ARMED & DANGEROUS - New ammo improves pilot safety, reduces collateral damage

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ken Hall
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, Iraq, are employing a new 20mm cannon round in their M61/A1 Gatling guns for the first time, improving pilot safety while reducing collateral damage.

Airmen first validated the rounds at a firing range and then employed them in battle at the end of February.

Ground forces east of Baghdad chased insurgents into a building and then called in close-air support. F-16s from the wing's 14th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron responded, strafing the insurgent stronghold and vehicle, said Lt. Col. Chuck Toplikar, squadron commander.

Improved PGU-28A/B 20mm ammunition began replacing the long-used M56 high explosive incendiary ammunition in the wing's F-16s, making pilots' jobs easier, safer and more effective. That is a lofty claim, but recent combat sorties prove the ammo is enhancing combat airpower.

The older M56 ammo required a specific impact velocity for its high explosive incendiary properties to function correctly. In other words, the round would not explode on impact if it did not get there fast enough, so pilots had to get in closer for the strafe. Of course, the impact and mass of the projectile would still damage the target, but wouldn't achieve the full effect for which it was designed.

The new cannon round employs a more aerodynamic design and "hotter load," which increases its velocity and effective range, allowing greater standoff distance for pilots, according to wing officials. That increased distance directly translates to greater pilot safety overall, because they can fire the new rounds from more than a mile and a half away, said Capt. Jim Maxwell, the deputy chief of weapons and tactics at the wing.

The captain also noted that when bullets can be used instead of bombs, the potential for collateral damage is reduced as well, increasing airpower options for the ground commander who must calculate the desired result when calling in air support, according to Maxwell.

Acquiring and readying the new ammo for use, though, was not an easy task.

After airpower leaders determined the enhancements, the new cannon round could bring an "urgent operational need" to procure the PGU-28A/B, according to Senior Master Sgt. Michael Ray, 332nd Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron. New ammo came from as far away as Naval Air Stations Miramar, Calif., and Sigonella, Sicily, as well as Naval Base Guam and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.

When the ammo arrived, 332nd EMXS munitions members received and inspected more than 80,000 rounds in a lightning-fast six hours -- compared to the 8,000 rounds usually processed in a typical day.

"It ain't ammo 'til we say it's ammo," Ray said.

The PGU-28A/B rounds then made their way through loading machines, called replenishers, to fill drummed universal ammunition loading systems, which are used by weapons loaders to arm the wing's F-16s.

"Airmen toiled around the clock as well swapping PGU ammo for M56 rounds over a period of two days," said Capt. Kevin Tanner, 332nd EMXS officer in charge.

That hard work allowed F-16 pilots to employ the ammo quickly.

"Our ammo and weapons loader personnel are just phenomenal," said Lt. Col. Patrick Kumashiro, the 332nd Expeditionary Maintenance Group deputy commander.

Capt. George Watkins and 1st Lt. David Bennett, both from the 510th EFS at Balad, made up the first two-ship combat mission to use the new cannon rounds. The pilots worked as a team employing standard night tactics where one "sparkles" the target with infrared marker invisible to anyone not wearing night vision goggles, and the other then strafes and destroys the target.

"I'm excited to have the new ammo," Bennet said, "and glad to employ it to help the guys on the ground."

Watkins agrees. "Protecting the guys on the ground is our No. 1 priority, and having the new ammo makes it easier and safer for us to do that," he said.

Col. Scott Dennis, commander of the wing's 332nd Operations Group, added, "It's critical for ground forces who call in air support to get it when they need it. These new rounds certainly kick our (close-air support) effectiveness up a notch."