WASHINGTON: After two decades of dithering and delay, the Army wants to give its armored vehicles the ability to shoot down incoming anti-tank missiles. What’s more, while the service will continue its own long-term, in-house research program, the Army is now willing to accept something “not invented here” so it can get an interim Active Protection System (APS) fielded in two years.
Which APS should the US buy? At one end of the spectrum of alternatives is the Israeli Trophy, from Rafael, a combat-tested but relatively crude shotgun-blast approach, which the Army first tested in 2010. At the other end is a miniaturized missile defense system, with all the complexity that implies, the Raytheon Quick Kill, originally developed for the Army’s cancelled Future Combat System.
The service will test a range of alternatives on its vehicles this year, Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson told Congress last week. “We’re actually taking a dual path,” he said. “We have an established program called Modular Active Protection (System, but) that’s a five-year program, sir, which we started last year….In the interim, the second part of our strategy is to look at existing active protection systems both domestically produced and even those that our allies may have. We are now bringing those in this year (for tests) so we can have a capability a lot quicker than the five-year timeframe. Our goal is to have capability in two years.”
“There are in Israel deployed systems that are at least a good starting point for our discussion and your evaluation,” replied Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services Air-Land Forces subcommittee. That’s a clear reference to the Trophy and its Israeli rival, Iron Fist.
“MAPS has been bumping along at the S&T (science and technology) level for a while,” a Hill staffer told me. “The new stuff is the direction to go and test ‘off the shelf’ systems on all three major platforms” — the M1 Abrams heavy tank, M2 Bradley tracked infantry fighting vehicle, and Stryker wheeled infantry carrier. “It’s long overdue.”
Why the rush? Russia. Admittedly, the revived Red Army and its separatist proxies are not the only threat. Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATMGs) are now standard issue for guerrilla forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which stalemated Israel in 2006, or Yemen’s Houthis, who destroyed some of the Saudis’ US-made M1 Abrams tanks, the famously impregnable mainstay of the US Army. But only a major nation-state can field massed missiles, and it’s only Eastern Europe where the US is upping its deployment of armored brigades.
Accelerating APS goes along with upgunning the eight-wheel-drive Stryker vehicle, like shield and sword, Lexington Institute analyst Dan Gouré told me. While the Army can’t afford wholesale modernization, he said, “we are rapidly increasing the lethality and survivability of a portion of our force that is most likely to be deployed to Europe and that can pose a credible conventional deterrent.”
It was actually the Russians who pioneered active protection in the 1980s. Their Drozd (Thrush) system, when tested in Afghanistan, wiped out both incoming anti-tank rockets and, less ideally, any Russian infantry nearby when it went off. Today, updated Drozd systems have proved highly effective in Ukraine, says Potomac Foundation president Philip Karber, who’s just returned from visiting Ukrainian armored units. Drozd uses a miniaturized radar to detect incoming missiles and interceptor mini-rockets to blast them with pellets. Karber writes he has “interviewed several Ukrainian anti-tank ATGM gunners, who have complained bitterly about the ‘magical shield’ that sends their AT-5 guided missiles off in the sky or to the ground out of control just as the missile is on track to hit the tank.”
American officers “were shocked at how far Russians had come with close-in protection,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College and one of the intellectual fathers of the Future Combat System. “Ukrainians who were using anti-tank guided missiles — which sadly they did not buy from the United States [because we refuse to provide ‘lethal aid’] — found them virtually unable to penetrate a T-90 without firing multiple shots.”
The Israeli Trophy is similar to the Russian systems though it’s somewhat more sophisticated. For example, instead of firing pellets, the Trophy fires small projectiles that then blast forth a slug of molten metal. (This Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) technology was also used in the most lethal roadside bombs in Iraq). It was mounted on Israeli armor going into Gaza in 2011, where the Israelis fared far better, despite the dense urban terrain, than they had against Hezbollah five years before.
Manufacturer Rafael claims a “less than one percent” chance that Trophy will shred friendly infantry by accident, but nevertheless the Israelis did modify their tactics, said Gouré: The infantry had to follow a safe distance behind the tanks, rather than accompany them. That’s a potential disadvantage given that tanks are notoriously blind behemoths and benefit from friendly infantry acting as their eyes and ears, especially in cluttered urban terrain.
Despite its imperfections, however, “Trophy’s actually battle-tested,” said Gouré. Israeli rival Iron Fist has been thoroughly tested by the Israeli Defense Force. There’s also a German APS from Rheinmetall. “Why bother spending the money,” he asked, to develop an all-new, all-American alternative?
“Trophy, in particular, would be a big upgrade,” agreed the Hill staffer.
Not so fast, said Scales. Trophy is “just typical Israeli overhype and ineffectiveness. It was a great killer of accompanying infantry,” he told me. “They have a very simple and unreliable and very expensive radar system that sits on the turret, and when it detects something coming in, these shotgun shells fire out, much like you’d shoot at clay pigeons…..Here’s the problem with that: If you have infantry nearby, then you kill the infantry.”
By contrast, the Raytheon Quick Kill system developed for the cancelled FCS is “more expensive, but far more reliable,” Scales said. First, Raytheon is a leading maker of radars, so the electronic eyes and brain of the system are world-class. Second, Quick Kill launches its tiny interceptors vertically, upward, before they turn and dive to destroy the incoming missile: That means their blast is directed at the ground rather than sideways, reducing the chance of killing friendly foot troops.
If Quick Kill sounds complicated, that’s because it is. “The thing FCS was doing never worked,” snorted the Hill staffer. “The joke name for it was ‘Five Miracles’ because of the wildly complex firing mechanism. [It’s also] much, much more expensive than Trophy.”
The expense is particularly problematic for an Army trying to wage a new Cold War on a shoestring. “I don’t have a lot of money overall to do modernization and it’s going to be a long time before I’m buying a new vehicle of any type,” said Gouré. “They’ve got to start improving what they’ve got just to meet the existing threat whether it’s Russian stuff on the eastern front or Hamas with third generation ATGMs.”
So this coming year, the Army needs to test how well the different Active Protection Systems actually work. Then it has to decide what kind of performance it can afford.