Robot Cannon Kills 9, Wounds 14
By Noah Shachtman October 18, 2007 | 11:00:00 AMCategories: Ammo and Munitions, Drones, Guns
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.