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With the surge to Afghanistan now underway, thousands of XM-153 Common Remotely Operated Weapons Stations, known as CROWS, will soon be taking flight to strengthen U.S. Army forces in theater.
Program Executive Office Soldier is ramping up its stateside logistics efforts and is in the process of establishing three new CROWS support sites in Afghanistan. The sites -- under PEO Soldier 's Project Manager for Soldier Weapons -- will manage the fielding, training, and sustainment of the XM-153 CROWS.
The CROWS systems mount what is essentially a small turret on top of Army combat vehicles that provides Soldiers the ability to employ their machine guns while using a control grip and video monitor from inside the protection of an armored vehicle. There are currently about 1,000 CROWS systems already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are embedding the new CROWS support sites with units that are farther afield to enhance our support of the warfighter," said Lt. Col. Michael Ascura, product manager for crew-served weapons. "We fielded one new site in December and will bring two more online by April in Afghanistan."
The complexity of the fielding is magnified by the sheer number of military vehicles and vehicle variants that are now employing CROWS; including MRAPS, Humvees, route clearance vehicles, the new MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles or MATVs, and others.
Each vehicle requires customized vehicle integration kits to bring the units online, PEO Soldiers officials explained. They said CROWS field service representatives are charged with meeting those challenges in the combat zone as they staff support sites in some of the toughest and most dangerous environments on earth.
'Building in a Box'
Staffed by Department of Defense civilians and contractors serving six-month deployments, the CROWS support sites need to serve as a one-stop shop in theater, PEO Soldier officials said.
Maj. Michael Pottratz, assistant product manager for crew-served weapons, manages the logistical field support of the entire system. To accomplish his mission, he has devised a "building in a box" concept that enables field service representatives to independently set up support sites in a matter of days. All they need is a piece of real estate and some JP-8 to get underway.
"We wanted to put together a custom kit for our field service reps that enables them to become fully operational as soon as possible," Pottratz said. "All the components necessary to establish the support site come in a single container: tools, equipment, computers, classroom space and materials, generators, air conditioners, even a Gator ATV. Our FSRs can provide CROWS support within 48 hours after offloading."
Once operational, FSRs can begin comprehensive, hands-on training sessions with Soldiers, which run 40-60 hours. To begin, Soldiers learn all the functions of the sensors and fire control system, including how to lase and engage targets. Soldiers also learn how to mount four different weapons systems on the CROWS, including the M-2, Mk-19, M-240B, and M-249 machine guns.
Soldiers conclude their training with a day and night operation, and fire live ammunition. To enhance a unit's operational capabilities, Ascura recommends that every member of a unit receives training on the system, not just operators. CROWS training provides leaders with critical knowledge on how best to employ CROWS to support a diverse set of missions, he said.
With its day and night cameras, CROWS provides target identification and surveillance capabilities that are well beyond what small-unit leaders have had previously.
"Soldiers learn how they can turn 'area weapons,' such as the M-2, into precision engagement weapons," Ascura said. "Beyond the guns, leaders begin to think about how to integrate the system capabilities into their tactics, techniques and procedures. In the past, Soldiers had to perform the same functions with the naked eye from an exposed position in the turret. Those days are coming to an end."
As a next step, PM Soldier Weapons is developing a stateside home-station training program. The initiative is designed to enable a unit to be operationally ready upon arrival in theater and improve Soldiers' confidence on the system's ability to successfully support their mission.
Field service goes mobile
When it comes to FSRs, "instructors repair, and repairers instruct," said a PEO Soldier official. That means experts that deliver the training often find themselves working in all types of environments. Many units are positioned in remote areas, and getting a damaged CROWS system back for support may be difficult given the unit's mission. Moreover, travel along poor or nonexistent roads exposes Soldiers and FSRs to ambushes or IEDs.
To reduce risk, FSRs will travel out to unit locations by air, performing on the spot servicing for CROWS. FSRs jump on supply helicopters with their bag of tools and parts and are flown hundreds of miles to remote outposts.
Gary Decker, Crows II FSR fielding team chief at PM Soldier Weapons, manages the FSR program out of Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. A former Marine and combat veteran of the Gulf War, Decker himself has 24 months of deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan as an FSR. On one of his most memorable trips, he flew out to a fire base to repair a CROWS system for a Special Forces team.
"Helo supply runs can be days apart and sometimes an FSR can find himself sitting in an outpost for 10 days after finishing a 10-minute repair job," Decker ," said. "At that point, the FSR makes the best use of his time by supporting the unit any way possible. When you get back, you turn in the damaged parts and get ready to go on the next mission."
With thousands of CROWS on their way to Afghanistan, there is no shortage of work to be done to get the new systems in place and deployed, PEO Soldier officials said. They added hat soon, thousands of Soldiers will be able to employ all the advanced capabilities of this high-tech weapons system while benefiting from an increased level of safety.
Decker said the Army has come a long way from the days when Soldiers drove around in Humvees with no doors and with the M-2 gunner riding on the top with nothing but a flak vest on.
"In Desert Storm, we were totally exposed," Decker said. "Then we armored up with the gunner protection kit. Now, Soldiers are coming out of the turret thanks to CROWS. It's no surprise that the Soldiers just love it. CROWS saves lives."