The truck slowly rolls down the road. The shallow Arizona morning sun paints a silhouette of an average-looking truck, but an advanced, never-before-seen weapon system is in the truck’s bed. In an instant, the barrel of the weapon snaps towards a hillside, and the air erupts with the sound of continuous gunfire. As quickly as it began, the demonstration ends. The result is a basketball-sized collection of fist-sized holes in a hardened concrete wall downrange. The product on display is an M230LF chain gun fired by a remote device kept inside the cab of the truck. All I am waiting for now is Tony Stark to appear and give an epic speech. Welcome to the Orbital ATK Bushmaster User Conference.
Out Of This World
Every year, the team at Orbital ATK organizes a large event to demonstrate new products and capabilities. It is called the Bushmaster User Conference in reference to the Armament Systems Division’s Bushmaster chain gun. The conference is essentially a live-fire demonstration held at Big Sandy Range in Northwest Arizona.
While the company is not exactly a household name in the civilian world, Orbital ATK is a major player in the defense market. It is a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies. The company designs, builds and delivers cutting-edge space, defense and aviation systems for customers around the world, both as a prime contractor and as a merchant supplier. Its main products include launch vehicles and related propulsion systems; missile products, subsystems and defense electronics; precision weapons, armament systems and ammunition; satellites and associated space components and services; and advanced aerospace structures. Headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, Orbital ATK employs approximately 12,000 people in 18 states across the U.S. and in several international locations. In the end, the company is one of the most innovative and respected names in the defense industry, both here in the U.S. and abroad.
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Now that you’ve got some backstory, the Bushmaster User Conference allows Orbital ATK to show off the reliability and capabilities of its weapons and ammunition systems. This year’s conference provided an opportunity to show off the company’s advanced ammunition types, including programmable airburst munitions, a 40mm family of newly developed ammunition and the use of a common fuse design. Attendees included senior members of the U.S. military as well as the company’s colleagues from around the world. The crowd was absolutely a gathering of who’s who in international military circles. As referenced in the opening of the article, it had a very Stark Industries feel to it. Even the range looked as if it was as much a movie set as it was a live-fire arena.
An interesting side note on the Big Sandy range: As a longtime shooter and professional in the industry, it is rare that I find a location that gives you the leeway to fire pretty much anything. There are always government regulations, local restrictions and even EPA limitations. All of this is pushed aside at Big Sandy, however, as it has been designated as a Department of Defense Impact area. Essentially, you can shoot any caliber of weapon here just short of a nuke. This explains Orbital ATK’s appreciation for the site.
And it quickly became evident as the event started rolling that this was not Orbital ATK’s first rodeo. The entire event was flawlessly choreographed to not only provide exciting live-fire demonstrations, but also to hold detailed product briefings at the end of each demo. Marshaling the event was Jarrod Krull, the communications manager for Orbital ATK. With a team of professionals at his side, the event was a “how it’s done” demonstration of organization. To liven things up, they had invited R. Lee Ermey, aka The Gunny, to be an MC and to add his insights on the weapons. His input was colorful, to say the least.
Chain Gun Boom
After a safety briefing, the day began with the first demonstration, beginning with a 25mm M242 Bushmaster chain gun. This gun can be mounted on multiple platforms, but this demonstration focused on its MK38 naval mount. With a boom, boom, boom that vibrates your internal organs, the chain gun made easy work of a variety of targets downrange. The M242 is a popular and reliable chain gun in the 25mm market due to its simple design, ease of maintenance and impeccable performance.
Following the M242, the team quickly moved to the M230LF chain gun on a Viper VGS30 mount. This particular gun had interested me because of its wide uses. Like the weapon before it, the thundering shots pounded the range. The M230LF is unique because it combines the highest caliber and the lightest weight with the lowest recoil, and it’s used on both land and sea platforms. The M230LF is a link-fed version of the Apache attack helicopter’s chain gun—the same gun that soldiers are so fond of hearing when things get ugly around them.
Last up in the initial trifecta was the MK52 chain gun. The MK52 is the only externally driven 7.62mm on the market, and users can easily switch out its barrel without removing the gun from its mount. The design also eliminates the possibility of misfire stoppages due to an electrical extraction system. This combat-proven, low-life-cycle-cost gun exposes the user to 95-percent less toxicity than other guns in this category.
Following some downtime to conduct product briefings, it was time to go mobile. This is where the guns really shined. First up was a 30mm MK44 Bushmaster chain gun mounted on a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) with an MCT-30 turret. Gone are the days of a gunner sitting in an exposed turret, spinning around to engage targets. Everything is done from inside the safety of the vehicle now with a remote firing system and high-resolution cameras and designators. The MK44 is highly configurable to meet specific needs and is used on land, air and sea platforms. The design also allows users to “up gun” the chain gun to 40mm by changing out only five parts. The armored vehicle rolled up the range road like others before it and decimated everything it engaged downrange.
Next up was the M230LF on a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) integrated with the Protector Remote Weapons Station. This is the same gun we saw earlier, but running on a JLTV. What was astonishing was the accuracy that the systems provided even while moving.
One Tough Truck
The pièce de résistance of the event came when Orbital ATK unveiled a Toyota LC79, which is essentially a Land Cruiser pickup truck. But the difference here is that an M230LF chain gun was mounted in the back. The entire system was remotely operated by a technician in the passenger seat. As the truck rolled up the road, it engaged multiple targets and turned them into dust and flames.
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The entire package was a collaborative effort between Orbital ATK, Pratt & Miller and EOS. The end product is a lightweight, highly mobile platform that carries a gun capable of firing more than 200 rounds per minute. The gun fires the 30x113mm ammunition commonly used by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The EOS remote system run by the passenger is a stabilized unit with auto-tracking and audio/video-recording capabilities. It has a laser rangefinder as well as thermal cameras. The effective range of the system is well over 2,000 meters.
Pratt & Miller made some modifications to the LC79, including an upgraded suspension package for added mobility and stability as well as a self-contained universal weapons mounting system. While the other vehicles were impressive, the Land Cruiser demonstrated just how flexible these systems truly are.
The day was almost surreal as I was able to walk around some of the most advanced weapon systems in the world. These were all designed with not only the obvious lethality factor in mind, but also the end-user as well. The goal was to design systems that are easy to run, reliable and effective.
I was fortunate to visit with one of the engineers regarding ammunition development for the systems, and I was blown away by how far we’ve come. Gone are the days of lobbing munitions in a general area and hoping they hit their mark. A serious focus has been placed on precision ordnance and the desire to minimize collateral damage and injury.
From vehicles designed to thrive in hostile environments to the advanced weapon systems designed by Orbital ATK, it is clear that we are living in a tech-centric age of warfighting. As I watched the various weapons reduce hardened concrete walls to rubble and staged infantry platoons to pieces, I tried to imagine what it would be like to face them in battle. Suffice it to say that it would be a bad day to be a bad guy.
This article was originally published in “Tactical Weapons” August/September 2017. To order and subscribe, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.