The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Curing Turret Gunner Disease
by James Dunnigan
September 18, 2009
In the last four years, the remote control turret changed the battlefield more than you might think. In 2005, the U.S. Army realized that new remote control gun turret designs actually worked, and suddenly they could not get enough of them. The army has since ordered over 10,000 CROWS (common remotely operated weapon stations), but for a while could only get 15 a month. By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in service. There are now over 5,000.
The main issue was that the enemy was no longer able to knock out the turret gunner, early in a firefight, and take away a lot of the vehicles firepower. Because of CROWS, once the enemy opens fire, they are in trouble. The remote turret tends to begin delivering accurate fire right away, and is much more immune to enemy fire than a human gunner. If the vehicle is a Stryker, the enemy will soon find themselves dealing with half a dozen or so heavily armed infantry, who get out of the vehicle and come at the ambushers. The enemy (Iraqi or Afghan) don't like that. They also don't like how some of the CROWS turret equipped vehicles will come after them. All those accurately aimed bullets coming their way, and no enemy soldiers in sight, is demoralizing.
The idea for CROWS has been around for nearly half a century. Years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually made the remote control gun turret effective and dependable. CROWS is a real lifesaver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through bandit country a lot, and have a turret mounted gun (usually in a hummer). The guy manning the turret mounted machine-gun is a target up there, and too often, the bad guys get you. Not with CROWS. The gunner is inside the vehicle, checking out the surroundings on a computer monitor (with night vision and zoom capabilities). CROWS also has a laser rangefinder built in, as well as a stabilizer mechanism to allow more accurate fire while the vehicle is moving. The CROWS systems cost about $260,000 each, and can mount a variety of weapons (M2 .50 caliber machine-gun, MK19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher, M240B 7.62mm machine-gun and M249 5.56mm squad automatic weapon). CROWS comes in several different configurations, based on weapon mounted and armor installed (light, at 163 pounds, standard, at 298 pounds and CROWS II, at 379 pounds.) The heaviest version is usually used in MRAP (armored trucks) and has a better user interface, a thermal imager and sniper detection system.
The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves so quickly and deliberately, is due to something few officers expected. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating systems (video games) very similar to the CROWS controls. This was important, because viewing the world around the vehicle via a vidcam is not as enlightening (although a lot safer) than having your head and chest exposed to the elements (and any firepower the enemy sends your way). But experienced video gamers are skilled at whipping that screen view around, and picking up any signs of danger.
Many Iraqis and Afghans, especially the bad guys, get distressed while watching a CROWS turret being exercised by some video game addict inside the vehicle. That's because the most noticeable part of CROWS, as it swivels and "looks" around, is the machine-gun. Many Iraqis don't even recognize the vidcam and other sensors. They think the machine-gun is, well, sort of R2D2 with a bad attitude and a license to kill.
Meanwhile, inside vehicles like the Stryker, the troops do feel like they are in another world. The Stryker is air conditioned, well equipped with electronics (including a sound system you can plug an iPod into) and a lot nicer than the nastiness outside. This takes the edge off a combat situation, which enables the CROWS user to collect a lot more intelligence. Early on, even video gamers took a while to get the most out of CROWS. But in a few years, there had been enough experience gained, that the CROWS operator training quickly brought them up to speed. By now, these turrets have experienced over 25 million hours of use, and millions of hours in actual combat. Because CROWS is controlled by what appears to be video game controls, it was cheap and easy to build a simulator for training users. Finally, CROWS significantly reduced casualties, as the turret gunners were frequently hit in ambushers when the fire was coming from all directions.