Commandant says Marines will field their own gunships

The Marine Corps is pursuing a number of initiatives to give its units more fire support and more mobility to meet operational demands, with one near-term project being a less-sophisticated version of the Air Force's powerful AC-130 gunship, Gen. James Conway said on Friday.

The Marine Corps commandant said the service is working on a longer-term proposal to use the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships to provide high-volume fire support for Marine forces ashore. In addition, Marines are looking to modify their Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles to enable them to operate in Afghanistan's rugged terrain, Conway told a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum.

Conway said the Marines "have lusted for years" over the AC-130's capability but could not afford the sophisticated Air Force gunships. Instead, they are taking advantage of their KC-130J transport-tankers in a program called "Harvest Hawk," he said. It consists of a "roll-on, roll-off package" that can be installed in hours and gives the KC-130s the ability to fire a 30mm rapid-fire gun and Hellfire missiles in support of ground forces, Conway said. "I think you're going to see one in [Afghanistan] before the end of the calendar year."

A Marine spokesman said later that "this is not intended to be a gunship" but a response to an urgent need of Marines in Afghanistan who want persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. "The ISR is the priority, but we also want the capability to use some weapons against targets we can see," the spokesman said.

The commandant said he has an agreement with Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, to examine use of a "box of rockets" that could be installed on an LCS to provide fire support for Marines ashore. It could replace the capabilities the Marines expected from the Advanced Gun System developed for the DDG-1000 destroyer, whose production is being stopped at three ships.

LCS is designed to accept a variety of "mission packages," which include weapons, sensors, controls and operators that enable a ship to perform a variety of combat assignments. A Marine fire-support package was not one of the three original missions developed for LCS but has been discussed recently.

One proposal has been to use the non-line-of-sight launch system being developed as part of the Army's Future Combat Systems. But that system does not have the range the Marines would need, Conway said. Systems that would have the range could not provide the volume of fire needed, he added. He did not provide any indication of when a satisfactory system could be available.

Conway described an effort to convert some of the MRAPs they received to help protect troops in Iraq from improvised explosive devices and land mines so the vehicles could be used by the Marines moving into Afghanistan. Although the Army is buying an all-terrain version of the MRAP for Afghanistan, the Marines do not want any more of the heavy vehicles. Instead, they are working on installing the suspension system from their seven-ton trucks on their existing MRAPs to give them better off-road mobility, the general said. On initial tests of IED-type explosives under the converted MRAPs, the vehicles "didn't do well," so they are trying different methods of making the MRAPs suitable for Afghanistan, he said.

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