After many starts and stops, the VCR 8×8 programme seems to be moving forward with the award of the contract to the TESS Defense consortium, of which Escribano Mechanical & Engineering (EM&E) is a member. The Madrid-based company will be responsible for the design and manufacture of the weapon systems, starting with the Guardian 30 Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RWS), to which we dedicate this article. A novel design, the result of the ability of EM&E’s young engineers to make the most of the design and simulation tools and advanced machinery available to them at their headquarters in Alcalá de Henares, which allows them to dispense with techniques such as casting or welding, and instead focus on high-precision machining. A different solution whose characteristics we analyse in depth in the following lines.
A few days ago, we had the opportunity to visit both the Escribano Mechanical & Engineering factory in Alcalá de Henares, and the former military facilities of San Juan de El Viso, which the Ministry of Defence has ceded to the Madrid-based company and which will be used, among many other things, to test its new designs of towers, shafts and optronic systems. In addition, we were able to attend various tests of the Guardian 30 Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RWS hereinafter), in competition to equip the future VCR 8×8 «Dragon» of the Spanish Army in its VCI variant. A completely Spanish design and very different from what we are used to, both for its manufacturing process and for the possibilities of adaptation that it provides.
Escribano’s facilities, located next to the University of Alcalá, are striking at first glance for their design, which is more similar to what we are used to seeing in Internet-related companies than in the metalworking sector. However, the most remarkable thing is not to do with the architecture, but rather with the interior of its main pavilion: the million- dollar investment in machine tools, with increasingly complex and larger models. In the last six years, they have invested more than 70 million euros in the purchase of new machines, something that has been possible thanks to the exponential growth of the company, especially outside Spain, as it is abroad where the more than 4,000 small-calibre remote stations and 30 mm naval stations that they have exported – and are responsible for the maintenance of – to date.
The latest acquisition, which has involved an investment of around four million euros, will make it possible to manufacture, among other things, the frame of the Guardian 30 RWS and of the models that will be developed on this basis in the future, such as the turret for the VCR VEC (Cavalry Exploration Vehicle). A monster capable of machining steel blocks of up to four metres, allowing the company’s engineers possibilities that are a far cry from those offered by more traditional manufacturing processes such as casting or welding.
The result is, to say the least, curious, as the structure is full of edges and perforations and holes, a far cry from traditional turrets. To this frame are bolted, using numerous bolts, the armour plates and the various components that make up the assembly, from the system that can house two anti-tank missiles to the 30 mm cannon, the secondary weapon, the smoke launchers and the optronic systems, among others. A very light and compact set that has two fundamental advantages: 1) complete modularity and adaptability and; 2) all of this is designed and manufactured in Spain and by Spanish engineers, which means, unlike other models, that technological sovereignty is complete.
Regarding the first point, the possibility of modelling the necessary changes using 3D design software and then manufacturing the part using machining machines offers unlimited options. For example, if, when adapting the RWS to a specific model of armour, problems are found with the position of a hatch or any other interfering element, the engineer can always adapt the design ad hoc witha flexibility that is impossible when dealing with cast or welded RWS. For example, after our Marine Corps gave a Piranha IIIC to the company for testing, it was found that the RWS ring was of a different diameter to that of the vehicle. It took just a few hours to design and machine a funnel-shaped part to fit the Guardian 30 to the chassis of the armoured vehicle.
On the second point, it is worth elaborating a little more. Normally, when a large contract is negotiated and the Ministry of Defence, through the DGAM, as in this case, issues a Request for Information to industry or publishes a series of specifications, reference is always made to the country’s industrial participation. This is a problem and misleading, as it normally refers to the percentage of the total contract that is produced by Spanish companies, i.e., that «stays in” Spain, but not to the industrial property and design authority.
As a consequence of the above, it is normal that in many tenders, national and foreign manufacturers team up to jointly bid for systems whose intellectual property always belongs to the foreign company, something we have seen on numerous occasions and of which there are ample examples in the case of the RWS for the VCR 8×8 Dragon. In this way, an Israeli or Belgian company with a local partner has access to a programme that, on its own, would be forbidden to it. However, we should not be under any illusions, because although the Spanish company gets a juicy income and important know-how, the design authority is always in the hands of the foreign company.
In other cases, as we saw in the case of the Leopardo 2E main battle tank, a licence is acquired to manufacture a proven design (with or without introducing changes to suit the buyer) and the local industry manufactures or assembles components until the contract is fulfilled, at which point the activity must cease. This is the reason why Spain could not export these tanks to Saudi Arabia at the time, since Santa Bárbara had been sold to General Dynamics and the Germans would hardly have agreed to grant new licences to a company that was a direct competitor. In this case, as in the previous one, local companies learn about manufacturing processes, ways of working, organisation and much more, but ultimately technological sovereignty remains outside the country.
The last option is the most complex and consists of designing and manufacturing locally, which sometimes leads to serious problems, as has happened with the VCR 8×8 Dragon or the S-80 submarine. However, this is Escribano’s bet, a company that has already demonstrated that it is capable of selling its products abroad, competing on equal terms
with renowned companies such as Rafael, Cockerill or Rheinmetall, and beating them on numerous occasions. In this case, the company not only designs its own systems, but also manufactures most of the components: from the chassis mentioned above to the electronics, wiring, optronic system lenses and printed circuit boards. Of course, its programmers also develop the software needed to make the whole thing work. Everything is made in Alcalá de Henares, except for what does not make sense to manufacture, such as the cannon (they could not do better than Northrop Grumman, let alone at the same price) or some of the electric motors that drive both the cannon and the RWS, which would be uneconomical to produce. In other words, it is not a question of 70, 80 or 90 percent of each RWS being made in Spain, but rather that, since they are entirely Spanish- designed RWS, they can be exported or manufactured in the quantities that our Armed Forces need, without depending on licences or good relations with third parties.
Only in the latter case, technological sovereignty is total, and this is something we must defend as far as possible. Always on the understanding, of course, that this is not possible in all cases, nor is it worthwhile, because for the system to be sustainable, the products derived from the programmes must have real export possibilities, although that is another issue that we have already addressed on several occasions. This also brings us to a controversial question: should a contract be awarded to a Spanish – or European – company just because it is Spanish, even if the competition offers better products? In our opinion, and unless the product is notably inferior to the competition, we believe that yes, the most appropriate thing to do, as long as the product proves to meet all the requirements set by the Ministry of Defence, is to trust the national industry. This is the only way to continue strengthening a military-industrial ecosystem that employs thousands of excellently trained engineers and technicians and contributes significantly to both our GDP and our security, as we explained earlier. However, this must be done without trickery, assessing each system or component in the light of day, as purely military needs are non-negotiable and there is no point in betting on the defence industry to the detriment of defence itself. This is something we have done on too many occasions.
The VCR 8×8 Dragon
The Dragon, the Army’s flagship programme, is intended to replace most of the outdated TOA, BMR and VEC armoured vehicles in service with a modern 8×8 manufactured entirely in Spain. However, this important programme (which aims to produce up to a thousand vehicles, the first phase being 348 units) has not been without its hitches. In fact, on more than one occasion we have analysed in depth the numerous setbacks suffered, so we will not delve further into this issue. Initially assigned (by negotiated procedure without advertising) to a joint venture formed by SBS, Indra and SAPA, which were awarded a contract to develop five technological prototypes for validation (of the different subsystems), the production contract was finally declared void by the Ministry of Defence, as it was unable to present a proposal that met any of the established requirements.
Already at this stage, Escribano was present in the project with the Guardian 2.0. However,the rest of the shortlisted models were from other manufacturers, specifically the Samson (12.7 mm and 30 mm versions) from the Israeli Rafael ADS in collaboration with Pap Tecnos and the UT30 mk2 from Elbit systems, also in 30 mm, in which Navantia and Expal participated, under the (national) name Tizona.
Shortly after this milestone, Escribano presented an unmanned RWS with the same Mk44 Bushmaster II gun (required in the specifications) in which Leonardo collaborated, although the idea was discarded by the Spanish company to focus on a project that was entirely national. In addition, its successful Guardian 2.0 machine gun RWS continued to be a sales success, especially outside Spain, where it did manage to win a contract for the Spanish Navy.
These efforts did not go unnoticed and when the Ministry of Defence urged those involved in the VCR 8×8 Dragon to redefine the project, the only acceptable option was to achieve the maximum degree of nationalisation, so that no turret designed abroad (even if it bore the stamp of being manufactured in Spain) and for which it did not have design authority (exactly the same happened with the vehicle itself, based on the Swiss Piranha V, but entirely Spanish) was going to be accepted. So much so that Escribano became part of the new company that manufactured the vehicle, called Tess Defence, taking charge of all the RWS requested.
The new Guardian 30 tower
Known as Guardian 30, the recently unveiled RWS derives from Escribano’s previous experience in collaboration with other companies, although in this case, making good use of the lessons learned, it has been developed entirely by its engineers. It is intended to equip the main 8×8 Dragon variant, the VCI (Infantry Combat Vehicle).
In order to give the company more time to develop it, the programme schedule has prioritised other variants, such as the VCZ (Sapper Combat Vehicle), which are equipped with a simpler hull (in this case Escribano’s own Guardian 2.0); although given the speed shown in its development (there was no little expectation in this respect) this could change, as the VCI Castor (sapper version of the ASCOD) is two years behind schedule, so it is doubtful that such a complex variant (at least when in the hands of SBS) could be ready in time to start production.
As defined in the programme, the Guardian 30 is a robotic RWS, controlled from inside the vehicle by two people and armed with a Bushmaster II Mk 44 30x173mm electrically- operated (meaning it does not use the projectile gases to repeat the firing cycle), twin-axis stabilised, dual-track-fed (two different types of ammunition can be selected via a selector) gun that can be reloaded by accessing the RWS from inside the vehicle or from the outside through a hatch on top of the vehicle. The ammunition loading capacity is 200 rounds and the casings are ejected to the front of the vehicle once used.
The gun has a maximum depression angle of -15° to the horizontal (allowing it to fire at targets close to the vehicle) and the elevation is +60°, which is a bit tight if you intend to use it in urban environments or against aerial targets such as UAVs or loitering munitions. However, the RWS’s rotational speed of 60 degrees per second is excellent for almost immediate engagement with any threat, something we were able to verify at the factory.
It has a 7.62 coaxial gun (MG3S) with an attached ready-to-use ammunition box and the option of a dual missile launcher. Initially, the Spike, in service with the Army, will be used, but the system is compatible with other models such as the Javelin and modern MMPs. The arrangement of the latter is quite ingenious in that, positioned on the right side of the RWS, it integrates seamlessly into the RWS profile when closed (it forms an integral part of the RWS and is an armoured compartment) and opens out in a fan-shaped (90°) manner from a hinged shaft at the bottom, the launcher being aligned with the RWS on the side of the turret and not on a telescopic upper shaft, as with other competing models. Once it reaches its maximum opening and facing the launch, the platform
carrying the two missiles is raised at an angle, after which firing can take place. The compartment is designed in such a way that in the unlikely event of the missiles exploding inside the compartment, due to the RWS being hit or for any other reason, the force of the deflagration would be released to the outside, without affecting the occupants of the vehicle, as with the 30 mm ammunition.
Completing the armament panoply is a battery of twelve Weigmann smoke launchers (can launch fragmentation grenades), six at the right front and six at the rear.
The first thing that is striking about the RWS is its low profile (616 mm), even though in the tests it is installed on a Marine Corps Piranha IIIC and to attach it a ring has been provided, as we mentioned at the beginning of the article, which raises the RWS above the roof of the barge and which will not be used in the final fitting, further lowering the profile and the centre of gravity of the Dragon. In this respect, the basic RWS weighs 1,066 kg and accepts modular armour plates (attached to the structure without modification by bolts) of different degrees of protection. These plates can combine different types of materials, metallic and composite, and allow the installation of reactive armour. Similarly, the RWS could easily incorporate active protection systems.
The module installed for the tests, the same that we can see in the images illustrating this article, offers STANAG 4569 level 2 protection (7.62 cartridges at 30 m), which means an excess weight of 480 kg with respect to the bare RWS. In the case of incorporating level 4 protection (14.5×114mm at 200 m) the weight of the Guardian 30 in combat order (with ammunition) would rise to approximately 2,000 kilos, still far from the direct competition (4,300 kg for the UT30 Mk 2, 3,000 in the case of the Cockerill 3030 or 3,300 for the Lance).
Finally, the flexibility and growth possibilities are worth noting. For example, just in front of the missile compartment, on the front right, there is a space to house various electronic components that could be assigned to other functions if some equipment is not fitted, which offers significant versatility. After all, as the chief engineer, Fernando Fernández González, told us, when designing the Guardian 30 the emphasis has been on versatility, not so much on integrating a specific weapon or system, but rather on creating a base that allows very different weapons and systems to be adapted, always leaving a significant capacity for growth in terms of the incorporation of external equipment.
|RWS width with armouring||2,303 mm|
|RWS length without main gun||2,507 mm|
|RWS height||616 mm|
|Overall length of main gun turret||4,764 mm|
|Distance from ring axis to main gun end||3,512 mm|
|Ring diameter||1,610 mm|
|RWS with armament and ammunition||1,055 kg|
|Shielding Protection Level II||480 kg|
Vision and aiming systems
The RWS has two sighting and aiming elements, one at the front of the turret and in line of fire with the main weapon, known as SGS (Stabilized Gunnery Sight) and another panoramic sight for the vehicle commander (SPS or Stabilized Panoramic Sight) on the roof, with a 360º field of view. Both are stabilised on two axes and are equipped with a third-generation thermal camera, high-definition daytime TV and laser range finder (associated with the ballistic calculator).
Both scopes have independent target tracking capability, with the shooter’s scope having a system for automatic orientation of the barrel sight with the reticle of the scope for immediate fire on the target. Also unusual is the lateral scanning capability of this rifle scope (azimuth from -10º to +60º) which allows the shooter to observe a wider field without the need to move the turret or use the stabiliser capability to keep a moving target in sight.
In this respect, the weapon’s accuracy is quite good, exceeding in tests to date an 80% accuracy rate moving on track (20 km/h) on targets at 1,000 m, the stipulated margin of error in these conditions being 0.5 mRad (angular measurement equivalent to < 0.030 degrees).
Another quality of the RWS is that the operators’ positions are interchangeable, using their consoles and controls interchangeably to operate the RWS and the two scopes. Only the power to assign priority when designating the target to fire on distinguishes the commander’s position in this respect, although other vehicle systems outside the turret are another matter. This, in the words of Escribano’s managers, is a further step away from the Hunter-killer concept, since by delocalising each position, all the functionalities can be executed from any of them. In other words, the commander and the shooter can exchange their posts without affecting the mission and, if one of the posts or any of the optronic equipment is damaged, the rest can continue to be used from either of the two screens. In this regard, the control software is open architecture and is easily integrated into the vehicle’s mission system and can receive information from the vehicle (such as messaging, BMS traces or mapping) at the console.
Also important is the training mode, whereby the system presents operators with a virtual outdoor system for vision and fire practice with mapping, weather and different predefined scenarios. Once completed, the software issues an evaluation report that can be exported as a PDF file.
The VCR 8×8 programme office has confidence in Escribano and his ability to design and produce an automated robotic RWS that could meet the requirements of the Dragon programme and with the prospect of positioning it within a very competitive market.
The objective has been achieved, since apart from the success achieved by the company with its range of products, the in-house production capacity of modules and subcomponents (sensors, shielding modules, cabling, printed cards, control software, consoles, etc.) is guaranteed, as long as it is carried out in the company’s own facilities in Madrid. To this end, it has invested heavily in computerised design machines, so that its RWS can be digitally configured in a few hours (according to ergonomic requirements, the need for new weapons or systems or implementation in other barges) and immediately go into production using a monobloc machining system (the frame is not welded or cast). They also manufacture their own optronic circuits and systems, and even have an optics laboratory where they manufacture the lenses and place orders for many other companies, some of which are very well known and sell their systems as their own.
This positions the company firmly for future development, beyond the returns of producing the 600+ towers planned under the Dragon programme, and what makes the Guardian 30 so interesting. It is not that the others are bad RWS, as for example the Elbit/Navantia/Expal Tizona shares many of the same features and is also an excellent weapon system, but it does not provide the production and growth autonomy that Escribano’s model offers.
The company’s next milestone is related to this same programme, as the army continues to request a manned turret for its cavalry vehicles, with production due to start in 2026, although the programme’s current spending ceiling does not allow for this, perhaps because the turret has not yet been developed. In any case, the model that the company will eventually present will probably have a high degree of component commonality with the Guardian 30, which is an undoubted advantage.
The current trend is towards the increasing use of robotic towers, that is undeniable. However, despite its benefits, the concept also has its limitations and is therefore not suitable for all types of vehicles. The attempt to integrate a manned tower into future Dragon SCVs (Cavalry Exploration Vehicles) has not been without controversy. SBS, unable to meet the programme’s milestones, proposed to remove it in order to save costs, arguing that an unmanned one (which was not even chosen) was sufficient.
At the time, the preferred choice of the Ministry of Defence, which did meet the requirements of the Directorate of Research, Doctrine, Organisation and Materials (DIDOM) of the Training and Doctrine Command (MADOC), as well as those of the Cavalry Headquarters, was the Hitfist; It was the Hitfist, a RWS armed at the time with a 25 mm M242 that had already been tested in 2007 on board a vehicle that was postulated as FSCT (Future Ground Combat System, the predecessor programme of the current Dragon), which was none other than the Freccia of the also Italian IVECO.
This RWS was to be installed on one of the five prototypes of the technological programme which, after the creation of Tess defence, have remained in limbo, accumulating enormous delays (they should have been made available to the BRILEG for evaluation in 2020) and with no firing tests on more than two of the RWS: the Samson and the Tizona (a situation that could change shortly if Escribano receives, as it hopes, one of the demonstrators in the coming weeks). Thus, the programme is awaiting the development and testing of a manned turret, with the production of 58 vehicles of the first batch without this weapon system having been signed, which is a paradox even though it would allow the programme to be launched without further delays.
The need put forward by the Army is not gratuitous, because unlike the BMR (TC-3 RWS) and the TOA (a simple AMP mount), the M1 VEC it is to replace has a manned RWS, also of Italian origin, model TC-25 (with the excellent 25×137 mm Bushmaster M242). The rest of the new generation of reconnaissance and combat vehicles continue to rely on this same manned RWS concept, in search of the necessary situational awareness of a combat team aimed at obtaining information. This is the case with the French Jaguar 6×6 and the British Ajax, a derivative of the GD-SBS ASCOD2. Both, however, opt for a larger calibre and carry the excellent 40mm CTAS gun and telescopic ammunition. The MADOC has also spoken out about this weapon and the need to reinforce the armament of the VEC; there are already offers from other manufacturers, such as the Belgian Cockerill, to set up a factory in Spain to meet the needs of the FAS (the Marine Corps has shown interest in its 105 mm RWS). In fact, most tanks, tank destroyers or gun support weapons, such as the VRCC Centaur or the M1128 MGS (Mobile Gun System, a 105mm derivative of the Stryker) are still manned turrets (a notable exception is the Russian Armata, which has yet to enter mass production).
Another reason why the crew should be able to exit the vehicle is to provide close security, either with a machine gun mount or with their regulation weapon (FUSA). In this respect, it is not difficult to find graphic evidence of armoured vehicles on urban patrols or checkpoints with the crew members leaning out of the hatches with their 5.56 rifles and individual protective equipment (helmet and flak jacket) despite the risk and the narrow location.
In this case, it must be said that the Guardian 30, unlike other unmanned control stations, has the advantage of having an opening hatch through which a crew member can exit (the Piranha V also has the hatch for the vehicle leader, located behind the driver), which is also equipped with an auxiliary viewing periscope. It would therefore be an excellent basis for the development of this hypothetical manned tower, which would share many of the same components, according to the company’s personnel.
The role of the new facilities in El Viso
On the outskirts of Alcalá de Henares, surrounded by the Tejón ravine, the army had a series of facilities and land, including magazines and shooting galleries, that had been disused for years. After several rounds of negotiations between September 2020 and this March, the Army has agreed to cede the land to Escribano so that the company can not only test its weapons systems but also construct – and in some cases, reconstruct – a series of buildings for multiple tasks, from experimentation to representation.
As far as we know, the company plans to invest up to 20 million euros over the next few years in the creation of what it calls an «R&D&I Centre of Excellence» which, if completed, will be unique in Spain and among the largest on the European continent. In addition, the new buildings will allow the company to increase its workforce from the current 450 employees to 600 by the end of this year. The objective is to «have its own test field for training and validation of the developments made available to our Armed Forces and the creation of the first National Centre for the development, scientific calculation and simulation of cutting-edge dual-use technologies».
Just a few days ago, we had the opportunity to visit the facilities, which are still in a very precarious state. Accompanied by Ángel Escribano Ruiz, CEO of the company, and Fernando Fernández González, chief engineer, we were able to take a short tour of the facilities during which they explained some of the projects the company is contemplating. These range from the construction of a test track in the shape of a figure of eight or another
with different speed bumps on which to test the observation, stabilisation and aiming systems of its RWS to a residence (or guest accommodation) in which to host delegations from other companies and states interested in the company’s products. In addition, as with the current facilities, which include a gymnasium and a canteen, they are considering the possibility of providing El Viso with a swimming pool and barbecue facilities so that employees can relax, which is extremely useful when you depend on their inspiration or ability to concentrate rather than physical exertion.
If they succeed in carrying out their project, as it seems (the excavators have already started their work), Escribano will have reached a new milestone by being able to test their own systems as many times as they think necessary, adapting the terrain to their needs, which will give them a competitive advantage over other companies in the sector.
Escribano has undertaken to develop the RWS for the Dragon programme, having already presented a product that appears to meet all the requirements of the programme. The company’s commitment to developing a product based on its own means and capabilities is undoubtedly commendable. The fact that the vast majority of these products are designed and produced in Spain, using Spanish engineers and having demonstrated their ability to win contracts abroad before doing so in their own country, is a real endorsement. Let us not forget that this, and nothing else, is what makes the Spanish defence industry stronger, and that a strong industry is a guarantee of a strong defence. An industry whose capacity is not measured by the size of its facilities, nor by its capacity for political influence, but by the number of Spanish engineers and technicians it employs, preventing them from joining the workforces of competitors in Germany, France or any other country, something that has been happening for some time now.
The company is nevertheless continuing with the tests, and still has to overcome some rather delicate milestones, such as the integration of the new Guardian 30 RWS with the Dragon combat system (in fact, it has not yet been physically implanted in the vehicle, as they are waiting to receive a demonstrator) or the missile firing test. The investment being made at El Viso will be key in this aspect, as it will allow them to shorten development times even further. In addition, looking to the future, the possibilities of these facilities go much further, so it will also be interesting to see how far they are able to implement their projects. The company’s engineers are also working to provide an alternative, based on the Guardian 30, that meets the cavalry weapon requirements for the Dragon programme, a challenge that looks to be an exciting one. A mighty mythological creature that has already begun to show its teeth.