CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Coalition forces present in Afghanistan continuously patrol the country’s vast landscape and cities while conducting operations and gathering information from local citizens.
Sometimes this can lead to hostile insurgents who seldom desire negotiation – which is when more than just bullets start flying.
On standby at the flightline, or already airborne in support of other operations, aircraft with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) are never far from the fight. Whether postured for close air support, cargo missions or transportation platform, these aircraft are armed with enough ordnance to make it rain anywhere in their area of operations – no matter how arid the climate.
The AH-1W Super Cobra brings unrivaled capabilities to the war effort despite its small frame. The Cobra is armed with rockets, missiles and a 20mm cannon, enabling it to be utilized in an array of assault scenarios.
The GPU-A2 gun pod, fixed to the nose of the Cobra, has a vertical and horizontal swivel, which directs the fire of a three-barrel M197 20mm cannon onto any identified threat. The cannon can host a variety of ammunitions to include high explosive, incendiary and semi-armor piercing rounds, and fire at a selectable rate of 750 or 1500 rounds per minute.
For a more explosive effect, the Cobra employs the use of several variants of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Though the Hellfire is now fired from multiple platforms, it was originally developed as a helicopter-launched fire-and-forget, or “HEL-L-FIRE,” weapon.
The missile’s warhead can range from blast fragmentation, armor-piercing shape charges and blast-emphasizing charges, which produce lengthened blast wave durations. By making use of the Hellfire alone, a Cobra can disable soft targets, devastate hard targets and even implode structures, limiting any collateral damage to the footprint of the target structure.
To suit a more utilitarian purpose, Cobras are also equipped with 2.75” LAU-61/68 rocket pods. Rockets fired from the pod can serve support or assault functions. Aside from high explosives, the Hydra 70 rocket can be armed with a lethal, non-explosive, flechette warhead. A flechette, French for ‘baby arrow,’ is a small arrow-shaped projectile, which weighs roughly 3.8 grams. The flechette rocket detonates mid-flight, firing more than 1,000 flechettes towards its target similar to a shotgun-like blast. This particular rocket eliminates soft targets without any significant damage to nearby structures.
The Cobra is also able to fire standard and infrared illumination rockets to aid coalition troops in low-light situations.
Like the Cobra, in the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron, the UH-1Y Huey also employs Hydra 70 rockets via the LAU-68.
The Huey, being the combat oriented utility helicopter, does not carry the Hellfire missile, but makes up for it with bullets – and lots of them. Two Marines man door guns on both sides of the aircraft. Typically, this consists of one GAU-16/A or GAU-21 .50 cal. machine gun and a GAU-17/A 7.62mm machine gun.
The GAU-17, more commonly known as the ‘minigun,’ is a six-barreled air-cooled machine gun, which fires 7.62mm rounds at a selectable rate of fire between 2,000 and 4,000 rounds per minute. The GAU-17 is electronically driven and fires standard and armor piercing rounds, as well as tracers.
Though still in use, the dated GAU-16/A, also known as the "Fifty," has been identified for replacement by the GAU-21, which comes with a series of additional benefits to include an open bolt design, a rate of fire greater than 1,000 rounds per minute and a barrel life of 10,000 rounds.
As for the CH-53E Super Stallion, it’s armed with three GAU-21 or XM-218 .50 cal. machine guns. With the ability to push out a combined total of more than 3,000 .50 cal. rounds per minute and potentially 32 combat-loaded Marines onboard, the CH-53 has proven its capabilities numerous times over.
This heavy-lift helicopter plays a vital role in many named operations by inserting and extracting coalition forces across Regional Command (Southwest).
The Osprey, however, often flies with the 240D 7.62mm machine gun in lieu of the GAU-16. While the Osprey is only equipped with one on its tail, its unique tilt-rotor design allows it to fly high and fast enough to mitigate potential threats.
An even larger, deadlier, plane is the newly combat modified KC-130J Hercules, known as “Harvest Hawk.” The Harvest Hawk is equipped with high-altitude Hellfire missiles on the wing as well as a Griffin missile pod mounted on the rear of the aircraft, enabling the Harvest Hawk to provide close air support from forward and rear-facing positions while maintaining its capability as an aerial refueling aircraft.
Though the Harvest Hawk is a unique asset to the Marine Corps in Afghanistan – nothing says fixed-wing firepower quite like the F/A-18C Hornet. The Hornet houses a 20mm, six-barreled, Vulcan Cannon, which is capable of firing high explosive, incendiary rounds at a rate of fire as fast as 100 rounds per second.
The Vulcan is an effective weapon, though it is not commonly during an initial engagement. The Vulcan Cannon is more often used to eliminate ‘leakers,’ or residual enemy combatants, who become exposed after Hornet has delivered several GBU bombs on target. The GBUs used by the F/A-18 weigh either 500 or 1000 pounds and can be laser-guided for increased accuracy.
For long-ranged precision strikes, the Hornet relies on the AGM-65E Laser Maverick. The Maverick is a laser-designated missile, which can devastate soft targets and fortified structures alike from distances more than 10 miles away. To avoid the possibility of collateral damage or non-combatant injuries, the missile will automatically become a ‘dud’ and pull upwards, away from its target, upon losing its ‘lase’ from a ground or airborne designator.
Alternatively, the Hornet can also fire ordnance from the LAU-10 rocket pod. The pod is used to mark target locations with smoke or fire high explosive five-inch rockets.
The Hornet is also able to be armed with the AIM-9M/X Sidewinder and AIM-120C air-to-air missile systems; however, they are not actively used in currant operations due to the lacking of need for air-to-air weaponry.
Given the extensive arsenal at the disposal of the 3rd MAW (Fwd), the wing is able to accomplish the mission – no matter what obstacles lay in its way.
Editor’s Note: Statistical information in this story has been compiled from weapons manufacturers, Department of Defense databases and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) Aviation Logistics Department.