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Monday, October 17, 2016

The Tactical Blog from Cactus Tactical

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Tanks and Armored Fighting & Reconnaissance Vehicles, Part II

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our thirteenth installment let's take a look at the most common tanks and armored fighting & reconnaissance vehicles of the war in Afghanistan.

Part II: AAF / ACF Fighters

While there isn't much recorded of battles between US Forces and Taliban possessing tanks, the Taliban did have an arsenal of tanks, fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers during their years of control over Afghanistan and during the raging civil war in Afghanistan at the beginning of the US-led invasion. Though the majority, if not all, were out of the hands of the Taliban by the end of 2001.

The T-54 and T-55 tanks are a series of Soviet main battle tanks introduced just as the Second World War ended. The first T-54 prototype appeared in March 1945 and entered full production in 1947. It became the main tank for armored units of the Soviet Army, armies of the Warsaw Pact countries, and many others. T-54s and T-55s were involved in many of the world's armed conflicts during the late 20th century.

The T-54/55 series eventually became the most-produced tank in military history. Estimated production numbers for the series range from 86,000 to 100,000. They were replaced by the T-62, T-64, T-72, T-80, and T-90 in the Soviet and Russian armies, but remain in use by up to 50 other armies worldwide, some having received sophisticated retrofitting.

In its long service life, the T-55 has been upgraded many times. Early T-55s were fitted with a new TSh-2B-32P sight. In 1959, some tanks received mountings for the PT-55 mineclearing system or the BTU/BTU-55 plow. In 1967, the improved BM8 APDS round, which could penetrate 275 mm thick armor at a range of 2 km, was introduced. In 1970, new and old T-55 tanks had the loader's hatch modified to mount the 12.7 mm DShK machine gun, to deal with the threat of attack helicopters. Starting in 1974, T-55 tanks received the KTD-1 or KTD-2 laser rangefinder in an armored box over the mantlet of the main gun, as well as the R-123 or R-123M radio set. Simultaneously, efforts were made to modernize and increase the lifespan of the drive train.

T-54 and T-55 tanks continued to be upgraded, refitted, and modernized into the 1990s. Advances in armor-piercing and HEAT ammunition would improve the gun's antitank capabilities in the 1960s and 1980s.

A wide array of upgrades in different price ranges are provided by many manufacturers in different countries, intended to bring the T-54/55 up to the capabilities of newer MBTs, at a lower cost. Upgrades include new engines, explosive reactive armor, new main armament such as 120 mm or 125 mm guns, active protection systems, and fire control systems with range-finders or thermal sights. These improvements make it a potent main battle tank (MBT) for the low-end budget, even to this day. As late as 2013, Ukrainian companies were reportedly developing T-55 main battle tank upgrades targeting the export market.

The T-54/55 tanks are mechanically simple and robust. They are very simple to operate compared to Western tanks, and don't require a high level of training or education in their crew members. The T-54/55 is a relatively small main battle tank, presenting a smaller target for its opponents to hit. The tanks have good mobility thanks to their relatively light weight, wide tracks (which give lower ground pressure and hence good mobility on soft ground), a good cold-weather start-up system, and a snorkel that allows river crossings.

Together, the T-54/55 tanks have been manufactured in the tens of thousands, and many still remain in reserve, or even in front-line use among lower-technology fighting forces. Abundance and age together make these tanks cheap and easy to purchase. While the T-54/55 is not a match for a modern main battle tank, armor and ammunition upgrades can dramatically improve the old vehicle's performance to the point that it cannot be dismissed on the battlefield.

The T-62 is a Soviet main battle tank that first entered production in 1961. As a further development of the T-55 series, the T-62 incorporated many armament features including the usage of a smoothbore tank gun that would become standardized in subsequent Soviet and Russian mass-produced tanks. While the T-62 became the standard tank in the Soviet arsenal, it did not fully replace the T-55 in export markets due to its higher manufacturing costs and maintenance requirements compared to its predecessor. While still used in some countries, the T-62 was replaced by the T-72 service in the Russia and successor states of the Soviet Union.

The T-62 was armed with the world's first smoothbore tank gun, giving it considerably greater muzzle velocity than the Western 90 mm and 105 mm tank guns of its time. It can fire BM-3 APFSDS-T, BK-4, BK-4M HEAT and OF-18 Frag-HE rounds. The 115 mm gun introduced the first successful APFSDS ammunition, albeit with a steel penetrator. A smoothbore gun allowed a significantly better performance (from 10% to 20%) from HEAT ammunition, which was considered the main ammunition type for fighting enemy armor at medium and long ranges. The gun can be elevated or depressed between −6° and +16°. It is reloaded manually and gets automatically reset to +3.5° of elevation after it is fired if the stabilizer is enabled. Empty cartridges are automatically ejected outside the vehicle through a small hatch in the rear of the turret. The gun has range of fire of about 4 km during day conditions and 800 m (with the use of night vision equipment) at night. This tank was fitted with a Meteor two-axis stabilizer, it allows the T-62 to aim and fire while moving, according to tests conducted by the US army the Meteor gave the T-62 a first hit probability of 70% for a moving target at 1,000 meters with the tank moving up to 20 km/per hour. This gave the tank a good advantage in dynamic battlefields and breakthrough operations, especially in Central Europe were most of tank battles would take place under the 1,500 meters range.

The T-62 shares some of the T-55's limitations: a cramped crew compartment, crude gun control equipment, whereas it had the Meteor stabilizer but it only gave a 70% hit probability at 1,000 moving at 20 km/h (on most early models), limited depression of the main gun and vulnerable fuel and ammunition storage areas. Opening the ejection port under NBC (nuclear, biological, or chemical) conditions would expose the crew to contamination.

The US Army considered the T-62's gun more accurate than that of the M60A1 within 1500 meters, but less accurate at greater ranges.

To fire the 12.7 mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun, the loader must be partially exposed, making him vulnerable to suppressive fire, and he must leave his main gun loading duties unattended.

During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the T-62 was a primary tank used by the Soviet army. The Soviets used tanks in a similar way to what the US Army did in Vietnam, with the use of many in fire support bases. Towards the end of the war T-62Ms, using the BDD appliqué armor, appeared in large numbers. Numerous T-62s fell victim to Mujahideen attacks, especially from anti-tank land mines. Others fell into the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen after they were left behind by withdrawing Soviet forces.

The BMP-1 is a Soviet amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle. BMP stands for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty 1, meaning "infantry fighting vehicle". The BMP-1 was the first mass-produced infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) of the USSR.

The Soviet military leadership saw any future wars as being conducted with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and a new design combining the properties of an armored personnel carrier (APC) and a light tank like the BMP would allow infantry to operate from the relative safety of its armored, radiation-shielded interior in contaminated areas and to fight alongside it in uncontaminated areas. It would increase infantry squad mobility, provide fire support to them, and also be able to fight alongside main battle tanks.

The BMP-1 had significant shortcomings in its protection scheme, which only became obvious during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. It seats its driver and commander in a tandem layout, on the left side of the hull front, alongside the diesel engine. When an antitank mine hits the BMP-1's left track, the explosion usually destroyed one to three left side roadwheels, penetrated the bottom and killed or seriously wounded both the driver and the commander, which caused painful losses of specialist personnel in the Soviet Army. Drivers laid sandbags on the bottom of their compartment in an effort to protect themselves against possible mine attack. The same kind of explosion under the right track were much less dramatic for the driver and the commander who remained relatively safe. If the vehicle hit a tilt-rod antitank mine, its steeply sloped lower front glacis plate allowed the mine's arming rod to tilt with little resistance until the mine was well under the chassis. When it eventually detonated, the blast was usually sufficient to kill or badly wound the driver and the commander.

A non-amphibious BMP-1D (the so-called 'Afghan' variant), was built in 1982 for assault units in Afghanistan. It had 5 mm thick appliqué steel armor plates on the hull sides with holes for side firing ports as well as armor plate under the commander's and driver's seats for added protection against mines. It also had large steel armored skirts fitted to the sides of the hull covering the suspension. Firing ports were added into the top hatches of the troop compartment and a stowage box was placed on the roof at the rear of the hull on some vehicles. The 9S428 ATGM launcher was often removed and replaced by an AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher.

In Afghanistan and Chechnya, armor-piercing 7.62 mm rounds fired from general-purpose machine guns at ranges of around 30 – 50 m sometimes penetrated the rear doors and hatches.

Due to experience in Afghanistan, a new version with enhanced fighting capabilities, the BMP-2, was introduced in 1980. 

The BMP-2 is a second-generation, amphibious infantry fighting vehicle introduced in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, following on from the BMP-1 of the 1960s.

Although the BMP-1 was a revolutionary design, its main armament quickly became obsolete. Therefore, the Soviet Union decided to produce an updated and improved version of the BMP-1. The main emphasis was put on improving the main armament. In 1972, work got under-way to develop an improved version of the BMP-1.

During its combat debut in the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian and Syrian BMPs proved vulnerable to .50 calibre machine-gun fire in the sides and rear, and to 106 mm recoilless rifles. The 73 mm gun proved inaccurate beyond 500 metres, and the AT-3 Sagger missile could not be guided effectively from the confines of the turret.

Several Soviet technical teams were sent to Syria in the wake of the war to gather information. These lessons, combined with observations of western AFV developments, resulted in a replacement program for the original BMP in 1974. The first product of this program was the BMP-1P upgrade, which was intended as a stopgap to address the most serious problems with the existing design. Smoke grenade launchers were added to the rear of the turret and the manually guided AT-3 Sagger missile system was replaced with the semi-automatically guided AT-4 Spigot / AT-5 Spandrel system. The BMP-1P was in production by the late 1970s and existing BMP-1s were gradually upgraded to the standard during the 1980s.

The BMP-2 is broadly similar to the BMP-1. The most significant changes are:
A new two-man turret armed with the 2A42 30 mm autocannon and the 9P135M ATGM launcher capable of firing SACLOS guided 9M111 "Fagot" (AT-4 Spigot), 9M113 "Konkurs" (AT-5 Spandrel) and 9M113M "Konkurs-M" (AT-5B Spandrel B) anti-tank missiles; The commander now sits with the gunner in an enlarged turret; Only seven troops can be carried instead of eight; Two rear infantry roof hatches instead of three; and Slightly improved armor.

The main armament is a stabilized 30 mm 2A42 autocannon with dual ammunition feeds, which provide a choice of 3UBR6 AP-T and 3UOR6 HE-T / 3UOF8 HE-I ammunition. The gun has a selectable rate of fire, either slow at 200 to 300 rounds per minute or fast at 550 rounds per minute. The original stabilization provides reasonable accuracy up to a speed of about 35 kilometers per hour.

The AP-T ammunition can penetrate 15 millimeters of armor at sixty degrees at 1,500 meters, while a new APDS-T tungsten round can penetrate 25 millimeters at the same distance. A typical ammunition load is 160 rounds of AP ammunition and 340 rounds of HE ammunition. The ammunition sits in two trays located on the turret floor rear. The gun can be fired from either the commander's or the gunner's station.

Reloading the BMP-2's 30 mm cannon can be somewhat problematic, and can take up to two hours, even if the ammunition is prepared. Additionally, the cannon is normally only used on the slow rate of fire, otherwise fumes from the weapon would build up in the turret faster than the extractor fan can remove them.

The effective range of the 30 mm cannon is up to 1,500 meters against armor, 4,000 meters against ground targets, and 2,500 meters against air targets.

To be continued...

Shawn Garlow in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

For Use of Photos by Shawn Garlow

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Nordic Components by Cactus Tactical

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Tactical Blog from Cactus Tactical

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Tanks and Armored Fighting & Reconnaissance Vehicles, Part I

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our thirteenth installment let's take a look at the most common tanks and armored fighting & reconnaissance vehicles of the war in Afghanistan.


Part I: The United States

M1 Abrams
The M1 Abrams is an American third-generation main battle tank. It is named after General Creighton Abrams, former Army chief of staff and commander of United States military forces in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1972. Highly mobile, designed for modern armored ground warfare, the M1 is well armed and heavily armored. Notable features include the use of a powerful multifuel turbine engine, the adoption of sophisticated composite armor, and separate ammunition storage in a blow-out compartment for crew safety. Weighing nearly 68 short tons, it is one of the heaviest main battle tanks in service.

The M1 Abrams entered U.S. service in 1980, replacing the M60 tank. It served for over a decade alongside the improved M60A3. The M1 remains the principal main battle tank of the United States Army and Marine Corps, and the armies of Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Iraq.

Three main versions of the M1 Abrams have been deployed, the M1, M1A1, and M1A2, incorporating improved armament, protection, and electronics. These improvements and other upgrades to in-service tanks have allowed this long-serving vehicle to remain in front-line service. 

 The M1 Abrams contract went to Chrysler Defense and was the first vehicle to adopt Chobham armor. Adaptations before the Persian Gulf War (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm) gave the vehicle better firepower and NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) protection. Being vastly superior to Iraqi tanks, very few M1 tanks were hit by enemy fire. Upgrades after the war improved the tank's weapons sights and fire control unit. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed Iraq's military. Vulnerabilities in urban combat were addressed with the TUSK modification. The Marine Corps sent a company of M1A1 Abrams tanks to Afghanistan in late 2010.

The M1A2 was a further improvement of the M1A1 with a commander's independent thermal viewer, weapon station, position navigation equipment, and a full set of controls and displays linked by a digital data bus. These upgrades also provided the M1A2 with an improved fire control system. The M1A2 System Enhancement Package (SEP) added digital maps, FBCB2 capabilities, and an improved cooling system to compensate for heat generated by the additional computer systems. The M1A2 SEPv2 (version 2) added Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS or CROWS II) support, color displays, better interfaces, a new operating system, better front and side armor, and an upgraded transmission for better durability. Further upgrades included depleted uranium armor for all variants, a system overhaul that returns all A1s to like-new condition (M1A1 AIM), a digital enhancement package for the A1 (M1A1D), and a commonality program to standardize parts between the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps (M1A1HC). The development for the improved M1A3 variant has been known since 2009. This is to have new equipment and modules and be powered by a diesel engine instead of the turbine engine.


M1 Assault Breacher Vehicle
M1 Assault Breacher Vehicle (ABV), nicknamed The Shredder, is a U.S. military mine- and explosives-clearing vehicle, based on the M1 Abrams-chassis, equipped with a mine-plough and line charges. Its first large scale use by the US Marines was in the joint ISAF-Afghan Operation Moshtarak in Southern Afghanistan during the War in Afghanistan in 2010 against the Taliban insurgency.

These tracked combat vehicles were especially designed to clear pathways for troops and other vehicles through minefields and along roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices. The 72-ton, 40 foot long vehicles are based on the M1 Abrams with a 1,500 horsepower engine, but fitted with a 12.7 mm machine gun and a front-mounted 15-foot wide plow, supported by metallic skis that glide on the dirt and armed with nearly 7,000 lb of explosives.

They were called "the answer" to the deadliest threat facing NATO troops in this conflict. The Breachers are also equipped with M58 MICLIC Mine Clearing Line Charges: rockets carrying C-4 explosives up to 100–150 yards forward, detonating hidden bombs at a safe distance, so that troops and vehicles can pass through safely.

The main body of the final model of the ABV is built on the General Dynamics chassis that is used for the M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Pearson Engineering of the UK provided the specially designed plow and the other mine-clearing accessories.

In the morning of December 3, 2009, for the first time breachers were used in combat, when Marines pushed into the Taliban stronghold Now Zad during Operation Cobra's Anger in Helmand province, on their way to another Taliban stronghold Marjah, 380 miles southwest of Kabul, that was to be assaulted in February 2010.

On February 11, 2010, two breachers fired explosive line charges in the desert outside Sistani, to test Taliban defenses on the eve of Operation Moshtarak when closing off the enemy's escape route.

On February 13, 2010, on the first day of the operation, breachers of the US Marines 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion succeeded in digging and blasting "safety lanes" through the numerous minefields laid by the Taliban around Marjah.

According to a report in December 2009, there were then five ABVs in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Marines were said to have plans to field a total of 52 by 2012, of which about 34 have already had been produced. The U.S. Army was said to have ordered 187.

The IAV (Interim Armored Vehicle) Stryker is a family of eight-wheeled, armored fighting vehicles derived from the Canadian LAV III and based on the Swiss Piranha III 8×8. Stryker vehicles are produced by General Dynamics Land Systems for the United States Army. It has 4-wheel drive (8×4) and can be switched to all-wheel drive (8×8).

The vehicle is named for two American servicemen who posthumously received the Medal of Honor: Private First Class Stuart S. Stryker, who died in World War II, and Specialist Four Robert F. Stryker, who died in the Vietnam War (no relation).

In October 1999, General Eric Shinseki, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff, outlined a transformation plan for the army that would allow it to adapt to post-Cold War conditions. The plan, named "Objective Force", would have the army adopt a flexible doctrine that would allow it to deploy quickly, and equipped for a variety of operations. An early phase of the plan called for the introduction of an 'Interim Armored Vehicle' which was intended to fill the capability gap between heavy and lethal, but not easily deployable vehicles (such as the M2 Bradley), and easily deployed, but lightly armed and protected vehicles (such as the Humvee). A variant of the Canadian LAV III offered by the General Dynamics-General Motors Defense Canada team was ultimately awarded the contract in November 2000 to produce 2,131 Stryker vehicles of all variants for equipping six rapid deployment Brigade Combat Teams. On 27 February 2002, the Army formally renamed the Interim Armored Vehicle as the Stryker. It was called the "Interim" Armored Vehicle because it was initially supposed to be a temporary measure until light air-mobile vehicles from the Future Combat Systems program came online, none of which did before FCS was canceled.

The Stryker is based on the LAV III light-armored vehicle, which in turn was based on the Swiss MOWAG Piranha III 8x8.

The vehicle comes in several variants with a common engine, transmission, hydraulics, wheels, tires, differentials and transfer case. The M1130 Command Vehicle and M1133 Medical Evacuation Vehicle have an air conditioning unit mounted on the back. The medical vehicle also has a higher-capacity generator. A recent upgrade program provided a field retrofit kit to add air conditioning units to all variants, and production started in 2005 on the Mobile Gun System mounting an overhead GDLS 105 mm automatic gun.

The 5th Brigade 2nd Infantry Division was the first Stryker unit sent to Afghanistan, deployed in summer 2009, as part of a troop level increase. The brigade's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment suffered the heaviest losses of any Stryker battalion to date. The 5th Stryker Brigade's losses during its one-year deployment were 37 killed and 238 wounded.

In June 2010, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment deployed to Afghanistan relieving 5th Brigade 2nd Infantry Division.

In April 2011, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division deployed to Afghanistan to relieve the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.

The LAV-25 (Light Armored Vehicle) is an eight-wheeled amphibious armored reconnaissance vehicle used by the United States Marine Corps and Canadian Army. It was built by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada and is based on the Swiss MOWAG Piranha I 8×8 family of armored fighting vehicles.

During the 1980s, the US Marine Corps began looking for a light armored vehicle to give their divisions greater mobility. They chose the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) based on the MOWAG Piranha. It entered service with the Marines in 1983. The U.S. Army was interested in these vehicles at the time, but did not order any (although they did later with introduction of the Stryker family of vehicles). The U.S. Army did however borrow at least a dozen LAV-25s for use in the 82nd Airborne's, 73rd Cavalry Regiment for a Scout Platoon during the Gulf War. These LAV-25s were later returned to the Marine Corps after the Gulf War. The USMC ordered 758 vehicles of all variants. LAVs first saw combat during the Invasion of Panama in 1989, and continued service in the Gulf War, Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan.

The LAV platform is planned to remain in service with the Marine Corps until 2035.

Powered by a 6V53T Detroit Diesel turbo-charged engine, they are 4-wheel drive (rear wheels) transferable to 8-wheel drive. These vehicles are also amphibious, meaning they have the ability to "swim", but are limited to non-surf bodies of water (no oceans). While engaged in amphibious operations, the maximum speed is approximately 7.5 mph using equipped propellers. The current SLEP (Service Life Extension Program) modifications will hinder or eliminate amphibious ops.

Typical land speeds are approximately 62.5 mph in either 4- or 8-wheel drive, however fuel economy decreases in 8-wheel drive. The vehicles operate on diesel fuel. They are equipped with a M242 Bushmaster 25 mm cannon, two M240 7.62 mm machine guns, and two 4-barrel smoke grenade launchers located on the forward left and right sides of the turret. The crew is three; vehicle commander (VC), gunner, and driver; and four passengers (scouts) with combat gear.

The LAV-25 is a lightly armored vehicle. The base model is protected by light gage high hardness steel armor (MIL-A-46100), varying in nominal thickness from 4.71 mm to 9.71 mm. This level of high-hardness steel armor is intended only to offer protection against small arms rounds such as the common 7.62x39mm M1943 ball used by the AKM, to achieve the lowest possible weight and cost.

Funding was approved for continued upgrades to the LAV family to bring them up to the LAV-A2 standard. Phase I improvements included increased external and internal ballistic armor upgrades, improved fire suppression equipment, and upgrading the vehicle's suspension to the Generation II standard. Phase II upgrades included replacing the turret hydraulics with an electric drive system and replacing the thermal sight with an improved model incorporating a laser range finder for aircraft.

To reflect the improved significant survivability and capability enhancements occurring today, the LAV is being renamed as the LAV-A2. The LAV-A2 project involved developing and installing an internal and external ballistic protection upgrade package for the Light Armored Vehicles, an automatic fire suppression system for the interior of the vehicle and a Generation II suspension upgrade to support the added weight of the new armor. The suspension upgrade includes new struts/steering knuckles, torsion bars, shocks and mounts and drive shaft. The three-kit armor system provides the LAV with additional survivability against improvised explosive devices (IED) and direct-fire kinetic energy weapons.

The LAV-25A2 includes the Improved Thermal Sight System (ITSS) developed by Raytheon, scheduled for fielding by the end of 2007. The ITSS provides the gunner and commander with thermal images, an eye-safe laser range finder, a fire-control solution and far-target location target grid information.

The new armor will provide protection from 14.5 mm armor-piercing rounds, and include an anti-spall lining on the inside to further protect crew members. It will be similar to the protection found on the U.S. Army's LAV III "Stryker" variant.

Shawn Garlow in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

For more info on these and other weapons
Technical specs compiled from:

For Use of Photos by Shawn Garlow

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Nordic Components by Cactus Tactical

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Tactical Blog from Cactus Tactical

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Part III

Weapons of the War in Afghanistan

In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day. 

Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan. 

For our twelfth installment let's take a look at the most common Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) of the war in Afghanistan. These can be anything from surveillance and Reconnaissance UAVs, to UAVs armed with precision-guided munitions. UAVs have played a larger role in the modern conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Global War on Terror overall.


Part III: The United States (Continued)

The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle is a small, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing. ScanEagle is a descendant of another Insitu UAV, the Insitu SeaScan, which was conceived of as a remote sensor for collecting weather data as well as helping commercial fishermen locate and track schools of tuna. ScanEagle emerged as the result of a strategic alliance between Boeing and Insitu. The resulting technology has been successful as a portable Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for autonomous surveillance in the battlefield, and has been deployed since August 2004.

ScanEagle carries a stabilized electro-optical and/or infrared camera on a lightweight inertial stabilized turret system, and an integrated communications system having a range of over 62 miles; it has a flight endurance of over 20 hours. ScanEagle has a 10.2-foot wingspan a length of 4.5 feet and a mass of 44 pounds and can operate up to 80 knots (92 mph), with an average cruising speed of 48 knots (55 mph). Block D aircraft featured a higher-resolution camera, a custom-designed Mode C transponder and a new video system. A Block D aircraft, flying at Boeing's test range in Boardman, Oregon set a type endurance record of 22 hours, 8 minutes.

ScanEagle needs no airfield for deployment. Instead, it is launched using a pneumatic launcher, patented by Insitu, known as the "SuperWedge" launcher. It is recovered using the "Skyhook" retrieval system, which uses a hook on the end of the wingtip to catch a rope hanging from a 30-to-50-foot pole. This is made possible by high-quality differential GPS units mounted on the top of the pole and UAV. The rope is attached to a shock cord to reduce stress on the airframe imposed by the abrupt stop. NavtechGPS worked with the manufacturer of the GPS receiver system to enable the system to work in different environments, expanding the capabilities of the UAS for different mission types and areas of the world. The GPS receiver system NavtechGPS designed for the ScanEagle is still in use today.

Each ScanEagle system costs US$3.2 million (2006). A complete system comprises four air vehicles or AVs, a ground control station, remote video terminal, the SuperWedge launch system and Skyhook recovery system.

On 18 March 2008, Boeing, with ImSAR and Insitu successfully flight-tested a ScanEagle with ImSAR's NanoSAR A radar mounted aboard. The ImSAR NanoSAR is the world's smallest Synthetic Aperture Radar, weighs 3.5 lb and is 100 cubic inches in volume. It is designed to provide high quality real-time ground imaging through adverse weather conditions or other battlefield obscurants.

In 2009, Insitu announced the NightEagle, a modified ScanEagle Block E with an infrared camera for night operations.

In August 2010, Boeing announced plans to control ScanEagles from control stations on E-3A AWACS aircraft and on the V-22.

In July 2011, a team of two ScanEagles and another UAV cooperated to search and navigate a mountain area autonomously.

In 2014, Insitu began development of the Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLARES), a system designed to launch and recover the ScanEagle without the need to transport and assemble the launch catapult and recovery crane. It consists of second, quadrotor UAV that carries the ScanEagle vertically and releases it into forward flight. For recovery, the quadrotor hovers trailing a cable that it captures, as it would the cable from the SkyHook crane. FLARES incorporates the VTOL advantages of launch and recovery in confined areas, as well as eliminating the rail and crane equipment, with the flying efficiency of a fixed-wing body. Demonstrations of the system took place from late 2014 to mid-2015, and low-rate production is scheduled for late 2016.

MQ-8 Fire Scout
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the United States Armed Forces. The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333. The larger MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is based on the Bell 407.

The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The four-blade rotor had already been evaluated on Fire Scout prototypes. They boost gross takeoff weight by 500 lb to 3,150 lb, with payloads of up to 700 lb for short-range missions. The length of the MQ-8B is 23.95 ft , the width is 6.20 ft, and the height is 9.71ft.

The MQ-8B is fitted with stub wings which serve both an aerodynamic purpose as well as an armament carriage location. Weapons to be carried include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and, in particular, pods carrying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm folding-fin rocket, which the Army saw as ideal for the modern battlefield. The Army was also interested in using the Fire Scout to carry up to 200 lb of emergency supplies to troops in the field.

The MQ-8B is being modified to permit rapid swap out of payload configurations. The current sensor configuration of a day/night turret with a laser target designator will remain an option. Alternate sensor payloads in consideration include a TSAR with Moving Target Indicator (MTI) capability, a multispectral sensor, a SIGINT module, the Target Acquisition Minefield Detection System (ASTAMIDS), and the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). The Army wanted the Fire Scout to operate as an element of an integrated ground sensor network as well.

The Army interest revived Navy interest in the program, with the Navy ordering eight Sea Scout MQ-8B derivatives for evaluation. In January 2010, the Army terminated its involvement with the Fire Scout, contending that the RQ-7 Shadow UAV could meet the Army's needs. In 2009, the Navy approved low-rate initial production.

On 30 December 2012, the Navy issued an urgent order to install RDR-1700 maritime surveillance radars on nine MQ-8Bs. The RDR-1700 is an X-band synthetic aperture radar housed in a modified radome mounted on the helicopter's underside for 360-degree coverage, interfaced with the UAV and its control station. Detailed range is out to 16 mi, with a max range of 50 mi. The RDR-1700 can see through clouds and sandstorms and can perform terrain mapping or weather detection, and track 20 air or surface targets, determining a target's range, bearing, and velocity. In January 2013, the Navy awarded a $33 million contract to Telephonics for the RDR-1700B+ radar, designated AN/ZPY-4(V)1. The radar gives a beyond the horizon broad area search and track capability to track up to 200 targets and operates in surface search, terrain mapping, emergency beacon detection, and weather avoidance modes, supplementing the FLIR Systems Brite Star II electro-optical/infrared payload. It was first demonstrated on an MQ-8B on 7 May 2014.

In 2017, the MQ-8B will receive a mine-detection sensor for use in littoral waters called the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA). The COBRA is designed to detect naval mines at a safe distance from a Littoral Combat Ship operating in coastal waters, and also has the capability to locate submarines through acoustic detection if they are on or near the surface. COBRA takes the place of the Fire Scout's usual EO/IR sensor.

In August 2013, the MQ-8B surpassed 5,000 flight hours in Afghanistan. In 28 months, Fire Scouts had accumulated 5,084 hours providing critical surveillance for U.S. and allied forces. Combined with testing and six at-sea deployments, the helicopter has over 10,000 flight hours supporting naval and ground forces. In late 2013, the Fire Scout ended its Afghanistan deployment mission and were shipped back to the US. MQ-8Bs will still be deployed on Naval frigates, and be integrated onto Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy also ordered the Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar to expand surveillance capabilities. Twelve radars, including three spares, will be delivered by December 2014. The Navy will buy a total of 96 MQ-8B/C Fire Scouts.

RQ-21 Blackjack
The Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack is an American unmanned air vehicle designed and built by Boeing Insitu to meet a United States Navy requirement for a small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS). It is a twin-boom, single-engine, monoplane, designed as a supplement to the Boeing Scan Eagle. The Integrator weighs 135 lb and uses the same launcher and recovery system as the Scan Eagle.

The RQ-21A Blackjack is designed to support the U.S. Marine Corps by providing forward reconnaissance. A Blackjack system is composed of five air vehicles and two ground control systems. The air vehicles can be launched on land or on a ship by a rail and land using a "skyhook" recovery system, where a vertical wire must be hooked onto its wing; when on the ground, the launch and recovery systems are towable by vehicles. Its wingspan is 16 ft and it can carry a 39 lb payload. The day/night camera can achieve resolution rating of 7 on the NIIRS scale at 8,000 ft.

The Marines are working with Insitu to modify the Blackjack fuselage to carry greater and more various payloads. Enlarging the fuselage would increase its maximum takeoff weight from 135 lb to 145 lb and lengthen endurance from 16 hours to 24 hours. New turrets are being explored as well as other payloads including a synthetic aperture radar to track ground targets, a laser designator to mark targets for precision-guided munitions, and foliage-penetration capabilities for foreign customers operating in lush environments. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) plans to add a sensor to the Blackjack that combines an electro-optical camera, wide area imager, short wave infrared hyperspectral imager, and a high-resolution camera for use as an inspection sensor into a single payload by 2020.

The U.S. Marine Corps deployed its first RQ-21A Blackjack system to Afghanistan in late April 2014. One Blackjack system is composed of five air vehicles, two ground control systems, and launch and recovery support equipment. It supports intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions using multi-intelligence payloads including day and night full-motion video cameras, an infrared marker, a laser range finder, a communications relay package, and automatic identification system receivers. The models in Afghanistan were early operational capability (EOC) aircraft without shipboard software or testing. Deploying the aircraft on the ground was a way to catch and fix problems early on that could delay the project. The RQ-21 returned from its deployment on 10 September 2014 after flying nearly 1,000 hours in 119 days in theater. EOC Blackjacks will continue to be used for training, while completion of shipboard testing is planned to result in the system's first ship-based deployment in spring 2015.

The Marine Corps declared Initial Operational Capability for the RQ-21A Blackjack in January 2016.


The Switchblade is an unmanned aerial vehicle developed by AeroVironment. It is designed as a "kamikaze," being able to crash into its target with an explosive warhead to destroy it. The Switchblade is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from a variety of ground, maritime, and air platforms.

The Switchblade is designed as an expendable UAV to increase precision firepower for platoon-sized infantry units. It is 2 ft long and weighs 6 lb including the carrying case and launcher, making it small and light enough for one soldier to carry. The Switchblade is folded up inside a tube with wings unfolding once it gets airborne. It can be controlled up to 6.2 mi but its small size limits its endurance to 10 minutes. This makes it unsuited for scouting roles, but it is useful for inexpensively engaging long-range targets and assisting in relieving units pinned down by enemy fire. The Switchblade uses a color camera and GPS locating to identify, track, and engage targets, as well as being able to be pre-programmed on a collision course. Its warhead has an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade to destroy light armored vehicles and personnel. If a situation causes a strike to be called off, the operator can call off the Switchblade and re-target it. The aircraft is propelled by an electric engine, so its small size and silent flight makes it extremely difficult to detect or try to intercept, enabling it to close in on a target at 85 knots (98 mph). The Switchblade uses the same Ground Control Station (GCS) as other AeroVironment UAVs including the Wasp, RQ-11 Raven, and RQ-20 Puma. This creates commonality and the potential for teaming of longer-endurance small UAVs to recon for targets, then having the Switchblade attack once they are identified with the same controller.

U.S. Army regulations categorize the Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone, and the term "loitering munition" is preferred to describe it; unlike UAVs, it is not recoverable once launched. The Switchblade uses daytime and infrared cameras, as well as an "aided target tracker" to lock on to stationary and moving targets. The warhead is specifically designed for controlled firepower to reduce collateral damage through a focused blast, having a forward-firing shotgun-blast effect rather than a 360-degree blast, throwing pellets on the same vector that the missile itself is traveling; it can also be fused to detonate at a predetermined height, which can be adjusted in-flight. When diving, the air vehicle gives the operator the opportunity to wave off until four seconds from impact, and the warhead can be detonated in-flight to destroy it. Being unique in its abilities, the Switchblade does not fit into several established doctrines, not being an armed reconnaissance vehicle dispatched by a platoon commander to scout over an area and destroy enemies, or an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, as its cameras are for seeing targets instead of performing recon. There is also the question of whether small squads and platoons who lack high-level intelligence and communications should have the ability to fire missiles beyond ranges they are trying to influence.

Aside from being used against ground targets, SRC Inc. has written software to combine the Switchblade with sensors to be able to intercept other hostile UAVs. The Switchblade is used alongside an existing counter-artillery radar and IED jamming system, all of which can be towed by Humvees. Interception of an enemy drone occurs in layers of defenses: if a drone gets through covering jet fighters or is too small to be targeted by them, it is picked up by the fire-finding radar; once detected, the jammer performs electronic warfare to break its data-link; if the drone resists EW, the Switchblade is launched to physically impact and destroy it.

On 28 April 2016, AeroVironment announced they had developed an upgrade for the Switchblade Tactical Missile system designated Block 10C. It incorporates a Digital Data Link (DDL) to provide a stable and secure encrypted communication link through more efficient use of existing frequency bands and significantly reduced likelihood of signal interception, as well as enables concurrent operation of multiple Switchblade systems in the same vicinity without signal conflict, gives opportunity to extend operational ranges using another DDL arbiter such as a different AeroVironment UAV, and facilitates sensor to shooter operations through automatic communication of mission plans from one AeroVironment UAS to a Switchblade.

The Switchblade was originally conceived by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) before being picked up by the Army. It was first unveiled in August 2011 to fill a gap U.S. troops were facing in Afghanistan. If insurgents ambushed a patrol, options available to push back the attacks were limited. Close air support takes time to arrive, is expensive to conduct, and risks collateral damage if in urban areas. If the troops are out of range of artillery support, guided missiles like the FGM-148 Javelin are available, but also very expensive. Another problem was that small man-portable UAVs like the Raven or Puma that can spot threats have no way of quickly engaging them because available weapons are too heavy for them to carry. The Switchblade combines the man-portability, low-cost, and recon ability of small UAVs with an explosive warhead to quickly locate and destroy enemy fighters, especially in dug-in positions like rooftops or ridge lines. On 29 July 2011, the U.S. Army awarded AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract for "rapid fielding" an unspecified number of Switchblades to forces in Afghanistan. On 20 March 2012, the Army awarded a contract modification to the company of $5.1 million, totaling a $10 million order for Switchblade UAVs.

In May 2012, the United States Marine Corps began the process of ordering the Switchblade UAV to enable an organic ability to engage targets like improvised explosive device (IED) emplacement teams. Usually when air support is called in, attackers slip away before a large UAV, attack helicopter, fighter-bomber, or quick reaction force can arrive on station. Marines sometimes couldn't get support due to other units getting mission priority. The Switchblade is small enough to fit in a Marine's ALICE pack and locks onto and tracks a target once selected.

75 Switchblades were supplied to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2012. It was awaiting final approvals for use by late October, but several successful employments had occurred by January 2013. Although the military would not confirm details about its deployment, effectiveness, distribution, or tactical employment, commanders reported that it was "very effective." Shortly after, a joint urgent needs statement was requested by the Army theater commanders for more systems. The number requested was not specified, but was "dramatically more" than the 75 systems initially supplied and exceeded budget limitations. The Switchblade gained notoriety among soldiers using it and insurgents being targeted by it. The Army classifies it as a direct fire munition rather than a drone. Soldiers embraced it as a valuable tool, especially to reduce collateral damage. Unlike most other weapons, the Switchblade can wave off or abort a mission if the situation changes after launch, allowing it to engage a secondary target or destroy itself without inflicting casualties or property damage; the wave off capability was used over a dozen times to prevent civilian casualties that could have been caused had a man not been in the loop.

From its introduction to the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, over 4,000 Switchblades were deployed in Afghanistan.

AAF/ACF Fighters: None

Shawn Garlow in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

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