Airborne Awesome

It’s a little late to clue you in, but I see that History Channel is showing “Band of Brothers” in its entirety. The 10 part miniseries is the dramatic story of  Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division from the invasion of Normandy to the end of the war in Europe.

By all means, spend the money and buy the set.



We’ve all seen news footage of Humvees in Iraq patrolling the streets. Typically, we see an up-armored Humvee with 4 troops ensconced behind armored doors and glass, and a gunner manning a cupola atop the vehicle, his machine gun at the ready to engage insurgents.

That’s all well and good, but there are a couple of drawbacks. The first and most obvious one is that the gunner is vulnerable to the enemy. Even with improved gunshields, he can be struck by small arms fire. He is also far more exposed to blast from IEDs than the rest of the vehicle crew. And if the Humvee rolls over, there is an excellent chance that he will be crushed. Clearly, being a gunner in Iraq is a dangerous job.

Change is coming though. After the success of the Remote Weapon Station on the Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle, the Army pursued a similar system for its Humvees. The result is CROWS, or Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station.

CROWS consists of a power operated mount that can be fitted to a vehicle. This mount traverses and elevates, and is stabilized as well to correct for vehicle movement. Attached to the mount is a day TV camera system and a thermal imaging camera. These sensors are connected to a display inside the vehicle. The mount is called “Common” because it can accept a variety of weapons, such as the Mk19 40mm grenade launcher, M2 .50cal machine gun, M-240B machine gun, or M249 SAW. When the weapons are mounted, they can be trained and elevated and fired from inside the vehicle, so the gunner isn’t exposed to return fire. The thermal sight adds a lot of situational awareness at night, and the stabilization makes firing on the move far, far more accurate.

There are two main downsides of the CROWS: the first is the cost. Instead of a couple of steel parts for a mount, we are buying a lot of precision machinery and expensive electronics. Not only is there an upfront purchase cost, but maintenance costs go along with that. The second drawback is that there is some reduced situational awareness because of the “tunnel vision” imposed by the sighting system and having the entire crew inside the vehicle. Still, in a war where the enemy has used IEDs as their primary weapon, the upside to CROWS outweighs the costs. Look for CROWS to be installed on more Humvees and similar vehicles such as MRAPs.

CROWS mounting Mk19 40mm Grenade Launchers
CROWS mounting Mk19 40mm Grenade Launchers


We talked earlier about the development of hand grenades and how they were, well, handy for a grunt to have. The problem with most grenades, though, was range. The range was limited by the arm of the thrower, usually resulting in a range of 30-35 meters. Various types of rifle grenades could be used for longer ranges, but they usually had poor accuracy and were awkward to use, sometimes requiring a soldier to unload his rifle, attach a launcher to the muzzle, reload with special ammunition, affix the rifle grenade, aim, fire the grenade, and go through the whole process again when he watched his grenade miss the target badly. When bad guys are shooting at you, this is a less than optimal workflow. Something better was needed.

In the years after the Korean War (1950-1953) the Army tried to develop a weapon smaller and lighter than a mortar to replace rifle grenades. Many attempts to develop a multi-shot weapon were failures. In the course of the development, though, a nifty 40mm round was developed.

40mm_m433The illustration above is actually a much later round (it is HEDP, or High Explosive Dual Purpose- it’s a HEAT round that also produces blast and fragmentation to kill or disable personnel). These rounds are much lower velocity rounds than the 40mm rounds used by the Mk-19. The low velocity 40mm rounds use a hi/low system. The propelling charge is in a small space and when ignited, produces a high pressure. This pressure bursts vents in a larger space behind the projectile. Venting into this larger space reduces the pressure and reduces recoil. Mind you, it also reduces the range of the grenade.

It didn’t take long for the Army to develop a weapon to use this handy round. In 1960, the M79 grenade launcher entered service. It was a pretty simple weapon, resembling a break-action shotgun on steroids.

m79_afmilThe M-79 was popular during the Vietnam War, lobbing explosive grenades at ranges from 30 meters to 400 meters. For a weapon that lobbed its rounds at the target, it was surprisingly accurate. Wiki tells us a gunner could drop a round in a garbage can at 150 meters. In militarily useful terms, that means you could put a round through a window over a football field away. So the rifle platoon had a handy piece of artillery. Generally, each rifle squad had one troop who was armed with the M79, for a total of three in the platoon. The problem was that having three grenadiers meant three fewer riflemen in the platoon. It wasn’t long before some bright folks came up with the idea of mounting a grenade launcher under the barrel of an M16. Two versions were developed, the XM148 and the M203. The M203 was chosen in 1969 and soon replaced the M79 in most units.

M203 mounted on an M4 carbine
M203 mounted on an M4 carbine

Instead of one per squad, now both fire teams in a squad had a grenade launcher, for a total of six in the platoon. Better yet, no rifle firepower was lost. The M203 was slightly less accurate than the M79, but still good enough. The M203 is still in use today throughout the Army and the Marines, seeing service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, it was only recently that the changing face of warfare, with an increased emphasis on low-intensity conflict, brought to light one of the M203’s shortcomings. Since the M203 is loaded by sliding the barrel forward from the breech, it can only load cartridges of a limited length. There are several cartridges available, including HE, HEDP, smoke and illumination rounds. But there are a range of less-than-lethal crowd control rounds in 40mm that the M203 just can’t fire because the rounds are too long to load.

The Army’s answer is the M320 grenade launcher. Fundamentally still just a simple tube, it’s barrel cants out to one side for easier loading, and since it is canted to one side, it can load and fire longer rounds.

xm320-m4The Army hasn’t given up on the dream of a multi-shot grenade launcher, but in 50 years, hasn’t come up with a practical weapon. The 40mm low velocity grenade looks to remain in service for quite some time.

Veterans Day


So today is Veterans Day. Today, dear freinds, is not a day for mourning, but rather a day to remember the service of American veterans of all wars. Come Memorial Day we shall mourn our dead. Today, let us celebrate life instead.

Veterans Day is a relatively new observance. The holiday started out as Armistice Day, first observed in 1926 to comemorate the end of WWI. It wasn’t until 1954 that the observance was extended to veterans of all wars.  For  a brief time, 1971-1975, Veterans Day was observed on the closest Monday to November 11th, but thankfully, that foolishness went by the wayside and we now observe this day on the proper calendar date.

I don’t have any big plans for the holiday. I’ll celebrate the way I usually do, with quiet thanks for the opportunity to have served this great nation. Interestingly, while I was serving, I never did get Veterans Day off.

As you go about your day, either at work or liesure, take a moment to thank any veterans you know.

Meals Rejected by Everyone

If you know a young soldier in todays Army, chances are they have told you how terrible the MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat is. He’s lying. They taste great. Now.

Back in the dark ages when the MRE was first introduced, they were so bad, people prefered the old C-ration. With good reason, too. The meals were terrible. The Army had abandoned the C-ration because of issues with the weight of the canned meals, and the difficulty of packing them in a soldiers load. The problem was that few foods were stable enough to be stored in the new foil pouch packaging. That shortcoming led to the following selection of less than inspiring menus:

Pork Patty (a dehydrated chunk of ground pork)

Ham and Chicken Loaf (yes, it is as bad as it sounds)

Beef Patty (similar to the aforementioned Pork Patty)

Beef Slices in BBQ Sauce (think shoe leather)

Beef Stew (almost palatable)

Frankfurters with Beans (The Four Fingers of Death, since there were 4 dogs in a pack)

Diced Turkey with Gravy (not like Mom’s home cooking)

Beef Diced with Gravy (best of the bunch, which ain’t saying much)

Chicken a la King (in 5 years, I never finished this one- that’s how bad it was)

Meatballs in BBQ Sauce (heartburn, here we come!)

Ham Slices (again, almost palatable, how do you screw up ham?)

Beef Ground with Spice Sauce (whoever came up with the sauce committed a war crime)

Chicken Loaf (this, and the Ham and Chicken Loaf, had the looked a lot like tuna in a pouch, but dry and tasteless)

In addition to this entree, each meal had crackers; a spread -such as jam, peanut butter, or processed cheese; a desert such as a rock hard chocolate bar or what they called pound cake; and an accessory pack with salt, pepper, sugar, instant coffee, creamer, a toothpick, matches, and a tiny little bundle of toilet paper (EVERY grunt knows to take his own roll or baby wipes with him)

When we went to the field, that’s all we got. MREs. Generally, if we were going to be out in the field for a week or less, that’s all we got. If we were lucky, they would bring us one hot meal (hot is a relative term- it was cooked, but stone cold by the time we got it). Each meal had about 1200 calories. Now, I know that the svelte ladies who read this site will say that that’s enough for a full day. But consider this- the average grunt burns between 4500 and 6000 calories a day in the field. That leaves us 2400 calories short per day. In fact, because the meals were so bad, most folks ended up getting only about 2400 calories a day. You would be weakened by hunger in two or three days.

The Army actually worked hard to fix this problem (no, really), but progress was very slow and it wasn’t until Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm that improved MREs came into the field.  New menu items, larger portions and better accessories made for a much more survivable experience. Later, in 1992, a big leap forward came with the Flameless Ration Heater- a plastic pouch that heated the entree in by adding just a little water to it. I can’t tell you how great it was to have a hot meal.


By 1997, there were 20 different entree, including some breakfast menus, and all the original menus had been dropped. Every year now, new menu items are tested to see what the troops like. If it’s popular, it’s added and the least popular menu is dropped.

In the aftermath of Desert Storm and in Somolia, MRE were given to refugees facing starvation. Turns out, that wasn’t the wisest course of action for people suffering from malnutrition. The rich, fatty, high-protein menus were difficult for them to digest. In response, the Humanitarian Daily Ration was developed. This was a single pouch with food for one day, and was usually a high starch meal, such as beans and rice or lentils. They were also kosher/halal so there were no cultural issues in distributing them. Quite a few soldiers snuck a few of these and found them very tasty. As a result, the menus made their way into MREs as well.