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Academy - M163 Vulcan Air Defense System - First Look

Kit Number:
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Retail Price:
Reviewed By:
Joseph McDaniel

M163 Vulcan Air Defense System

"If it flies, it dies"


Historical Background 

The M163 Vulcan Air Defense System (VADS) is a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG) that was used by the United States Army between 1968 - 1994. The M168 gun is a variant of the General Dynamics 20 mm M61 Vulcan rotary cannon, the standard cannon in most U.S. combat aircraft since the 1960s, mounted on either an armored vehicle or a trailer.

The weapon is mounted on a modified M113 vehicle (the M741 carrier). The system was designed to complement the M48 Chaparral missile system. The M163 uses a small, range-only radar, the AN/VPS-2, and an M61 optical lead-calculating sight. The system is suitable for night operations with the use of AN/PVS series night vision sights that can be mounted to the right side of the primary sight.

The gun fires at 3,000 rounds per minute in short bursts of 10, 30, 60, or 100 rounds, or it can fire in continuous fire mode at a rate of 1,000 rounds per minute. A linkless feed system is used.

From the beginning, the main drawback of the M163 was its small caliber and lightweight shells, which limited its effective range. Early M50 series ammunition exacerbated the situation, but the M163 was still comparable to the contemporary Soviet ZSU-23-4; although the Russian ZSU fired a larger shell (23 mm rather than 20 mm) and had a higher rate of fire, the M163 had a higher muzzle velocity providing a flatter trajectory, shorter time of flight and thus better accuracy.

Unlike the ZSU the M163 has no search radar, and has limited engagement capability against aircraft at night. The M163 gunner is exposed in the open turret, whereas in the ZSU-23-4 the gunner is in a fully enclosed armored turret; this gives the M163 gunner much better situational awareness and field of view at the cost of losing protection against rifle-caliber weapons and shell fragments.

In US and Israeli service the VADS has rarely been needed in its intended purpose of providing defense against aerial threats—consequently, the Vulcan gun system was in use throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s primarily as a ground support weapon. For example, VADS guns were used to support American ground assault troops in Panama in 1989 during Operation Just Cause. Reportedly, one Vulcan of B Battery, 2/62 ADA sank a Panamanian Defense Force Vosper PT boat. The last combat action the VADS participated in was Operation Desert Storm.

In order to provide effective battlefield air defense against helicopters equipped with anti-tank missiles that could be fired accurately from ranges of several kilometers, the VADS was slated to be replaced by the M247 Sergeant York DIVADS (Divisional Air Defense System), but that system was canceled due to cost overruns, technical problems and generally poor performance.

In 1984 the improved PIVADS (Product-Improved VADS) system was introduced, providing improvements in the ease of use and accuracy of fire, but the limitations of the 20x102mm caliber remained. Also, the radar remained a range-only device. In the late 1980s modifications to the Vulcan through the addition of an interior and an exterior rack designed to carry Stinger missiles for dismounted firing were added in order to extend the life cycle of the system.

Eventually, the M163 was replaced in US service by the M1097 Avenger and the M6 Linebacker, a M2 Bradley with FIM-92 Stinger missiles instead of the standard TOW anti-tank guided missiles: the Stinger missile providing the necessary range to deal with helicopters with anti-tank missiles far out-ranging the 20 mm gun, as well as considerably extending the reach against fixed-wing targets. The final US Army VADS equipped unit at Fort Riley Kansas completed turn in of its Vulcans in 1994. (Wikipedia entry)


What's in the Kit?

Box side depicting three different color schemes - desert tan, MERDC, and NATO solid green




Other box side with paint index - Humbrol, GSI Creos, Lifecolor, Testors/Model Master, Revell, and Vallejo

Also noted on the box side: can be built with side skirts or side-mounted flotation skirts; two track types included: flexible and connecting links; photo-etched parts included



The box contains instructions, one piece lower hull, 13 sprues, one photo-etch sheet for engine grills, lights, and straps, decal sheet for three vehicles, and two rubber band tracks.


The instructions are eight pages long. The first page gives standard warnings about reading directions, dry fit parts, and be careful with cement, as well as a chart of symbols for cutting, cementing/not cementing, drill holes, version #, etc. There's also a paint index.


Page 2: steps 1 - 3.

Step 1 is building up fuel and water cans, attaching cans, fenders, rear lights, grab handles, and first (optional) use of photo-etch, for what looks like straps. NOTE: Step 1 is divided by OPT(ion); right side shows parts B34 or 33 and B32 attached to the rear lower hull, while the right side shows F36/44 attached to what looks like the same spot. Once the build commences, all will be clear.

Step 2 is attaching the suspension arms to the lower hull mounts, building up the rear hatch and rear hull assembly, and attaching that to the lower hull.

Step 3 is building up the sprockets, road wheels, and idler wheels, and attaching them to the suspension arms.


Page 3: steps 4 - 6.

Step 4 is attaching the tracks. Here are two options: rubber band tracks, which are joined by melting the rubber pins, or the individual plastic tracks, 60 per side.

Step 5 requires some decisions on (1) which of the three versions will be built, and (2) whether PE grills will be used or not, so pay close attention to which version is being built and use the appropriate parts.

Step 6 is two sub-steps: (1) building up the 20mm cannon assembly and breech, and (2) attaching the soft rubber ammo belt, one side of which is rounds, the other the expended rounds belt, and mounting the assembly into the gun cradle. Pay attention here, because from the instructions, it looks like gun assembly is flipped from one step to another - look at where part J26 is depicted in the two steps.


Page 4: steps 7 - 8

Step 7 is building up the gun trunnion arms and base, attaching the main gun and the aiming system.

Step 8 requires a decision on whether the gun will be level or raised, as though firing at an aerial target, and attaching the appropriate parts, and continues with building up the gunner tub and adding the gun assembly.


Page 5: steps 9 - 11

Step 9 is three sub-steps, adding more details to the gun tub assembly.

Step 10 requires deciding which version to build, and requires either cutting off detail or adding detail to the hull roof, so make sure you have marked which version you are building so no mix-up occurs.

Step 11 is adding headlights, hatches, stowage, and tools to the upper hull and roof.


Page 6: step 12 and painting and decal placement for the three versions

Step 12 requires a decision, based on which version is being built, as to whether side skirts or flotation skirts are used. Attach the engine cover assembly, gun tub assembly, and front engine access hatch and swim vane. The build is complete.

Three vehicles, noted as version 1, 2, and 3, are depicted. Version 1 is 24th Infantry Division, 1st Brigade, 5th Air Defense Artillery, Fort Irwin, November 1988, sand color. Version 2 is 3rd Armored Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery, Germany, November 1987, MERDC. Version 3 is unknown unit, Fort Irwin, March 1988, solid NATO green.


Page 7: sprues A, B, D, F, a, b


Page 8: sprues J, K, U, X (2), Y, photo-etch sheet, poly caps for wheels, lower hull, decal sheet, flexible tracks, list of parts not used


Sprue F: one full figure, one half figure, two pairs of legs, three pairs of arms, four heads, .50 cal MG, mounts for fording propulsion system, backpacks


Sprue D: upper hull roof, commander's cupola, .50 cal mount, another .50 cal MG, tarps, fuel and water cans, tools


Sprue K: flotation skirts, 20mm gun assembly parts, gun tub assembly parts


Sprue J: .50 cal ammo belts (2), .50 cal  ammo cans, gun tub parts, vehicle tools, hatch


Sprue B: side skirts, rear hull plate with hatch, rear fenders, front hull plate with engine access hatch, upper hull plate with engine grills, headlights


Sprue A: sprockets, idler wheels, road wheels, final drives


Sprue a (left) and b (right): NONE of sprue a is used! and on sprue b, only parts 2, 16, and 17 are used - so, lots of spare M113 parts for later use.


Sprue U: ONLY part 31 is used, and that's an optional part. Most of the sprue is Vietnam era weaponry - recoilless rifle, .30 cal MG, 2 x M60, 2 x M16, M79 grenade launcher, tripods - more spare parts.


Two flexible tracks and polycaps


Polycaps and 20MM ammunition belt and expended belt


Lower hull assembly - notice the molded on shock absorbers and holes for side skirts


Although this is supposed to be a new tool, it appears from the holes and slot that the lower hull is based on the old motorized Academy kit of the M163


Rear view of lower hull


Front view of lower hull


Photoetch sheet and decal sheet


Individual tracks


Close up of individual tracks

According to Scalemates, there are two 1/35 M163 model kits issued in 2018, one by Academy and the other by Italeri, which may not have been released, yet. There are several aftermarket kits for the M163 (M113), for those who would like the challenge of improving the kit.

I was not able to find out how many M163 were produced from 1968 to their phasing out of the U.S. Army inventory in 1994, but according to Wikipedia, about 290 are in service in Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, and Portugal. No mention is made of whether U.S. Army M163 ever shot down an enemy aircraft, but according to Wikipedia, the Israelis shot down at least three aircraft.

PROS: Only one of two kits of this veteran of Vietnam, Invasion of Panama, and Desert Storm. Looks to be a moderately easy build, but pay attention to which version is being built, so that no mix-ups in parts occur. Lots of extra M113 parts left over.

CONS: No interior. Lower hull has holes for motorization, and has molded-on shock absorbers. Some flash and some of the smaller parts appear overly thick.  Instructions require careful attention, since there are three versions with different options.

Recommended for Beginner to Advanced builders who are interested in obscure subjects, especially those who don't like wingie-thingies.

Thanks goes out to Model Rectifier Corporation for this review kit.

Reviewed by Joseph "Mac" McDaniel


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