Firepower for all needs.

Author:Valpolini, Paolo
 
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The need for increased protection and surveillance capabilities played a major role in the development of the light remotely controlled weapon station (RCWS) for light vehicles intended for patrol, reconnaissance and combat missions. They are thus designed to replace the pintle-mounted weapon which tended to over-expose the gunner to the enemy fire. They also offer an alternative to one-man turrets that were too heavy for most of the lighter vehicles.

In addition to the above, the threat to lines of communications in an asymmetric warfare scenario led to a new possible market for such systems, namely their installation on logistic vehicles. Moreover, vintage armoured personnel carriers - wheeled or tracked - originally equipped with pintle mounts, found in the RCWS a solution to maintain their military effectiveness, providing their protection was sufficient. So much for the mobile role.

The need for protection in the numerous forward operating bases (FOBs) and combat outposts (COPs) that have characterised the Afghan mission has, however, led to the use of RCWS also for base defence. Here stabilisation becomes redundant, and some companies are thus looking at ways of offering cheaper solutions in a world of shrinking budgets. As noted initially, remotely controlled weapon stations do not provide just firepower, but thanks to their optronic sighting systems they play a useful role in situational awareness, surveillance and, when linked to a recording device, intelligence gathering. Thermal imagers certainly have a cost (especially the uncooled thermal variety), but their prices are now on the decline.

Another issue linked to cost is the capability of decoupling the weapon from the sights: today it is more tactful to observe without training the weapon over civilians, so being able to keep the machine gun at its maximum elevation while panning the optronic package definitely can be a diplomatic advantage. Another issue that has nourished debates is under armour ammunition reloading, as this entails a heavier structure and associated higher cost, but ensures maximum safety in combat.

Medium calibre systems, armed with automatic cannon of between 20 and 50 mm, are installed in manned or unmanned turrets, or in overhead weapon stations. Turrets have the advantage of protecting the weapon and ammunition from both weather and enemy fire. Manned turrets require a ballistic protection similar to that of the carrier vehicle, which makes them relatively heavy.

Maintaining the commander and gunner in the direction of the gun or decoupling them to accommodate them in the vehicle remains matter for conjecture when calibres increase, with resistance toughening when even higher calibres are involved. The main advantages of a remotely controlled turret are the lack of a basket, which increases the available volume in the vehicle combat compartment, and the reduced need of upper ballistic protection (Level 2 being more than acceptable) and therefore reduced weight. A disputed issue that emerged from lessons learned downrange is that of the availability of a hatch allowing the commander to acquire a direct view of the surroundings; while with light RCWS this is obtained installing the system in a position that allows to maintain one of the vehicle hatches free, medium calibre turrets dimensions do not allow such a solution. Thus a hatch on top of the turret itself is required, as with manned turrets. This commands an opening in the vehicle roof to access the turret, a solution often adopted to ensure maintenance and under-armour ammunition reloading, as well as an empty passage in the turret to allow the commander to reach the hatch. However, the lack of a basket may lead to limitations to turret movement, the system being normally frozen for safety reasons when personnel is moving up or down. Sighting systems improve with weapons ranges and thereby provide better surveillance capabilities; in addition those turrets are very often equipped with panoramic sights for the commander, a privilege hitherto reserved to main battle tanks.

Lessons learned have clearly proved the importance of surveillance and target acquisition. Many armies are therefore installing such systems more for those missions than for hunter-killer capabilities. Another often considered solution is that of the "turret-on-turret" , where a light RCWS is installed over a medium or heavy calibre turret to provide not only surveillance (albeit with reduced performance compared to the longer range sensors typical of panoramic sights), but also close range protection.

Materials technology as well as improved recoil systems have allowed to produce new turrets equipped with full pressure 105 and 120 mm tank guns in for chassis of 25 tonnes upwards. While wheeled chassis that can be equipped with such turrets are available in relatively limited numbers, many tracked chassis can withstand the weight and recoil of main battle tank guns, thus becoming in fact light tanks in their own right. As depicted in the Armada's recent Compendium on IFVs and APCs, trends in terms of platform weight are quite contrasting: some who were hitherto "fans of heavies" , such as Israel, are now looking at medium weight solutions while those who advocated mobility and operational deployability, the United States, seem to be going in the opposite direction--towards heavy solutions. What nevertheless remains true is that MBTs are not necessarily the most viable solution for armies that do not look at a full spectrum warfare scenario, and the plethora of turrets of various weights, calibres and architecture can answer many of today requirements.

Light for Lights

While most RCWS can host 5.56,7.62 and 12.7 mm machine guns and 40 mm automatic grenade launchers, some can accept the smaller calibre automatic cannon normally used in medium-calibre turrets and weapon stations, becoming the trait d'union between the two categories.

KONGSBERG PROTECH

The Norwegian company, part of the Kongsberg Group, remains by large the main provider of RCWS, with nearly 17,000 such. systems delivered in 17 countries. Its Protector has been developed in various versions, becoming a sort of benchmark in the light RCWS field, the system being constantly upgraded to answer new market requirements. Leveraging experience garnered with the M151 that featured integrated smoke grenade launchers, the Norwegian company developed the M153, though it sheds the grenade launchers in favour of some side ballistic protection and adopts a new ammunition loading system. The type won the US Army Crows II contract in 2007 followed by a number of follow-on orders, the last one occurring in September 2013. According to lessons learned from the field, the adoption of the Crows II allowed to reduce 12.7 mm ammunition consumption by 70% thanks to the dramatic increase in first-round accuracy. Another major contract was obtained from an undisclosed customer in November 2012, while in April 2013 a further contract for an undisclosed number of Protectors in the Nordic configuration was signed as part of the framework agreement finalised with Norway and Sweden two years earlier. The Nordic is currently the most sophisticated version of the Protector; beside the 4th generation fire control system it features a new sensor suite developed inhouse that includes three separate cameras with different FoVs, from 1.6[degrees] to 95[degrees], the latter being provided by the Kongsberg Day Camera VIS 95 that considerably increases situational awareness, an 850 nm infrared aiming laser providing pinpoint accuracy. In addition, the Nordic also allows decoupling the weapon elevation from that of the sensor suite to ensure surveillance in a nonthreatening posture in missions other than war. A version with three cameras is also being developed, which will allow combining "picture in picture" on the screen with three images having different fields of view. In May 2013 Croatia signed a further contract for Protectors for installation on the AMY 8x8s being produced locally under license from Patria.

While vehicle installations remain its main application, the Protector is also seen as a suitable static defence system. At AUSA 2012 the company unveiled the Containerised Weapon Station (CWS) based on an ISO-rated Tricon Type 1 container.

Equipped with a rigid-chain electromechanical lift it can raise a Crows II RCWS at a lofty 4.6 metres in less than 30 seconds. The weapon station also integrates a Javelin missile on its right (a small electronic box houses the interface). When the latter is to be used the turret is switched to missile mode so that the operator can see the image provided by the Javelin seeker. The CWS is powered by a multifuel generator and a battery pack, and a Standoff Extension Kit allows it to be linked to a command centre up to one kilometre away. Some 20 CWS are currently deployed to Afghanistan with the US Army and special operations units as part of forward observation bases protection suites. A multiple control station has been purposely developed for such use.

Another recent addition to the Protector/Crows flexibility is the M134 Weapon Adapter Kit (WAK) which enables Special Operations Forces to install the M134 7.62 six-barrel Gatling machine gun on the company RCWS. The kit includes the weapon cradle, weapon interfaces, remote activator, gun control unit, 24V battery with charging module and a 3,000-round ammunition magazine feed system. The system is now being delivered.

Another kit is the Sea Protector, which allows the M153 Protector to be optimised for maritime operations. The kit includes sealed subsystems and components, improved corrosion resistance, a modified sensor package and an improved tracking system. Kongsberg is delivering the Sea Protector to the US Navy, where it is known as the Mk50, for installation on small patrol boats and special operations craft.

In order to allow lighter vehicles to be equipped...

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