Weapons: The Robot Refused To Fire

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June 7, 2020: In early May 2020, there was a brief exchange of machine-gun fire on the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) that separates North and South Korea. One unexplained aspect of the incident was why one of the South Korean weapons failed to fire when ordered to do so. The faulty weapon was a Super aEgis 2 RWS (Remote Weapons Station) in a concrete tower that can fire automatically at people trying to sneak across the four kilometer wide DMZ. More often, the RWS is only fired remotely by operators in a control center who monitor the use of several of these RWS weapons along with a sector of the DMZ.

The exchange of fire was apparently caused by North Korean soldiers manning a 14.5mm machine-gun who accidentally fired their weapon. Four 14.5mm bullets hit one of the concrete South Korea Army guard posts over four kilometers away. There were no injuries and the South Koreans returned fire with about 30 small caliber machine-gun bullets before all firing stopped. South Korea protested and North Korea later revealed that the shooting was an accident by inexperienced troops. North Korea did not apologize but did express regret about the poor discipline of their troops. On the South Korean side there was concern because attempts to use a remotely controlled 12.7mm machine-gun failed because of a “system problem.”

The South Korea RWS was one of the most advanced RWS available anywhere. The manufacturer, South Korean firm DoDamm, introduced the Super aEgis 2 in 2015 as part of a high-tech security system for military installations, border protection and so on. Most Super aEgis 2 weapons have been bought by the South Korea Army for use on the DMZ. Export customers include several Persian Gulf nations that use Super aEgis 2 systems to protect military facilities. Super aEgis 2 normally operates under control of a distant human operator in a building or bunker. Each of these operators handles several Super aEgis 2 RWS, which are usually mounted in concrete towers to protect them from gunfire and rockets.

Each Super aEgis 2 is equipped with a wide array of sensors, including high-resolution day/night digital camera with x35 zoom, autofocus, a thermal (heat) sensor and other features which enable the system to detect a man-sized target at up to 3,000 meters away in daylight and 2,200 meters at night. There is also a laser ranger finder and “focused sound” loudspeaker that can deliver audible verbal warnings to people 3,000 meters away.

While a 12.7mm machine-gun can deliver effective area fire up to 2,000 meters away, the additional sensors on the Super aEgis 2 enable the machine-gun to hit individual targets 2,000 meters away with the first shot (4-5 rounds) burst of fire. Normally the remote operator is alerted to verify what the sensors have detected and decided if that justifies having the RWS open fire. The South Korean has not and may never reveal details of what the “system problem” with the Super aEgis 2 was but it may have been something as simple as the sensors not detecting anyone out there. The DMZ is 4,000 meters wide and full of animals who thrive there because there are no people. It has become one of the largest nature preserves in the world. Each side has landmines and, especially on the South Korean side additional ground sensors, near their side of the DMZ. People do occasionally get across but many more are detected and warned to back off or else (be fired on). This usually persuades the line crosser to either identify themselves or turn around. Most of these incidents are North Koreans trying to escape their own country and gain asylum and citizenship in South Korea. During the May incident, there was no one out there; only some North Korean soldiers on their edge of the DMZ mishandling their 14.5mm machine-gun.

Super aEgis 2 can be put on automatic. DoDamm and the South Korean military have extensively tested this RWS in autonomous mode, especially the ability of the sensors to detect people up to three kilometers away. That worked during tests and the exported systems have had a few incidents of people getting into the prohibited security zone. It is unclear if Super aEgis 2 has ever been in automated mode and fired on and hit people. Super aEgis 2 has numerous safety features to prevent accidental firing, but most of these safety features can be modified at customer request to enable automated detection followed by software controlled machine-gun fire.

Super aEgis 2 is part of a more extensive security system that provides operators with a large number of maps and video to show the human operator as much data as possible about who or what is out there and what the “intruder”, which is usually a four legged animal, looks like and is up to. Super aEgis 2 was not designed to be the first generation of “killer robots.”

DoDamm is a late-comer to the RWS field. Founded in 2000 by the larger Korean Aeronautics Corporation, DoDamm began as a developer of highly accurate aircraft and system simulators. DoDamm introduced Super aEgis 2 in 2015 as part of a very impressive security system. Other South Korean RWS manufacturers build weapons platforms for military use on vehicles or ships. DoDamm specializes in highly automated sensors, like airborne cameras that can interpret what they are sensing.

This idea of a remote control turret has been around for over half a century. Years of tinkering and better technology, eventually resulted in a remote control gun turret that works 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.

Since 2001 the main RWS supplier for the U.S. Army has been the Norwegian firm Kongsberg. This company has delivered over 20,000 of these systems so far, most to the United States but also to over twenty other countries. Kongsberg developed its RWS in the late 1990s and in 1999 the Norwegian contingent to the Kosovo peacekeeping force was equipped with an early model. Other NATO soldiers were impressed with the Kongsberg RWS and by 2001 the U.S. Army had ordered 1,700 of them. By 2007 orders had increased to 6,700. The troops were very enthusiastic. The U.S. Army called their RWS the CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapons System) and U.S. combat experience greatly influenced upgrades and enhancements made by Kongsberg and other companies' RWS.

There have been constant upgrades to American RWS turrets. One useful improvement 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 since the 1990s. 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 10,000 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.

 


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