FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. --- "Riding shotgun" in the Army Reserve is moving to the backseat and gunners could be better off because of it.
Traditionally, the gunner sits in the vehicle's turret during convoys, where he is exposed to gunfire and explosions and vulnerable to injury during a vehicle rollover. But now the Army Reserve is receiving a weapon technology that will allow the gunner to sit safely in the backseat.
Known as the CROWS, for "common remotely operated weapon station," it's a big hunk of steel mounted to the top of a vehicle, equipped with daytime and thermal cameras, capable of rotating 360 degrees and seeing up to 1,500 meters away.
Sgt. Michael Whitaker, Army Reserve Soldier with the 346th Military Police Company of Fort Riley, Kansas, praised the $190,000 weapon system, saying he loved that it would keep gunners out of harm's way.
"They're inside the protection of the vehicle, and they can still get 360-degree view by traversing the turret," Whitaker said. "They're not up there in the turret with their heads sticking out ... where the enemy sniper can engage them easier."
Far from a new technology to the Army, the CROWS has been around in one form or another since 2001. This year, however, marks the first major fielding program concentrating heavily on the Army Reserve. The first Reserve units to receive CROWS in fiscal year 2017 are military police and chemical companies.
In all, it's estimated the units will go to 27 companies, 19 of which are military police. The project is estimated to field approximately $39 million worth of equipment to the Army Reserve.
"Even though it is expensive, it's keeping our No. 1 asset protected, which is our Soldiers," Whitaker pointed out. "It's bringing our brothers and sisters home at the end of their deployment."
The Army Reserve fielding process is taking place in four stages at military installations in Arkansas, New Jersey and South Carolina. For each fielding, a team of instructors and installers is spending about two weeks training Soldiers how to use their new weapon.
The system feels a bit like a video game, with gunners controlling the CROWS using a joystick while watching a small screen, which features a digital crosshair for aiming, surrounded by buttons and switches.
Equipped with a laser rangefinder that measures the distance of a target, the CROWS is estimated to have a 95 percent accuracy rate. It absorbs about 80 percent of the recoil, allowing the gunner to bring the weapon back on target faster after each burst of fire.
"What you see on the screen is just like the real thing. It's just really neat how smooth it is to operate and how simple it is, really," Whitaker said.
Gunners can aim and control the CROWS manually, but the system is also equipped with a tracking capability that allows gunners to stay with a target traveling up to 25 miles per hour, even if the target moves behind objects.
Spc. Ethan Moe, Army Reserve military police Soldier with the 800th MP Company of Little Rock, Arkansas called the weapon station "very accurate."
"Just about every time you pull the trigger, it goes [back to] the same place," he said. "The stabilization, [allows you to] shoot on the move. Thermal imaging, see at night, temperatures, easily pick out targets, tracking, leading -- all that."
Also, even when the gunner's vehicle is traveling across rough terrain, the CROWS remains completely stable and on target.
"Before, when you were in the gunner's hatch, [if] the truck's bouncing, you're bouncing," Whitaker explained. "You're all over the place. It was harder to maintain a good target."
The first Soldiers to receive the CROWS in the Army were infantry and Stryker brigade combat teams. The system is so versatile that it can be mounted on nearly any vehicle with a turret: Humvees, large trucks, tanks, watercraft and more.
It's also compatible with the M2 .50-cal machine gun, the MK19 automatic grenade launcher, the M240B rifle and the M249 squad automatic weapon.
It comes with a large ammo box that can feed a massive amount of firepower into the weapon: 96 rounds for the MK19, 400 rounds for the M2, 1,000 rounds for the M240B and 1,600 rounds for the M249.
"That's a lot of rounds you can put down range," Moe said.
The fielding is managed by PM Soldier Weapons, a program that specializes in developing and procuring new technology for Soldiers.
"It's going to improve the accuracy of how we fight," said Arquelio Gillespie, fielding manager for the materiel fielding and training team for the Tank Automotive Command. "It's going to reduce the number of casualties that the Army takes. It's going to improve on our accuracy of finding the enemy,"
There was a bigger push to put CROWS on turrets in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009. These units, however, were intended for temporary use. Soldiers turned them back in as they returned home.
Shortly after, however, the CROWS became what is known in the logistics world as a "program of record," meaning it was approved as an official weapon assigned to units long-term.