Noah Shachtma / Wired Blog – 2007-10-24 23:49:06
Robot Cannon Kills 9, Wounds 14
Noah Shachtma / Wired Blog
(October 18, 2007) — We’re not used to thinking of them this way. But many advanced military weapons are essentially robotic — picking targets out automatically, slewing into position, and waiting only for a human to pull the trigger. Most of the time. Once in a while, though, these machines start firing mysteriously on their own. The South African National Defence Force “is probing whether a software glitch led to an antiaircraft cannon malfunction that killed nine soldiers and seriously injured 14 others during a shooting exercise on Friday.”
SA National Defence Force spokesman brigadier general Kwena Mangope says the cause of the malfunction is not yet known…
Media reports say the shooting exercise, using live ammunition, took place at the SA Army’s Combat Training Centre, at Lohatlha, in the Northern Cape, as part of an annual force preparation endeavour.
Mangope told The Star that it “is assumed that there was a mechanical problem, which led to the accident. The gun, which was fully loaded, did not fire as it normally should have,” he said. “It appears as though the gun, which is computerised, jammed before there was some sort of explosion, and then it opened fire uncontrollably, killing and injuring the soldiers.”
Other reports have suggested a computer error might have been to blame. Defence pundit Helmoed-Römer Heitman told the Weekend Argus that if “the cause lay in computer error, the reason for the tragedy might never be found.”
The anti-aircraft weapon, an Oerlikon GDF-005, is designed to use passive and active radar, as well as laser target designators range finders, to lock on to “high-speed, low-flying aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and cruise missiles.” In “automatic mode,” the weapon feeds targeting data from the fire control unit straight to the pair of 35mm guns, and reloads on its own when its emptied its magazine.
Electronics engineer and defence company CEO Richard Young says he can’t believe the incident was purely a mechanical fault. He says his company, C2I2, in the mid 1990s, was involved in two air defence artillery upgrade programmes, dubbed Projects Catchy and Dart.
During the shooting trials at Armscor’s Alkantpan shooting range, “I personally saw a gun go out of control several times,” Young says. “They made a temporary rig consisting of two steel poles on each side of the weapon, with a rope in between to keep the weapon from swinging. The weapon eventually knocked the pol[e]s down.”
According to The Star, “a female artillery officer risked her life… in a desperate bid ” to save members of her battery from the gun.”
But the brave, as yet unnamed officer was unable to stop the wildly swinging computerised Swiss/German Oerlikon 35mm MK5 anti-aircraft twin-barrelled gun. It sprayed hundreds of high-explosive 0,5kg 35mm cannon shells around the five-gun firing position.
By the time the gun had emptied its twin 250-round auto-loader magazines, nine soldiers were dead and 11 injured.
Inside the Robo-Cannon Rampage (Updated)
(October 19, 2007) — A South African robotic cannon went out of control, killing nine, “immediately after technicians had finished repairing the weapon,” the Mail & Guardian reports.
A burst of explosive shells, lasting one-eighth of a second, from the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun killed nine soldiers and injured 15 others…
Explaining the circumstances around the incident, which happened last Friday, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota told South Africa’s National Assembly that he training exercise had involved eight guns positioned 20m apart in a line facing north.
The day was the first on which the soldiers involved had used “live” ammunition in a training exercise… Each gun [the picture to the left is of a Chinese knock-off — ed.] had a crew of four. The gun on which the incident occurred was the one on the far right, at the east end of the line.
“As all guns commenced firing, the gun on the far right … had a stoppage. This is something that happens from time to time. Technicians repaired this gun, while all the other guns continued firing. This is a very normal drill.
“As they continued firing, after the gun was fixed, it swung completely to the left, and one barrel fired off a burst of 15 to 20 shots in one-eighth of a second. The … gun immediately to the left was hit.
“This fatal burst then killed or injured members of all the guns to the left. The effect was therefore that all of those killed or injured [were hit] from the right and lost right hands, or right legs, or lost their lives.”
He confirmed the total number killed was nine, and 15 injured.
Lekota said the eight guns had been used the day before, “and each one had successfully fired between 500 and 800 rounds each”.
He further explained the guns could be set on either “manual or electric firing mode”. On the day, they had all been set on manual. This meant they were sighted on the target, and the barrel then clamped into position “so that the barrel should not move from side to side”.
“When firing in electric mode, safety boundaries are computerised and the barrels are not clamped, but move within the boundaries set in advance.”
•Video: Robo-Weapon’s Scary Twist
(October 18, 2007) — The tragedy in South Africa that killed nine soldiers isn’t the first time a robotic weapon has spun out of control. Here’s a video I obtained a few years back, showing a XM-151 XM-101 Common Remotely Operated Weapons Station connected to an Apache chaingun, emptying its magazine of .50-caliber bullets 30 mm high explosive rounds — and then turning towards the camera, looking for new targets to nail.
I’m told — but cannot confirm — that this footage was shot during a demonstration for VIPs, and that several members of Congress would’ve been in serious jeopardy, had the weapon not run out of ammo.
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