If you’re a bomber or fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, having to eject from your aircraft sounds like a worst case scenario, but as those who have done it behind enemy lines will attest, making it to the ground is just the start of your troubles.
Currently, most pilots carry no weapons beyond a survival knife and occasionally a standard issue sidearm in their kits when flying combat operations, and with Air Force operations ongoing in multiple theaters around the world, a mishap that results in a crash or an aircraft downed by enemy fire could result in a lone American pilot left with nothing but a fixed blade knife and their training to stave off combatants ranging from untrained terror cell recruits to well-trained Russian mercenaries until help can arrive.
That possibility was highlighted in February, when a Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was shot down over Syria by rebels. The account of the pilot’s final moments, which included holding off a rebel advance with his Russian Stechkin automatic pistol before taking his own life with a grenade are widely believed to have been exaggerated for the sake of national propaganda, but the reality that pilots may find themselves in dire circumstances remains true none the less — and with U.S. pilots operating in similarly contested airspace with many platforms that remain susceptible to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, it isn’t impossible that a U.S. pilot could find themselves in similarly tragic circumstances.
Now, American pilots will have a bit more firepower to make use of if the worst were ever to occur: the GAU-5A Aircrew Self Defense Weapon (ASDW) is effectively just a modified M4 carbine, with a FAB Defense AGF-43S Folding Pistol Grip and a Cry Havoc Tactical Quick Release Barrel (or QBR) that allows the weapon to be disassembled and carried in a pilot’s compact standard survival kit. When needed, the Air Force claims the ASDW can be full assembled without any tools in about a minute, and provide accurate fire at targets in excess of 200 meters away.
The quick release barrel attaches via locking latches located on either side of the barrel, and has rails for any of the usual attachments a pilot may fancy, assuming they can find a place to stash them during flight operations. Like the M4 it’s based on, the ASDW fires 5.56x45mm ammunition and the kit, which was “designed for all combat-coded ejection aircraft,” includes four 30-round magazines.
Those aircraft will include F-15 variants, F-16s, A-10s, and F-22 and F-35s, as well as bombers like the B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit (as well as presumably the forthcoming B-21 Raider).
Air Force spokesperson Major Docleia M. Gibson explained,
Much like the current M4, the GAU-5A is a shoulder fired weapon that has a semi-automatic carbine that is capable of firing a 3-round burst. It uses standard 5.56mm ammunition with an effective range beyond 200m. The weapon can be assembled/disassembled in 60 seconds without tools.”
The new weapon is already in production, with around a hundred per week being completed toward a total order of 2,137 ASDWs in all.
Featured image: U.S. Air Force Col. Henry Rogers, 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, gives a thumbs up to his crew chief from the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 27, 2015. | U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys
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