Centurion C-RAM: The Solution that Isn’t

The Army is considering deploying C-RAM for Air Defense

by Stephen Bryen

Katyusha rockets, fired by Shi’ite militias allied to Iran, struck U.S. Camp Taji in Iraq last week killing one British and two American soldiers. The base was hit again by Katyushas a few days later. Camp Taji, according to reports, does not have any air defenses.

While the U.S. is officially in Iraq to finish the fight against ISIS, the war has morphed into a fight against Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the strongest militias supported by Iran. It is supported as well by the Iraqi government, which at the same time “permits” the U.S. to train Iraqi government forces in counterinsurgency, ostensibly to defeat ISIS. 

The mashup of objectives and politics, including demands by a majority of Iraq’s parliament that the U.S. leave the country, is the uncertain environment in which current military decisions are
being taken. 

As a result of last week’s attacks, the U.S. Army is promising to deploy its Centurion C-RAM at its remaining bases in Iraq, including Camp Taji. The official reason is to protect the troops, but the fact is that the Centurion C-Ram is not a good area defense system and is more likely headed to Iraq
as a point defense system to protect the Patriot Air Defense System, which is also being deployed.

The anomaly here is that while Patriot may help Camp Taji defend against longer range, heavier ballistic missiles, Patriot won’t be able to shoot down short range Katyushas – the current threat –because it isn’t designed for that. In any case, once the Patriot is installed it will itself become a prime target for mortar and rocket attacks, especially 107 mm and 122 mm
Katyushas that are in plentiful supply among the various Sh’ia militias, but especially with Kata’ib Hezbollah. 

Most disconcerting is the Army’s refusal to deploy the far more effective Iron Dome system, built in Israel with Raytheon as a partner for its Tamir interceptor rockets, and funded by the U.S. government.  The Army claims the Iron Dome systems, two of which are in the United States, are not ready for deployment.

If not, why not? Surely the Army’s Israeli partners would hurry things along if asked. 

Centurion C-RAM is a multi-barreled Gatling gun system the Army borrowed (sort of) from the Navy, which uses them for last ditch ship defense against sea skimming missiles. C-RAM has different ammunition than the naval version, and different sensors appropriate to land-based
requirements. It fires 20 mm M-940 explosive rounds designed to self-detonate if they do not hit a target, a feature not in the Navy’s 20 mm rounds. because if they miss (which they are likely to), the shells fall into the sea.  

There is much debate about Centurion C-RAM’s effectiveness and its useful firing range. Standard literature claims C-RAM has a range of 2,000 meters, but others say the effective range is as little as 500 meters. The gun itself, the M61A1, is mounted on a 35-ton commercial trailer.  In a typical engagement, it is said to fire around 300 rounds, with an unofficial effectiveness of 50-60 percent.  

It has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily against mortars. There are C-RAM units protecting the Green Zone in Baghdad and the huge Balad Air Base about 40 miles north in the sensitive Sunni Triangle. 

On January 8, 2020, 3 Katyusha rockets slammed into the Green Zone. They were not intercepted. Again, on March 18, 2020 another 3 Katyusha rockets hit the Green Zone.  If the C-RAM is there, either the rockets hit outside its coverage, or it failed to detect the Katyushas.  In any case, there was no attempt to intercept the incoming rockets.

Camp Taji, while not as large a base as Balad,nonetheless is good-sized, and has an airfield with a 1,732 meter (5,700 ft.) runway.  A single Centurion C-RAM cannot defend even a portion of the base and would be ineffective against attacks coming from different directions at the same time. 

Centurion was never designed as an area protection system, unlike Iron Dome which can protect large areas, as it does for Israeli towns and cities in southern Israel near the Gaza border. Iron Dome has been deployed since 2014 and is astonishingly effective against rockets and mortars.

The Army claims the reason not to use Iron Dome is “lack of integration,” but the real reason is likely commercial and political, not military. Integration is achievable, but Raytheon, which has only a
small piece of the action on Iron Dome, is certainly looking ahead to the Army’s plan to field a fully integrated air defense system in future.  The head of the Army’s Futures Command has said there would be a “shoot off” to determine the next system, and it appears the Army does not want
that future system to include the Israeli Iron Dome. 

But if the issue is to protect U.S. and coalition soldiers and others (including contractors) working in Iraq, the decision to just put a Centurion C-RAM with a Patriot at Camp Taji is a solution that isn’t.

For sure Army field commanders know C-RAM won’t be of any real help, even if they are afraid to tell their troops they are unprotected.