Tuesday 25 September 2007

The price of a soldier

Whether it is from sniper fire or an IED, it is often the top gunner of a patrol vehicle who is most vulnerable and is most often a casualty when insurgents attack.

The US Air Force – no stranger to spending other peoples' money – is therefore investing in a new "high-technology weapons system" currently being used during outside-the-wire patrols in Iraq.

This is "CROWS", a stabilized, computer-controlled, all-weather firing platform, which is being mounted over the turret-gunner's station of an up-armored Humvee. It provides a 360-degree long-range precision engagement capability to a patrol crew while keeping the gunner safely protected inside the vehicle.

The weapon station is capable of mounting a variety of armament, such as the MK-19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher or an M2 .50-cal. heavy machine gun, and is guided by a laser rangefinder and ballistic computer pre-programmed with the flight characteristics of every ammunition type.

The result is an incredibly accurate firing solution, even when the vehicle is on the move. A gunner only needs to put the crosshairs on target, tag it with the laser rangefinder, accept the firing solution and the computer adjusts the aim point automatically.

Accordingly, it is claimed to have "first shot on target" accuracy well before a team is close enough to be in danger. One crew in Iraq says they used a .50 cal M2 to kill an insurgent with just a single shot taken at 1.4 miles. They hit him in the head with the first round.

As well as increasing the safety of the gunner, the system provides a stabilized high magnification camera system and thermal imager. Using a 13-inch colour screen, the gunner is able to safely survey a much larger area with extremely high resolution, all while providing high weapon accuracy at a moment's notice.

However, the bottom line is the cost. At $250,000 for each station, this is approximately twice the cost of a British Army "Snatch" Land Rover. And, being mounted in up-armoured Humvees, the vehicle itself is still highly vulnerable to IEDs, from which the whole crew are at risk – not just the gunner.

Then, the concept itself invites concerns. With the crew totally ensconced in their armoured shell, the gunner viewing the world through a TV screen, it must surely add to the sense of detachment, as the vehicle sweeps by. With no human image visible and a robotic gun and camera panning the vista, this cannot contribute significantly to any "hearts and minds" campaign.

Therein, lies a dilemma that faces military planners. To what extent must troops be protected from hostile acts and to what extent does that prove counter-productive, in detaching the troops from the environment they are policing?

And, at $250,000 a shout, can the military afford this sort of expenditure, even if it does save the occasional life – especially if the end result is to increase alienation which, in the longer term might cost more lives?

As technology more and more dominates the battlefield – which is so often the urban street of the counter-insurgency campaign – these are the sort of question that need to be asked, and the issues debated. Gen. Dannatt made a start, but the debate needs a wider audience.