Whenever new videos of the Centurion Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM) system emerge, my inbox and social media channels get flooded with people asking what the heck they are seeing and especially hearing in those videos. Such was the case on November 17th, 2020, when seven rockets were fired towards the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital’s sprawling Green Zone after the U.S. announced it was pulling out more troops from the country, leaving a force of just 2,500 behind. Some of the rockets ended up killing an innocent child outside the Green Zone and wounded other Iraqi civilians, while a few others landed inside. As it has for a decade and a half, Centurion was lying in wait near the U.S. Embassy ready to instantly come alive to send its wall off specialized 20mm projectiles into the sky at the incoming threat.
Centurion’s unique signature is one part fireworks show and another part mechanical lion’s roar. What you are seeing in the video is a dense string of M-940 20mm Multipurpose Tracer-Self Destruct (MPT-SD) rounds. The ammunition is specially engineered to self-destruct at a certain distance so that the string of shells doesn’t take out a city block miles away. The specialized ammunition was originally designed for Centurion’s progenitor, the Vulcan Air Defense System.
Since its rushed development back in 2004, at a time when the insurgency in Iraq was rapidly accelerating, Centurion was always meant to be put to use in areas where friendlies literally surround it. Not really innocent locals, but primarily U.S. and allied service members and contractors, or even buildings full of diplomats and support personnel. It is also used to protect far more advanced and longer-range air defense systems, like the Patriot, from low-end attacks.
It is a short-range system that isn’t there to knock down enemy aircraft or guided missiles, but is instead meant to swat lower-end artillery shells, mortar rounds, and rockets out of the sky before they can land within a fairly limited radius, roughly under a mile, that lies beneath its protective umbrella. As such, the engagement windows are very short and the reaction times are tiny. Because of this, those who have served amongst this robotic guardian are all too aware that its protection comes at a startling cost.
Literally, it startles the hell out of people.
This is especially true when raid sirens that sound to tell people to take cover have little time to beat Centurion to the audible punch.
The sound of the weapon’s 20mm Vulcan cannon, a Gatling-style gun nearly identical to the ones used in numerous American fighters built over the decades, from the F-104 to the F-22 Raptor, is as terrifying as it is fascinating. While the A-10 Warthog’s famed GAU-8/A Avenger 30mm cannon gets all the “BRRRRTTTT” love, the Vulcan puts out a similar, but slightly less throaty howl. It’s a product of spewing between 3,000 and 4,500 rounds per minute out of its six revolving barrels.