In the trenchesDARPA looking to equip MRAPs with autonomous guns to engage enemy

Published 19 November 2009

DARPA’s Counter Rocket-Propelled Grenade and Shooter System with Highly Accurate Immediate Responses, or CROSSHAIRS, project will engage enemy soldiers autonomously, or remotely operated, while simultaneously shooting rockets out of the air

The U.S. Army are now equipping a small fleet of armored lorries with automatic defensive weapons which can detect incoming antitank rockets and shoot them down in mid-air before they strike, meanwhile retaliating upon the enemy gunmen with devastating firepower — all without human input.

Lewis Page writes that the new and aggressive robotic defense array is called Counter Rocket-Propelled Grenade and Shooter System with Highly Accurate Immediate Responses, or CROSSHAIRS for short. Mustang Technology Group of Texas has just been awarded an $8 million contract to fit the kit — plus Iron Curtain active protection — to twenty-five Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for “testing and evaluation.”

An MRAP may be considered by the U.S. Army as a light tactical vehicle, but it is pretty hefty at that. MRAPs, depending on exact model, can weigh in at more than twenty tons and feature heavy armor protection, especially underneath to resist the effects of mine explosions. The big vehicles have been rushed into service during recent years in an attempt to offer better protection to US troops in Iraq, frequently hit by powerful bombs.

Page notes that MRAPS are also attacked using a variety of other means, in particular they are often shot at, often not just with guns but with the ubiquitous RPG, a shoulder-fired rocket which uses a shaped charge warhead to pierce even quite thick armor.

In response, the U.A. Army has began to rely on remotely operated top guns, allowing the (human) gunner to stay inside the armor. It is also routine to see vehicles fitted with “bar armor” cages, designed to frustrate RPG warheads by making them explode too soon, before contact with the main plating. Sometimes even more cunning protection is used.

Trouble is, remotely operated guns fired by TV are tricky to use. It is hard, with the limited field of view offered by gun cameras, to spot the enemy and train the weapon on him. Bar armor is heavy, robbing a vehicle of performance and payload.

Enter CROSSHAIRS/Iron Curtain. The system uses interlinked miniature radars instantly to detect and track any fast-moving projectile in the vicinity, pinpointing the location of the firer and swiveling the vehicle’s turret guns onto target. If the incoming RPG seems likely actually to hit, the Iron Curtain system arms itself and, as the warhead comes close, a countermunition mounted on the edge of the vehicle’s roof fires downward and blasts it.

The downward-angling countermunitions are meant to avoid any snags with the system inadvertently blowing away innocent bystanders or shooting up the scenery. Provided nobody is standing too close by, all should be well.

Page writes that meanwhile, even as the RPG is being blasted in midair, CROSSHAIRS — if necessary without human input — is raking the place it was fired from with a hail of fire from a .50-caliber heavy machine gun, automatic grenade launcher, or whatever else the MRAP has in its top mount. Trucks within a convoy will cooperate automatically using a digital network, sharing out targets and avoiding any friendly-fire accidents. It is possible to have a human check first before the trucks cut loose, but not necessary.

Threat identification and localization will be accomplished in sufficient time to enable both automatic and man-in-the-loop responses,” say the researchers responsible for CROSSHAIRS.

Page notes that we are talking here about an array of automated weaponry able to pick a speeding rocket out of the air while simultaneously shooting dead the person who fired it, so the identity of the agency behind CROSSHAIRS will not surprise regular readers. It is DARPA, the Pentagon push-the-envelop research arm.