Marines adding guns, anti-missile systemsto protect helicopters
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Marine Corps is improving the survivability of its deployed popular “workhorse” helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, with new firepower and anti-missile systems.
In an expedited effort to equip fleets deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Corps has ramp-mounted a .50-caliber machine gun, which can deliver about 1,000 rounds a minute.
“This gives the helicopter 180 degrees of fire off the rear of the helicopter,” said Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Hammer, deputy program manager for the Marine Corps’ Crew Served Weapons Defense Suppression Systems.
The 24 Belgian-made GAU-21 guns are set to arrive in Iraq by June, and by September another 24 will be installed on aircraft operating in the Central Command area of responsibility, including Afghanistan and Djibouti.
Such a system is the first real upgrade to an assault support aircraft since 1962, and a much-needed one, Hammer said.
It would have been ideal, for example, in 1995, when Marines in CH-53 Super Stallions swooped in to rescue downed Air Force pilot Capt. Scott O’Grady in Bosnia, he said.
“The O’Grady rescue is one we used to justify the buying of the system,” Hammer said. “If they’d had a ramp-mounted system, they would have been able to return fire when leaving. … The ramp-mounted .50-caliber weapon would have given them the ability to suppress fire on their way out of the rescue.”
While the mission was a success and Marines took no casualties, they had no way of delivering suppressive fire on their way out and the helicopters took much fire at the rear, he said.
And the system doesn’t need electricity supplied by the aircraft, Hammer said. “They can dismount from the airplane and still continue to defend themselves.”
The Corps is spending $9.6 million for 160 GAU-21 weapon systems through May 2005 with plans to mount them on CH-46 Sea Knights, CH-53 Sea Stallions, H-60 Black Hawks, UH-1 Hueys, and MV-22 Osprey, the new tilt-rotor aircraft.
In August, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, deployed to Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, with four of the systems on their CH-53E Super Stallions.
“We’ve been getting excellent feedback,” Hammer said, declining to elaborate on classified operations.
Lt. Gen. Michael Hough, deputy commandant for aviation, said lessons learned from combat missions in Iraq by both the Marine Corps and Army led to a push to get better aviation safety equipment.
Other new systems include the AN/AAR-47 Missile Warning System, which detects surface-to-air missiles fired at helicopters and low or slow-flying aircraft, and the AN/ALE-47 Countermeasures Dispensing System, which sends out flairs to deceive incoming missiles.
“One of the most lethal weapons we’re encountering are the shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles,” said Col. Doug Isleib, the AH-1 Super Cobra program manager.
And a new ballistic protection system of woven composite armor panels, weighing about 1,500 pounds per helo, line the flooring and provide increased protection against penetrating rounds. When a Colombian H-60 equipped with the system recently landed on a land mine, all occupants walked away unscathed, Hammer said.
If only the panels could line the walls, too, said Col. “Tex” Alles, the Corps’ aviation weapons systems branch head.
“You can’t armor the whole aircraft, or it won’t fly,” Alles said. “That’s why tanks don’t fly.”