Weapons: Chinese Remote Weapons Stations


November 2, 2011: A Chinese firm is marketing a RWS (Remote Weapon Stations). This one is similar to the light (74 kg/163 pounds) model used by the U.S. Army. The Chinese RWS is apparently not meant for vehicle use, but for facility or perimeter security. The Chinese RWS is shown mounting a light (5.8mm) machine-gun and touted for "counter-terror" missions. China is playing catch-up in this area, as Western nations have been developing RWS for decades. The Chinese have developed a vehicle mounted RWS, but is described as still in development. This RWS is 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. These devices allow an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors. Among the improvements 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 would enable 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 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 does not have any of these features. But some, like the green laser, could easily be added.

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 bought, or plans to buy, a total of 18,000 RWS systems. The army currently has 7,600 RWS in service. An RWS turret costs, on average, about $212,000 each. The remote control gun turret has now become a standard system on American combat vehicles.

Norwegian firm Kongsberg, the major supplier, has several models of its Protec 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.

The Protec RWS is the key component of the U.S. Army CROWS (common remotely operated weapon stations). 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.

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 Chinese system offered for sale is more similar to Israeli use of RWS, in turrets guarding the long border with Gaza. The Chinese RWS might be 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. There are now nearly 8,000. 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.

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.