Weapons: The Relentless Terminator


September 12, 2013: The U.S. Army has ordered another 3,000 RWS (Remote Weapon Systems) turrets. Officially called the M153 CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Stations), these devices allow an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors. CROWS has been a very popular weapon and a new contract includes upgrades of 6,000 CROWS II RWS to the new 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 over 17,000 of these systems so far (most to the United States but also to 16 other countries).

There have been constant upgrades to American RWS turrets. One of the recent improvements was the addition of a green laser, which can temporarily blind people. Such lasers have 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 is 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 is an IR Pointer, which, at night, enables the RWS operator to put a light, visible only to those using night-vision equipment, on something suspicious or otherwise important. The larger CROWS RWS models have also been equipped with a Javelin missile launcher. The army also sees RWS as a key element in the development of remotely controlled, or autonomous, armored vehicles.

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). The U.S. Army has over 8,000 RWS in service, mainly because it has become a standard system on American combat vehicles.

Kongsberg has several models of its RWS, to support small, medium, and large sized weapons. Now there are a lot of competitors, if only because Kongsberg can't keep up with the demand. Many of the new competitors are trying to grab niche markets. The more obvious ones are those demanding RWS that can handle larger weapons, like 25mm or 30mm autocannon. But the most interesting new development is 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.

This idea of a remote control turret has been around for nearly half a century but years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually resulted in a remote control gun turret that worked 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 for in terms of night vision and zoom. Most importantly, it's a lot safer. In pre-RWS days turret gunners made up a disproportionate number of combat casualties.

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. Without RWS 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 the 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.

By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in U.S. service. That rapidly increased until the RWS was standard on combat vehicles. Many of the enemy fighters have 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. It was soon found that the zoom and night vision capabilities made the RWS operator superior to having someone manually handling the weapon and detecting the enemy.

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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