BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Deep in the countryside, Taliban fighters take aim at U.S. military bases with indirect fire: in particular, cheap and ubiquitous Chinese-made 107mm rockets. The U.S. Army’s answer: A series of impressive six-barreled, 20mm Gatling guns that spew up to 75 rounds per second.
The M61 Vulcan Cannon is part of what is known as the C-RAM in the Army, short for Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System. It has been used successfully to take out numerous rockets, with a fireball typically lighting up the sky as bright tracer rounds from the gun find their target.
The C-RAMs here are run by Task Force Iron Shield, a group of soldiers with the Florida National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment. The weapon was initially designed for use on Navy ships decades ago and is known by the Navy as Phalanx, but the Army eventually adopted it for use in Iraq. It made its way to Bagram closer to 2012.
The system also includes a robust radar suite and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras to detect incoming fire and alert people on base that a round is on the way. That typically provides a moment or two for service members and contractors on base to take cover both from the first round and any subsequent rockets fired in succession, said Lt. Col. Michael Powers, the task force commander.
“An event from start to finish is very, very quick,” he said.
Rocket attacks at Bagram have historically been launched about every other day. That has dwindled some in recent months, but the task force also is proud that no one has been injured or killed on Bagram by a rocket since they arrived early this summer. That last incident occurred June 8, when Krissie Davis, 54, a civilian working for the Pentagon, was killed in an attack.
Military officials here decline to detail damage rockets have caused at Bagram, citing a desire to maintain security. But they showed these shells to me Wednesday to show what the C-RAM can do:
The Taliban regularly fires the ubiquitous Chinese-made 107mm rocket at coalition military installations in Afghanistan. The U.S. military response: the C-RAM, short for Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System. It uses radar and high-tech cameras to shoot incoming fire out of the sky. In the photo here, at bottom is a demonstration 107mm rocket round. In the middle, the remains of a round that exploded. At top, a twisted up round that was knocked out of the sky by C-RAM. It’s operated here by soldiers from the Florida National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.
The bottom shell in the photo is a dummy 107mm rocket round used for training. The middle one is the shell of a rocket that exploded and was not taken out by C-RAM. The top shell, disfigured and riddled with holes, is a rocket that was knocked out of the sky by gunfire from the system.
There are at least 10 C-RAMs across Bagram Airfield, blanketing it in coverage from direct fire, Powers said. The soldiers’ civilian backgrounds have come in handy in other ways, too. Sent to a small nearby installation, Forward Operating Base Dahlke, to work on C-RAM guns there, they fixed several all-terrain vehicles that had been in disrepair there for months, Powers said. They are civilian motorcycle mechanics when not deployed.