A String of Pearls

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The author, with actor “Gunny” R. Lee Ermey

It’s never like old times, of course.  We get older, the world keeps spinning, things fall apart, and tucking in behind a crew-served gun, although something like riding a bicycle, feels a little different on this end of the years.  It’s slower maybe, the rust of time and a lot of miles revealed in stiffer joints and reaction times.  But at the Bushmaster Users Conference–although I was there as a journalist–I was also there as an infantry Marine, and there are some pure thrills that don’t change too much.  Hammering targets downrange never gets old.  And I mean that sincerely.  I’ve never seen a sentient human being crawl behind an M2 .50 caliber machine gun, throw a few thousand dollars of ammunition down range on a butterfly trigger, watch steel rendered into swiss cheese, and walk away with anything other than a gigantic smile and a raw, almost giddy, appreciation for the power and magnificence of heavy weaponry.

And there was a lot of heavy weaponry on the firing line.  A 7.62 “Baby Bush”, fired from a Mk 52 ViperLite Nobles Worldwide mount, capable of throwing something in the order of 30k rounds downrange without stopping–not recommended treatment of course–that is also capable of firing at that cyclic rate without failure.  Imagine that.  No misfires.  It cycles through.  Anyone who has ever been in a fight with their own weapon in a jackpot situation, due to malfunctions of any type, can understand how sexy that proposition is.

And Bushmaster has also developed a system that allows our war fighters to change a 30mm cannon into a 40mm cannon in about 45 minutes.  This cannon, which fires a suite of ammunition ranging from High Explosive to Programmable Air Burst munitions and, we are promised, Proximity Munitions in the near future, puts incredible effects on target at impressive stand-off ranges, and when mounted with either the Kongsberg or EOS targeting software and systems is accurate to an almost unbelievable degree.

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Toyota LC 79, with Remote Weapons Station and Bushmaster M230LF

Why is all of this important?  Because, as a nation, we have not made a serious upgrade to many of our capabilities since Ronald Reagan was president.  Because we are, in the words of a retired US Army artillery Colonel at the conference, “significantly outgunned” by our “near peer threats.”

That’s a somewhat shocking revelation to those of us who have assumed, based on the deluge of pretty videos, and not a little arrogance in American firepower and ingenuity, that we are always ahead of the threats our warfighters face.  The threats are real, increasing at pace worldwide, and we aren’t.

It was significant to note the presence of so many of the Baltic and Scandinavian military officers at the conference–who have no illusions about Vladimir and Co., and their designs on the old Soviet–they predate that, even–spheres of influence and hegemony.

And it was quite heartening to see the accuracy of Bushmaster’s weaponry, the sophistication of the Remote Weapons Stations, and the survivability that has been built into the next generation of vehicles.  The General Dynamics LAV–which even “back in my day” was an impressive creature, is even more impressive now.  With the next generation of Remote Weapons Stations, no one has to stand up in the turret–where they are exposed to hostile fire–to acquire battlespace awareness.  The commander and the gunner both have complimentary systems inside the shell of the vehicle.  They can see almost everything, and they can shoot with extreme accuracy on the move–either while they are moving, the target is moving, or both.  That’s lethality.  That’s a force multiplier times ten.  That’s what I want for those war fighters we send down range, the sons and daughters who shoulder the load for Old Glory.

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Back on the gun, and still on target after all these years…

One of the finer demonstrations–which we were privileged to witness in both the runup to the demonstration, and then during the demonstration itself–was the effects on target from a “String of Pearls” firing of Bushmaster’s Air Burst Munitions.  Up against a desert hillside, range techs had built a regulation NATO trench system, suitable for a squad sized element and with a mortar emplacement.  Think of the trench as built in shape of an H turned over on its side, the two legs serving as forward and secondary firing positions, with the little crossbar as a communications trench.  They filled the trench with mannequins in sandbagged positions, and filmed the resulting effects with the aid of Phantom Cameras and an air force of small drones.

Air Burst Munitions can be programmed in three dimensions.  And all of this is done inside the vehicle, by a gunner, who calls up the software in his station and programs the munitions for range, height of burst, time of flight, etc.  Then he fires.  The round flies downrange and explodes at the programmed height above the trench, sending shrapnel down on the defenders inside.  This is not entirely new–some sort of air bursting munitions have existed since WW1, perhaps even before–what is new is the extreme level of accuracy.  As it was described to me, if you can imagine a 3 dimensional box in the air, the weapons and software now integrate so that a 19 year old kid from Arkansas can send a 30 or 40mm round into that very precise box, and make it explode.  By firing a “String of Pearls”–many rounds in succession–that gunner can walk the box precisely over the entire H, and thereby eliminate a strong-pointed position in just a few short seconds.    And he can do it from beyond the enemy’s ability to engage him.

That is called stand-off.  And my compadre, Jim Cornelius, had several long discussions about how stand-off, in that very place, had changed so dramatically in just over a century.  The hills around Big Sandy were once the realm of the Apaches, whose standoff was the distance they could fire an arrow from a short bow.  From where we stood on the firing line, to the target, a distance of about 500m, was perfectly safe.

But today there is nowhere to hide–no defilade is good enough, and stand-off has increased to MILES.  And truly, if we think about ballistic missiles, it increases to thousands of miles.

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General Dynamics LAV with Kongsberg Mount and Bushmaster Cannon

It has always sucked to be in the infantry, and these systems just elevated the suck factor by orders of magnitude.  It’s Kipling:  “Well It’s Tommy This, and Tommy That, and Tommy How’s yer soul?”

War isn’t going away.  It seems likely we may end up living in a continuous state of low-intensity warfare, in one clime or another, on into the foreseable future.  The world is, perhaps, closer and still farther apart than ever, and the competition for resources has never been more immediate.  War is the most horrible of all things, but we owe it to our warfighters to send them downrange with the finest equipment and leadership that we can possibly develop, and I was heartened to see some of those systems on display out there on the Big Sandy.

 

  1. Great article!

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    1. Thanks Chris! I can say, in all honesty, it did not suck getting back on the big guns. Not at all. 🙂

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  2. Granting Asylum February 6, 2017 at 6:13 am

    As they say in my wonderful Infintry brother, “Embrace the Suck”. This is a great article Craig, it always amazes me that a Marine is capable of such master word smithing. You genuinely have a gift.

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    1. Thank you my friend, sincerely. And you are of course correct: embrace the suck. I’m glad it will be our folks throwing much of that suck downrange…

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  3. Very enlightening thank you!

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