In the late 1960s, the United States Army welcomed a formidable addition to its arsenal, the M163 VADS (Vulcan Air Defense System) self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Over its illustrious service spanning a quarter of a century, the M163 VADS evolved from its original role to take on new combat missions and challenges. This article will delve into this remarkable military asset’s technical prowess, historical journey, and legacy.
The Birth of a Game-Changer
During 1964-65, the Pentagon developed an advanced short-range anti-aircraft missile system, later designated as the M48 and MIM-72 Chaparral. Complementing this missile system, they commissioned the creation of an anti-aircraft self-propelled gun equipped with a rapid-fire, small-caliber cannon, eventually known as the M163 VADS.
The primary objective of the M163 project was to craft a cutting-edge anti-aircraft self-propelled gun capable of thwarting low-flying aircraft and helicopters. They decided to employ an existing chassis and weaponry to expedite development and optimize production.
This versatile machine could seamlessly integrate into combat formations alongside other military equipment, effectively neutralizing a broad spectrum of threats that managed to penetrate the MIM-72 air defense system‘s zone of control. Furthermore, recognizing the need for ground support, the rapid-fire cannon could be employed against ground targets when necessary.
The Collaborative Effort Behind M163 VADS
The development of the VADS system was a collaborative endeavor led by the Rock Island Arsenal, with contributions from various commercial organizations providing essential components and supplies. The extensive use of off-the-shelf components expedited the design process significantly, with the first experimental ZSU units rolling out as early as 1965. By 1967, comprehensive testing had been successfully completed.
Serial production of the M163 commenced the same year, nearly simultaneously with the introduction of the M48 air defense system. Subsequently, the deployment and training of military units in the operation of this equipment began. By 1969, the first units achieved initial operational readiness, marking a remarkable milestone.
Over the next few years, mass production ensured that military air defense units were fully equipped with this cutting-edge technology.
Technical Marvels of the M163 VADS
The M163 VADS was constructed on the foundation of the M741 tracked chassis, a slightly modified version of the M113 armored personnel carrier. This chassis offered robust structural support by returning a welded hull made of bulletproof and anti-fragmentation armor, a standard power plant, and running gear. The control compartment remained positioned at the front of the hull, with the central section serving as the fighting compartment.
The weaponry was housed in a simplified turret designed to accommodate weapons and fire control equipment. The front section accommodated the open mechanism for mounting the cannon, while the side and rear featured curved armor plating for protection. A radar sight antenna was mounted on the left side, offering enhanced situational awareness. The turret lacked a roof, simplifying airspace observation but exposing the gunner operator to additional risks. This turret design allowed for circular horizontal aiming within an elevation range of -5° to +80°.
The primary armament of the ZSU VADS was the formidable six-barreled M61 Vulcan cannon, equipped with a rotating block of barrels and designed to fire 20×102 mm ammunition. An external drive facilitated the automatic gun’s operation with electrical ignition. The gun boasted a firing rate of up to 6 rounds per minute, although the self-propelled variant operated at half this rate. Its effective range against air targets spanned from 600 to 1000 meters.
The M163 had the flexibility to employ various types of projectiles, including high-explosive fragmentation and armor-piercing rounds, with or without tracers. Practical ammunition was also available, with an onboard storage capacity of 2100 shells in boxes within the self-propelled gun’s body, utilizing a standard linkless system.
For precise targeting, the M163 featured an automatic anti-aircraft sight; the M61 was compatible with night sights. A compact radar rangefinder bolstered accuracy, relaying data to the main sight’s control unit. This unit calculated the required lead, furnishing the gunner with essential targeting information. The operator primarily executed target acquisition and gun aiming through remote control or manual mechanisms.
The control system provided two firing modes, balancing fire rate and ammunition economy. The first mode enabled the gun to operate rapidly at 3000 shots per minute, firing bursts of 10, 30, 60, or 100 rounds. The second mode granted the operator the autonomy to customize the burst length but reduced the fire rate by a factor of three.
While the overall dimensions of the M163 were similar to the standardized BTR M113, its height extended to 2.9 meters. It weighed 12.7 tons, and its driving performance and characteristics remained largely unaltered. The self-propelled gun necessitated a crew of four, comprising a driver, commander, gunner-operator, and loader.
Evolution through Upgrades
Following adopting the M163 VADS, several upgrade projects were initiated to enhance its capabilities. The M163A1 and M163A2 projects involved:
- Chassis improvements.
- Transitioning to the M741A1/A2 variant.
- Consequently, it enhances technical and operational parameters while retaining combat equipment and specifications.
In 1984, Lockheed spearheaded the Product-Improved VADS (PIVADS) modernization project, furnishing the M163 self-propelled gun with a new sight and digital fire control system. This modernization also entailed the replacement of guidance drives, significantly augmenting firing accuracy. While these upgrades improved targeting, the cannon remained unchanged, preserving the overall combat characteristics. By the late 1980s, the modernization of M163A1/A2 vehicles under the PIVADS project had been successfully completed.
In 1988, an improvised “modification” to extend the engagement range was introduced, featuring the ability to carry two Stinger MANPADS within the fighting compartment. A crew member could dismount and employ these missiles from the ground when necessary.
The United States Army was the foremost adopter of the M163 VADS, eventually opening up contracts for international customers. These foreign countries received either new production units or machines assembled from American parts or surplus stock. In total, 671 combat vehicles were manufactured, satisfying the requirements of the United States and multiple foreign nations.
In the early 1970s, some early U.S. Army M163s found their way to Vietnam, a conflict marked by the absence of enemy aviation and difficulties in dealing with armored threats. Consequently, these American ZSUs were primarily employed in fire support. Despite these limitations, the 20 mm guns proved remarkably effective in this capacity.
Subsequently, the United States continued to deploy various M163 VADS modifications in subsequent conflicts, although these engagements did not involve significant aerial threats. Nevertheless, these self-propelled guns demonstrated their combat proficiency, engaging air and surface targets.
The final chapter for the American M163 PIVADS came during “Desert Storm,” where it once again faced limited success in air defense. By this time, the self-propelled guns were both outdated and physically worn, ultimately leading to their decommissioning. In 1994, the last units of such equipment were retired from active service.
One of the prominent foreign recipients of the M163 VADS was the Israeli army, which designated the system as “Hovet.” These self-propelled guns underwent modernization, featuring equipment upgrades and the installation of a launcher capable of accommodating four Stinger missiles. This upgraded version earned the moniker “Mahbet.” Israeli forces actively utilized this technology in various conflicts from the early 1980s until the early 2000s, ultimately retiring the Makhbets.
Several other foreign countries also acquired decommissioned American M163s, with South America, Africa, and Asia comprising the majority of customers. Most of these nations continue to employ these self-propelled guns for air defense and support roles. A notable exception was Portugal, which procured 36 American SPAAGs and repurposed them as spare parts sources for its M113 armored personnel carriers.
The Legacy of the M163 VADS
By the late 1960s, the emergence of advanced combat aviation and weaponry posed questions about the future of anti-aircraft artillery. Nevertheless, the M163 VADS defied skeptics and entered service, ultimately discovering its unique role in the military landscape. While its original role as an anti-aircraft gun became obsolete, the M163 successfully transitioned to a new mission, incorporating ground target engagement into its repertoire.
In the mid-1970s, the Pentagon initiated efforts to replace the aging M163 with more advanced self-propelled guns, such as the M247 Sergeant York. These newer systems featured powerful guns with distinct characteristics and modernized control electronics. However, the development of these successors encountered challenges and was ultimately discontinued.
Consequently, the M163 VADS retained its place in the army, albeit outperformed by newer alternatives.
However, by the early 1990s, the M163 had become technologically and physically outdated, leading to its retirement. The M48 missile systems, also aging, followed suit, making way for the Avenger and Linebacker light anti-aircraft systems, which integrated missiles and guns. Drawing from the experience of operating retired M163s, the Pentagon abandoned the pursuit of new ZSUs exclusively armed with artillery.
The M163 VADS is a testament to military technology’s adaptability and durability. Despite initial doubts, it fulfilled a vital role in military operations and left a lasting legacy in the annals of military history.