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Arming Air Force Pilots: The GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon

By: Warren Gray

“Self-defense is not only our right; it is our duty.”

— President Ronald Reagan

On Christmas Eve 2014, a Jordanian Air Force F-16AM Fighting Falcon jet fighter attacking Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants near Ar-Raqqah, Syria, crashed due to mechanical failure. The pilot, First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh, ejected safely, but was quickly captured by insurgent terrorists. Only 10 days later, in early January 2015, he was viciously burned alive while trapped inside a steel cage.

As a direct result of this horrific incident, the Royal Netherlands Air Force began in 2015 issuing small, Swiss-manufactured, Brügger and Thomet MP9-N (“N” for “Netherlands”) 9mm submachine guns to all their F-16AM pilots serving in the Middle Eastern theater of operations, in Jordan, and Russian fighter pilots stationed in Syria were issued Stechkin APS 9x18mm machine pistols, with compact, handy, folding-stock, AKS-74U carbines (favored by elite, SpetsNaz commandos, the late Osama bin Laden, and the late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) inside their seat survival kits.

On November 24, 2015, a Russian Su-24M Fencer-D strike fighter inadvertently strayed across the Turkish border and was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, firing a heat-seeking, AIM-9X Super Sidewinder missile. The two-man aircrew ejected, and the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, was killed on the ground by the Turkish-backed, “Grey Wolves” rebel group. His weapon systems officer (WSO), Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, survived and was rescued in a complex and costly effort, during which the Russians lost an Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator” search-and-rescue helicopter on the ground to an enemy, BGM-71F TOW anti-tank missile. Peshkov was posthumously awarded the exalted, Hero of the Russian Federation medal, their ultimate decoration for valor in action.

Then, on Saturday, February 3, 2016, the Russians suffered a major blow when one of their Su-25SM3 Frogfoot-A Mod. 3 ground-attack fighters was shot down south of Saraqib, in western Syria, at 13,000 feet, by a shoulder-fired, SA-24 Grinch heat-seeking missile lunched by the al-Qa’ida-linked, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) extremist, rebel group. The pilot, Major Roman Filipov, ejected safely and parachuted to the ground while his wingman continued to bomb and strafe a nearby, HTS convoy, destroying two of their vehicles as they closed in upon Filipov’s location near the village of Tell Debes.

The Russian major came down beside a large boulder in an area of scrubby vegetation, and a dozen HTS militant insurgents quickly surrounded him, opening fire. Filipov valiantly defended himself with his Stechkin APS machine pistol, killing two of the terrorists as he emptied a full, 20-round magazine at them, and he then reloaded. At that point, he was hit in the right side by enemy fire, and the HTS troops moved in closer, with a video camera recording the entire incident.

Filipov fired one final, half-second burst, and then dropped down behind the boulder, severely wounded, pulling the pin on an RGO hand grenade at the last possible moment to avoid capture and torture by the fanatical extremists. He loudly shouted, “This is for our guys!” and then the grenade detonated with a puff of gray smoke, killing him instantly.

The Russian Defense Ministry noted that, “Major Roman Filipov fought an unequal battle with his service weapon until the last minute of his life. When surrounded by the terrorists and heavily wounded, the Russian officer blew himself up with a grenade when the militants got within several dozen meters of him. The pilot died heroically. We are proud of our heroes.” Once again, this exemplary courage under desperate circumstances merited another prestigious, Hero of the Russian Federation award.

These vital combat lessons were certainly not lost on the United States Air Force, which had A-10C Thunderbolt IIs/“Warthogs,” B-1B Lancer bombers, B-52H Stratofortress bombers, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16CM Fighting Falcons, and F-22A Raptor stealth fighters operating over Iraq and Syria at the time. In fact, it was F-15E pilots from the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, home of the 389th (“Thunderbolts”) and 391st (“Bold Tigers”) Fighter Squadrons, who specifically requested additional firepower over and above their issued, Beretta M9 pistols and Ontario 499 or SP2 survival knives, in case they had to eject over enemy territory.

Indeed, the current Air Force chief of staff, General David L. Goldfein, was shot down during the Operation Allied Force, NATO bombing campaign against Serbia on May 2, 1999, while flying an F-16CG Fighting Falcon from Aviano Air Base, Italy, as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 555th (“Triple Nickel”) Fighter Squadron. He ejected near Šabac, Serbia, when his fighter was hit by a vertically-fired, SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile. Air Force combat controllers, pararescuemen, and an Army Special Forces A-team boarded an MH-60G Pave Hawk and two MH-53J Pave Low special operations helicopters at Tuzla Air Base, Bosnia, racing to the rescue at about two o’clock AM.

Meanwhile, three Serbian soldiers closed in on Goldfein’s position, and he reached for his Beretta M9 pistol, but it had been blasted away by the violent force of the aircraft ejection sequence. They passed within 20 to 30 feet of him, but Goldfein was in a wooded ravine, and they never saw him. After moving some distance, still unarmed, he next encountered a growling animal, and radioed his position to rescue forces, who finally arrived at about five AM, under intense, enemy gunfire. The Pave Hawk crew then picked him up, and whisked him away successfully. So, General Goldfein certainly understood the dire need for self-defense weapons for downed pilots, especially considering that their issued Beretta M9s might not necessarily be available when required, and were definitely no match for enemy, AK-47 assault rifles.

The Air Force’s initial response to the issue in 2017 was to literally saw the barrels off of some existing, Vietnam-era, GAU-5/A (CAR-15) or GAU-5A/A Colt Commando 5.56mm assault carbines at the front of the iron sights, to have a readily available, compact weapon that could be stowed inside the ACES II seat survival kit of a fighter or bomber aircraft. But with a stubby, eight-inch barrel and no flash suppressor, the muzzle flash was horrendous and disorienting, with excessive noise, so a better, more-permanent solution was required.

In June 2018, the Air Force officially announced in the Air Force Times that it would begin converting existing, GUU-5/P carbines into the all-new, GAU-5A (no forward slash in the designation this time) Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon (ASDW) at a rate of approximately 100 guns per week, with the stated goal of producing 2,137 new ASDWs for their fighter and bomber squadrons. The work was accomplished at the USAF Gunsmith Shop at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to be fielded in all combat-coded, A-10C, B-1B, B-52H, F-15C, F-15E, F-16CM/V, and F-22A aircraft, and presumably F-35As, as well, although that aircraft uses the British-designed, Martin-Baker US16E (Mk. 16) ejection seat and its survival kit, not the United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS) ACES II system, so F-35 inclusion in this weapon program remains uncertain.

Each ACES II seat survival kit contains one GAU-5A weapon with four loaded, 30-round magazines, a black life raft, a Streamlight Sidewinder flashlight, signal flares, medical and survival modules, and other vital tools, and weighs about 40 pounds.

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In addition, in March 2019, the Air Force began fielding the new SIG-Sauer M18 compact pistol in 9mm, as a replacement for the current Beretta M9. The initial batches went to base security forces, and later production runs will be allocated for pilots and other aircrew members. The Air Force has also adopted the Colt M4 carbine with Aimpoint M68/CCO red-dot, optical sight as its new, standard weapon this past year, replacing the M16A2 rifle.

On April 23, 2019, the first GAU-5A weapons were issued to F-22A Raptor stealth fighter pilots at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and by May 9, 2019, F-15E pilots at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, were testing their new ASDWs.

The unique GAU-5A uses the lower receiver, charging handle, general controls, sliding stock, magazines, direct-impingement operating system, and M16A2-style flash hider of the previous M4 carbine, but the rest of the assembly consists of new parts. The Cry Havoc Tactical Quick-Release-Barrel (QRB) kit, using a 12.5-inch Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) government-contour, nitride barrel assembly (with a 1:7 rifling twist), is at the heart of the conversion, permitting the gun to be broken apart into two sections and stowed inside the seat survival kit, then reassembled by a pilot within one minute or less, using no tools. The reason for the 12.5-inch barrel length was to fit inside the 16-inch-wide seat kit, since adding the QRB connector and flash hider extends the barrel assembly to about 15 inches, making for a snug fit.

There is an FAB Defense (Israeli-made) AGF-43S folding pistol grip to reduce weapon height when stowed, a Midwest Industries MI-G3ML10-BLK free-floating handguard (10.5 inches long), and a forged-aluminum, upper receiver with forward bolt assist, with Magpul MBUS Pro LR folding, iron sights attached. Four fully-loaded, 30-round magazines are provided, in either gray finish or Flat Dark Earth (FDE), and the weapons may be fired in either semi-automatic mode, or three-round bursts.

The GAU-5A has an effective range of more than 200 meters, and is designed to help keep a downed aircrew member alive in a hostile environment for up to three to four hours, until rescue helicopters can arrive on-scene. There has been some interest in this project from the British Royal Air Force, German Luftwaffe (Air Force), and Royal Australian Air Force, which are apparently intent on copying this type of compact, takedown weapon. The 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e RHFS) of the French Army Light Aviation service already arms each of its pilots with an H&K USP9 pistol in 9mm, an MP7A1 submachine gun in 4.6x30mm, and an HK416 carbine (with 10-inch barrel) in 5.56mm NATO, so these are the best-armed, combat pilots in the world.

The 169th Fighter Wing (157th Fighter Squadron, “Swamp Foxes”) of the South Carolina Air National Guard, at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, flying F-16CM Fighting Falcons, has ready access to FN America’s Manufacturing Plant in Columbia, South Carolina. In September 2018, this squadron officially adopted the FN M4 SBR (Short-Barrel Rifle) with a 10.5-inch barrel and holographic sight, as their new, aircrew self-defense weapon, since the GAU-5A ASDW currently applies only to the active-duty U.S. Air Force and not the Air National Guard (ANG) fighter units. It remains to be seen whether other ANG units will follow suit.

Modern air warfare in the Middle East has resulted in downed aircrews facing hardcore, fanatical, enemy forces who clearly do not respect the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, and are usually not even state signatories to the conventions. Instead, they are mostly non-state, rebel forces with little regard for human life, and malicious intent toward enemy captives. Recognizing this difficult situation, the U.S. Air Force has finally begun providing its combat aircrews with an effective, self-defense weapon in the form of the new GAU-5A ASDW.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, worked in fighter squadrons for four years, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.

Photos: Public Domain

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.