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Robotic turrets: Corps' next-gen vehicles could feature remote weapons systems

Futuristic technology would save Marines' lives, logistician argues

Feb. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A Marine identifies a target using the display control panel of the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station II during a training exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., in April.
A Marine identifies a target using the display control panel of the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station II during a training exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., in April. (Lance Cpl. Devin Nichols / Marine Corps)
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A Marine identifies a target using the display control panel of the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station II during a training exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., in April. (Lance Cpl. Devin Nichols / Marine Corps)

Lance Cpl. Dale Means, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with Combat Logistics Battalion 2, was manning the turret on a 7-ton truck when a roadside bomb detonated.

Lance Cpl. Dale Means, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with Combat Logistics Battalion 2, was manning the turret on a 7-ton truck when a roadside bomb detonated.

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Lance Cpl. Dale Means, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with Combat Logistics Battalion 2, was manning the turret on a 7-ton truck when a roadside bomb detonated. Three Marines inside the vehicle — its driver, vehicle commander and security team leader — suffered serious, but non-life threatening back injuries. Means, a 23-year-old from Jordan, Minn., was killed.

His close friend, a lance corporal and fellow logistician, believes Means might be alive today if the Corps had followed the Army’s lead and purchased more remote weapons stations for its vehicles.

The Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station II — or CROWS II — allows troops to engage the enemy from inside the relative safety of an armored vehicle, using a joystick and a computer screen instead of line-of-sight targeting from a vulnerable perch in a turret.

“Means would have been just another back injury,” said his friend, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak about the issue. “Instead, Means came down on his own gun. The doc told us his neck was broken.”

The Army moved quickly on the weapons system, fielding 11,000 CROWS II, according to Debi Dawson, a spokeswoman for Program Executive Office Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va. But the Corps bought just a dozen.

Today, Marine officials say that remote weapons technology could be included in future vehicles now in development. But the service’s ambivalence up to this point stems from a belief the remote weapons station compromises situational awareness — that eyeballs in a turret are better at spotting threats and engaging targets. And there is reason for that viewpoint.

In 2010, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab tested CROWS II and found that while “there were some gains in operator protection, accuracy and nighttime visibility, the Marines using the system reported a loss of field of view and degradation in situational awareness,” said Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

The warfighting lab, based in Quantico, Va., conducted follow-on research to address those “situational awareness challenges,” but its work never resulted in a formal procurement effort.

The lab transferred its CROWS to the Office of Naval Research, which continued to work with the system. It created the Gunslinger Package for Advanced Convoy Security, commonly called GunPACS, which was intended for the service’s Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement, a six-wheeled, 7-ton truck commonly used to transport ammunition, food, water and other goods across the battle space.

In fact, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., had those weapons, and Means’ friend used them regularly during the deployment. Means, too, had been certified to use GunPACS during the unit’s predeployment workup, but was manning a regular turret when he was killed because the unit had only one remote weapons station in each convoy.

A versatile weapon

GunPACS combined the original sensors of CROWS II — a color daylight camera with up to a 45-degree field-of-view, a thermal imager for night and obscured conditions, and a laser rangefinder — with additional electronics, which included an IED jammer and Boomerang III, an acoustic sensor that can determine the geographic origin of incoming enemy fire. That was all integrated into a data-sharing system that could broadcast critical information, including the origin of enemy fire, to other vehicles in a convoy.

The system can accommodate the Mk19 grenade launcher, .50-caliber M2 machine gun, 5.56mm M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or 7.62mm M240B machine gun. Marines have used it with the M2 and the M240B.

In the event that the system’s remote controls fail, it can still be manned and operated manually, like a traditional turret-mounted weapon.

Five GunPACS were fielded to Marine units Afghanistan during the spring of 2011 for field-user evaluation. Their use resulted in what’s called a Urgent Universal Need Statement from II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), which at the time had oversight of all Marine forces operating in southwestern Afghanistan. The request was approved by Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon, and seven more GunPACS were shipped to Marines in April 2013, bringing the total downrange to 12. Since then, however, no new requests have been made by operating forces, according to Gibson.

Some Marines with CLB-2 agreed — at least when they first began learning to use the system — that it compromised situational awareness.

“It’s easier to spot things when your head is on a swivel instead of staring at a screen,” said Cpl. German Benitez, also with CLB-2, in a 2012 Marine news release as the unit geared up for its deployment to southern Afghanistan.

Benitez added, however, that additional training would help offset problems with situational awareness and said “the fact that you can stay in your vehicle is an obvious advantage and great safety feature.”

Means’ friend strongly disputes assertions that the system compromises situational awareness. Many Marines in the logistics battalion were skeptical when they first used the weapon, he said, but as training progressed and more people worked with the system, they came to see it as indispensable. That was especially true when detecting and engaging targets at long ranges.

GunPACS, he said, allowed his unit to zero in with magnification and detect potential targets nearly two miles away. The Marines could positively identify targets at a distance of more than half a mile. Also, because it is a stabilized system, the gun stays on target even when a vehicle is on the move across rugged terrain. By contrast, it is extremely difficult to identify targets through binoculars while on the move, and nearly impossible to fire on them with any kind of accuracy.

What is more, GunPACS would automatically orient itself toward incoming fire based on input from its acoustic sensors, helping Marines repel ambushes more quickly.

Seeing the value

For CLB-2, the issue of whether GunPACS had an adverse impact on situational awareness became a moot point after Means’ death. The Marines in his unit were prohibited from manning vehicle turrets while on the move. They would only man their weapons when stopped, which Means’ friend said amounted to “throwing away situational awareness.”

Video cameras and thermal sensors atop a moving vehicle are unquestionably better than nothing, he said.

The system also yielded tactical advantages, he said. For most of CLB-2’s deployment to Afghanistan, the Marines would run convoys between Camp Leatherneck and Camp Dwyer. Whenever they were hit with enemy rounds, he would put his GunPACS-equipped 7-ton between the incoming fire and the rest of the convoy.

“I could get between a disabled truck and the enemy and not give a f--- because I was inside,” he said. “My platoon commander saw the value.”

While there are no immediate plans to field more GunPACS, the Marine Corps has not ruled them out as a potential component of future vehicles now under development. Those include the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle and the Marine Personnel Carrier.

The requirements that will determine whether or not they are included are under development now, Gibson said.

“We have made provisions within future requirements for JLTV, ACV, and MPC to integrate a remote weapons system,” he wrote. “Government sponsored technology demonstrations and evaluations have been conducted to better understand RWS performance. Future work will serve to explore means to mitigate [situational awarness] loss and effectively integrate RWS technology into existing and planned vehicles.”

Means’ friend remains hopeful that the Corps comes to appreciate the value of the remote weapons system. The young Marine’s death was unnecessary and preventable, he said.

“I’d rather have Means here with a back injury,” he added, “than not here at all.”

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