Weapons: China Builds A Bigger CROWS


November 19, 2014: Chinese firms are offering more and more RWS (Remote Weapon Stations) for export. The latest one is the UW4 and it is quite elaborate containing a 30mm auto-cannon, a 7.62mm machine-gun and twelve smoke grenade launchers plus the usual sensors. This is quite a bit more intricate than the first Chinese RWS models in 2011. That one was similar to the light (74 kg/163 pounds) model then (and now) used by the U.S. Army. The 2011 Chinese RWS was apparently not meant for vehicle use, but for facility or perimeter security. The Chinese RWS was shown mounting a light (5.8mm) machine-gun and touted for "counter-terror" missions. The UW4 is intended for vehicle or ground mount use.

For the last decade China has been playing catch-up in this area, as Western nations have been developing RWS for decades. By 2011 the Chinese had developed a vehicle mounted RWS, but it was described as still in development. That RWS was armed with a 12.7mm machine-gun and two anti-aircraft missiles. While the missiles are unusual for an RWS, the control systems look familiar to Western RWS operators. The same video game features are used. China also has millions of young men with lots of video game experience.

The U.S. Army continues to improve its RWS systems and lead the world in RWS use. These devices allow an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors. Among the improvements added in the last decade are the addition of a green laser, which can temporarily blind people, and has long been used to stop drivers who keep coming at checkpoints despite other signals to stop. Used in an RWS, it enables the RWS operator to flash suspicious people with the blinding light, rather than opening up with the weapon. Another upgrade was the addition of cameras to the side and rear of the turret so that the operator can quickly check for activity all around without moving the turret (which sometimes alerts an enemy that they have been spotted.) Another addition was an IR Pointer, which at night enabled the RWS operator to put a light, visible only to those using night-vision equipment, on something suspicious, or otherwise important.

The larger CROWS II RWS has also been equipped and tested with a Javelin missile launcher. The army sees RWS as a key element in the development of remotely controlled, or autonomous, armored vehicles. The Chinese RWS designs have been adding new features soon after they appear elsewhere.

RWS was one of the most important (in terms of saving lives) new weapons to appear in the last decade. This now ubiquitous remote control weapon (usually a machine-gun) is seen on many vehicles (from hummers to MRAPs and tanks). In 2013 the U.S. Army ordered another 3,000 RWS turrets. Officially called the M153 CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Stations) it has been a very popular weapon and the army has upgraded 6,000 CROWS II RWS to the CROWS III standard.

For most of the past decade the main RWS supplier for the U.S. Army has been the Norwegian firm Kongsberg. This company has delivered nearly 20,000 of these systems so far (most to the United States but also to 16 other countries). An RWS turret costs, on average, about $220,000 each. The remote control gun turret has now become a standard system on American combat vehicles. Now there are a lot of competitors, if only because Kongsberg could not keep up with the demand. Many of the new competitors went after niche markets. The more obvious ones were those demanding RWS that can handle larger weapons, like 25mm or 30mm autocannon. But the most interesting new development was the portable RWS. It can be mounted on a hummer, but quickly removed, and carried by two troops, and set up anywhere using a tripod. The operator can stay behind cover, while the light machine-gun, exposed to hostile fire, unflinchingly takes on the enemy. There are lots of combat situations that could make use of this lightweight RWS.

The Kongsberg Protec RWS is the key component of the U.S. Army CROWS. This idea of a remote control turret has been around for nearly half a century, but years of tinkering, and better technology, have made the remote control gun turret finally work effectively, dependably and affordably. This has made the RWS practical for widespread combat use. While some troops miss the greater feeling of situational awareness (especially being able to hear and smell the surroundings) you got as an old-school turret gunner, most soldiers and marines have adapted and accepted the new system. What it lacks in the smelling and hearing department, it makes up in terms of night vision and zoom. And it's a lot safer, which is very compelling if you have seen old-school turret gunners get killed or wounded by all the fire they attract.

CROWS is a real life saver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through bandit country a lot, and man the turret gun. You're 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 (with night vision, zoom and telephoto 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 (RWS, weapon and installation) cost about $260,000 each, and can mount a variety of weapons (M2 12.7mm/.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 74 kg/163 pounds, standard, at 136 kg/298 pounds and CROWS II, at 172 kg/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 initial Chinese use of RWS was more similar to Israeli use of RWS, in turrets guarding the long border with Gaza. The Chinese RWS might was pitched to the many Chinese firms setting up mines and industrial facilities in Africa and parts of Asia that are prone to criminal gangs that carry out large scale raids. Multiple RWS systems would be a deterrent to such attacks.

By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in U.S. service. By 2011 there were over 8,000 and after that the numbers remained constant because American forces were withdrawn from Iraq and on their way to be greatly reduced in Afghanistan.

In Iraq and Afghanistan combat RWS inadvertently played on enemy exposure to Western action movies. Many of the enemy fighters had seen Western or Japanese films featuring killer robots, and often think that's what they are facing. The fear factor is real, and it helps. The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves to point at a target, is due to something few officers expected; so many troops who quickly become expert RWS operators. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating computer 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.

Since many troops have years of experience with video games, they take to CROWS quickly, and very effectively. This has further frightened hostile gunmen, who are quick to attribute magical qualities to American equipment. However, many CROWS users have mixed feelings about the system, because they know that you have more awareness of your surroundings if you are actually standing with your head and shoulders outside the vehicle, manning a machine-gun. For this reason, RWS manufacturers are investigating adding more sensors (for things like sound, smell and wind direction.) But the biggest improvements have been more reliability, ease-of-use, more sensors and lower costs.





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