The Vietnam war was a defining moment in the public perception of warfare. Television suddenly brought the combat into people’s homes, the sentiment shifted, and the people took to the streets to protest what they saw as an unjust war. Today soldiers wander onto the frontline with smartphones in their pockets and the realities of modern warfare suddenly become pedestrian amongst the social media feed.
TikTok was where I discovered the C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar). The video is simple: A siren blares from a black screen and then suddenly a deafening whir begins and two jets of red hot metal spew into the sky. A robotic ‘incoming‘ cuts through just as the rounds meet their target and finally in the distance you hear an explosion. The caption on the video reads:
“CRAM trying it’s hardest. You can hear one of the rockets break threw [sic] and impact some 300 meters away”
Now, let’s pause a moment so I can try to avoid kicking the wasp-nest. There’s a whole world of discussion about the ethical, moral and even financial implications of defence (and offence). But this is a hobby-blog about things I find interesting. So, if you’ll forgive me, let’s just awkwardly hop over that conversation so we can focus with naive curiosity at this hunk of multi-million dollar engineering.
Despite it’s deafening roar the C-RAM is a defensive bastion that allows soldiers to sleep at night. As the acronym explains, this gun is used to identify, track and detonate rockets and mortars headed towards your base.
It watches silently, its large white dome filled with an array of high-tech tracking hardware (think radar and infra-red). The moment it spots an incoming projectile it automatically tracks the trajectory, while sending a video feed to a human who will ensure the machine hasn’t just spotted a wayward pigeon. When the trigger is pulled the gun will fire 50 rounds per second – a blanket of metal – to intercept the target.
The rounds themselves are no joke. 20 mm HEIT-SD (High-Explosive Incendiary Tracer, Self-Destruct) ammunition. 20mm is the diameter of the bullet by the way – If it were laying in your palm it would stretch nearly the full length of your hand and the C-RAM fires 50 of these rounds every second. They explode either upon impact or when the tracer in their bum burns out, so even without a direct hit they can be effective at disrupting a projectile. The exploding rounds are also an attempt to avoid collateral damage, as what goes up must come down.
Despite its high-tech the core weapon dates back to the 1970’s, first attached to military ships to combat the new threat of anti-ship missile systems. It wasn’t until 2005 and the Iraq war before the Army began bolting them to trailers and using them in land-based combat. They are still in use today with a dozen different variants and attracting a dozen different nicknames: ‘R2D2’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Daleks’.
If you’ve not watched the video above with the sound on, I highly recommend (and the video below) it as it’s noise that really triggers the fight-or-flight reflexes. The volume and unnatural tempo are stark reminders that humans are tiny and vulnerable, while simultaneously capable of creating truly nightmarish tools. Six months with one of these as your alarm clock and anyone would head home with PTSD.
The C-RAM also follows the tradition of military hardware in that they are wildly expensive, with a unit setting you back an approximate USD$5.6 million. Also don’t forget the rounds run about USD$30 per bullet. So a spicy 2 second burst will set you back a chill USD$3,000.
So that’s the C-RAM. A controversial choice in fascination I know, but also a truly impressive feat of engineering.
- Fire Controlman 2nd Class Albert Callos changes out 20mm dummy rounds with live rounds during a Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) test fire. The CIWS is the ocean-based equivalent of the C-RAM. (US Navy 040815-N-5781F-028)