There has always been a school of thought, muttered sotto voce between friends, that the sooner we get the Restoration War over the better. The idea of these analysts, and not all of them are armchair, is that military technology will advance to the point that governments will finally possess some combination of 1984 and Star Wars that trumps the semi-automatic rifle, even in overwhelming numbers.
Now, for myself I must say that every system I have seen to date has a weakness, and that no technology will ever trump the human brain and an iron-clad will to resist. However, that doesn't mean I believe we can ignore the revolution in cybernetic military hardware. Today I present four examples: Hummingbirds, CROWS, and the Ironmen: SentryTechs & AvantGuards.
First, this from that excellent military affairs website, StrategyPage.com.
Iron Man Is Jewish
December 10, 2008: Over the last two years, Israeli firms have developed several remotely controlled weapons for guarding the Gaza security fence. This is not just a fence, but a network of sensors for detecting Palestinian terrorists attempting to cross, or set up bombs for use against Israeli patrols. The Israeli border with Gaza is 51 kilometers long, and most of it is in desert or semi-desert terrain. For a long time, most of the border was patrolled by troops in vehicles, while parts of it, near gates, were also guarded by manned watchtowers. But the Palestinian terrorists have been persistent in attacking the fence, and trying to get through it. None have ever succeeded, and survived. But the patrols were often attacked. One Israeli soldier was kidnapped two years ago, and some are killed each year.
The solution has been a system of unmanned towers and vehicles. The Sentry-Tech pillbox towers were developed four years ago. These are unmanned, armored towers, about 15 feet tall and six feet in diameter. At the top of the tower is an armored shelter that conceals a remotely control machine-gun. This technology is similar to that used for many armored vehicles. The tower also contains vidcams, and other sensors. But the remotely controlled machine-gun has a vidcam that can see at night and the ability to enlarge and enhance the image. The operators are at a central location (and are mostly female soldiers). If intruders are detected, the operator opens the top of the tower and brings out the machine-gun. The 12.7mm machine-gun has a range of 2,000 meters. Some towers use a 7.62mm machine-gun, with a range of 800 meters. Allowing for some overlap, 16-17 of these towers can cover the entire Gaza border.
In addition to the towers, remotely controlled armed vehicles have also been developed, to reinforce the towers or patrol areas where there are blind spots. Two years ago, the AvantGuard vehicle was introduced. This one used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross country operation as well. The AvantGuard mounted a remote controlled gun turret equipped with a 7.62mm machine-gun. The vehicle had digital cameras facing every direction, and used pattern recognition to identify potential threats (like people sneaking around where they are not supposed to be), or obstacles on the road. The idea was that a pair of human operators could control a dozen or more AvantGuard vehicles. This system was particularly effective at night, because it had night vision and moved quietly. Weighing only 1.3 tons, the AvantGuard was protected against rifle fire and fragments from shells and roadside bombs. AvantGuard was adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza.
Building on the AvantGuard technology, another firm later developed the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and remote control turret, the Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium is pitched as "smart" enough to be used in urban areas, and to serve as an emergency response vehicle. That is, these would be stationed along isolated stretches of border, ready to drive off to deal with any terrorists who had gotten through the fence. The Guardium would thus arrive before a human quick reaction team, which would be stationed farther away.
MBV: Next, also from StrategyPage.com comes this:
December 11, 2008: The remote control turret changed the battlefield more than you might think. It all began three years ago, when the U.S. Army realized that new remote control gun turret designs actually worked, and suddenly they could not get enough of them. The army ordered over 9,000 CROWS (common remotely operated weapon stations), but for a while could only get 15 a month. By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in service by the end of the year.
The main issue was that the enemy was no longer able to knock out the turret gunner, early in a firefight, and take away a lot of the vehicles firepower. Because of that, once the enemy opens fire, they are in trouble. The remote turret tends to begin delivering accurate fire right away, and is much more immune to enemy fire than a human gunner. If the vehicle is a Stryker, the enemy will soon find themselves dealing with half a dozen or so heavily armed infantry, who get out of the vehicle and come at the ambushers. Iraqis don't like that. They also don't like how some of the CROWS turret equipped vehicles will come after them. All those accurately aimed bullets coming their way, and no enemy soldiers in sight, is demoralizing.
The idea for CROWS has been around for nearly half a century. Years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually made the remote control gun turret effective and dependable. CROWS is a real lifesaver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through bandit country a lot, and have a turret mounted gun (usually in a hummer). The guy manning the turret mounted machine-gun is 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 on a computer monitor (with night vision 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 cost about $260,000 each, and can mount a variety of weapons (M2 .50 caliber machine-gun, MK19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher, M240B 7.62mm machine-gun and M249 5.56mm squad automatic weapon).
The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves so quickly and deliberately, is due to something few officers expected. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating 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. Iraqis are amazed at how observant CROWS is. Iraqis tend to just wrote this off as another example of American "magic."
Many Iraqis, especially the bad guys, get distressed while watching a CROWS turret being exercised by some video game addict inside the vehicle. That's because the most noticeable part of CROWS, as it swivels and "looks" around, is the machine-gun. Many Iraqis don't even recognize the vidcam and other sensors. They think the machine-gun is, well, sort of R2D2 with a bad attitude and a license to kill.
Meanwhile, inside vehicles like the Stryker, the troops do feel like they are in another world. The Stryker is air conditioned, well equipped with electronics (including a sound system you can plug an iPod into) and a lot nicer than the nastiness outside.
MBV: Finally, there is the Hummingbird. Sounds sweet and inncoent, doesn't it?
Meet the A160T Hummingbird:
(Sorry, still having trouble mastering photo insertion.
RoboChoppers Head For The Hills
October 22, 2008: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has ordered ten of the new A160T Hummingbird UAVs. This is a new vehicle, that just completed about a decade of development. Deliveries were not expected to begin until next year, but SOCOM is getting its A160Ts by the end of the year.
The A160T was developed as part of a U.S. Department of Defense effort to develop a helicopter UAV that could stay in the air for over twelve hours at a time. The most recent test had a A160T Hummingbird staying in the air for 18.7 hours, at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, while carrying a 300 pound load (to simulate a typical sensor package). This set a record for unmanned UAVs weighing between half a ton and 2.5 tons. When the A160T landed, it still had 90 minutes worth of fuel left. The first flight test of the Hummingbird Unmanned Aerial Vehicle took place six years ago.
The A160T is a small helicopter, able to fly under remote control or under its own pre-programmed control. The three ton vehicle has a top speed of 255 kilometers an hour, and was originally designed to operate for up to 40 hours carrying a payload of 300 pounds. Max payload is over half a ton. Maximum altitude was to be about 30,000 feet, and its advanced flight controls were to be capable of keeping it airborne in weather that would ground manned helicopters.
The A160T uses a commercial 300 horsepower automobile engine. This enables better control over speed, since turbines must run at nearly the same speed all the time. A piston engine can idle at 50 percent power. That control made the UAV better at what helicopters do best, just stay in one place. But in addition, that long endurance was to translate into 4,500 kilometers range. After the first flight test, it was believed the aircraft might be ready for production by 2006. That was too optimistic. Helicopters are complex beasts, and things take longer.
The Hummingbird can also be armed, and one has been configured with stubby wings, capable of carrying eight (hundred pounds each) Hellfire missiles. The U.S. Navy is interested in the A160, because it can operate off any ship with a helipad. SOCOM wants the A160T because it can hover, and because it is actually very quiet. (Emphasis supplied, MBV)
MBV Note: "SpeedyGonzalez" notes that Janes has this to say about the quiet blades:
"This impressive performance is achieved by reworking traditional helicopter design. Normal helicopters work at a fixed rate of rotor revolutions per minute. Rotors are flexible, articulated and have a complex pattern of vibration; changing speed would cause potentially dangerous vibration. In addition, the rotor speed is generally as high as possible; this is an advantage when the helicopter is moving fast, so that the retreating blade still provides some lift. As a result, normal helicopters are noisy (sound is directly related to rotor speed) and wasteful, as most of the time the high rotor speed is not essential." http://speedygonzalezesdeladea.blogspot.com/2008/11/boeing-a160t-hummingbird.html
The chopper can deliver supplies to Special Forces teams at night, as well as assist with intelligence gathering. Moreover, the A160T can carry new sensor that can detect people moving through forests or thick bush below. Most likely, the SOCOM A160Ts are headed for Afghanistan, where are plenty of forests up in the mountains. Like other UAVs, the A160T carries the usual assortment of day and night video cameras, plus laser rangefinder and laser designator.
The A160 has some competition in the RQ-8B Fire Scout, which can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate over 200 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) The RQ-8A is being developed for use on smaller navy ships, as well as with army combat units.
The U.S. Army version of the RQ-8A will be particularly useful supporting combat operations in urban areas. Both the RQ-8A and the A160T carry day and night cameras, GPS and targeting gear (laser range finders and designators). The RQ-8 is based on a two seat civilian helicopter (the Schweizer Model 333), and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.5 tons. With its rotors folded (for storage on ships), the RQ-8 is 23 feet long and 9.4 feet high. Max payload is 600 pounds, meaning it would probably carry hundred pound Hellfire, or 44 pound Viper Strike missiles. Each RQ-8 UAV costs about $8 million (including a share of the ground control equipment and some spares.) The flight control software enables the RQ-8 to land and take off automatically. The A160T is expected to have similar features, but cost at least 20 percent more. However, with this early order from SOCOM, the A160T has an opportunity to gain valuable combat experience. If the reviews are positive, the RQ-8A will lose market share to the "combat proven" A160T..
At StrategyPage's wbesite, poster "Hurlbee36" notes: Some clarification -- Some A-160s (notice the "T" missing), equipped with piston engines have already been delivered said George Muellner, president, Advanced Systems, Boeing IDS. The newer design VTOL aircraft is powered by a turbine engine, replacing the piston engine used on earlier birds. This can operate at altitudes up to 25,000 ? 30,000 ft and hover for hours at an altitude of 15,000 ft.