for the other’s weaknesses, said another SP-MAGTF CR commander.
“The KC130J can fly great distances (thousands of miles) but cannot land vertically, whereas the MV-22 can land just about anywhere but has an unrefueled combat radius of about 350 miles,” said Lt. Col Robert Freeland, commanding officer of VMM-162 and the aviation combat element commander for SP-MAGTF CR.
“When you combine the en route turboprop characteristics of the two aircraft and load a task-oriented ground combat element into the back, you have a team that can rapidly influence actions on the ground at ranges of 750 to 1,100 miles.”
The importance of aerial refueling was demonstrated by the South Sudan embassy evacuation.
“On very short notice, a team of KC130Js and MV-22s relocated the forces 3,490 miles from Spain to Djibouti, and were immediately postured to provide embassy support a further 900 miles inland,” Freeland added.
The shift to the Pacific in particular means more exercises and military exchanges, but because traveling in the region means island hopping, and boats are slow, flying is the best option.
“We are really starting to feel it this year — the shift to the Pacific,” Roach said. “I think as the war comes to a stop in Afghanistan, we will continue to be busy out here, if not busier.”
He estimates flights to Korea to participate in exercises have quadrupled, for example.
“On Okinawa they are especially stuck,” Roach said. “Nobody is going anywhere unless we fly them there. We are constantly flying Marines to Korea, mainland Japan, Thailand, Australia. We are the main troop transport.”
“We give the MEF commander unlimited flexibility when and where to deploy his troops and equipment,” he added.
Close air support and ISR
While many think of the KC-130J as a logistics aircraft, refueler or troop transport, it can also directly support combat operations with deadly effect. Some of the aircraft are outfitted with the Harvest HAWK intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and weapons kit.
That gives the aircraft an overwatch and direct-strike capability with incredible time on station. With smaller craft, responsibility may have to change hands several times during an operation as one aircraft leaves to refuel and another arrives. But, a KC-130J can spend hours overhead.
“Having on station time means you don’t have to hand-off. You start with us and finish with us,” Hooper said.
When a threat is identified, the KC-130J with a Harvest HAWK kit installed can rain Griffin or Hellfire missiles, precision-guided bombs and even 30mm cannon fire. The first weaponized KC-130J deployed to Afghanistan in late 2010 and began hammering enemy fighters in the Sangin valley of Helmand province.
No matter the conflict or operation, though, the KC-130J and the Corps’ future are intertwined. In Iraq, they mostly did refueling. In Afghanistan, it’s been battlefield illumination and airdrop resupply. Now, with two more Harvest HAWK kits on the way for a total of six by July, fire support becomes an increasing part of the mission.
“Our versatility is our biggest asset. No matter what war is going on, we will always have a job,” Roach said.■