For a Service that keeps talking about preparing itself for future conflicts against increasingly capable state and non-state adversaries, the U.S. Army sure isn’t doing much. It has basically given up in the near and medium terms on any substantively new armored fighting vehicles. Its only serious new vehicle programs are the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle. The Paladin tracked howitzer is undergoing a long-overdue Product Improvement Program. The situation is basically the same in rotary wing aircraft, soldier systems, counter improvised explosive device technologies and missile defenses. Nothing new. In a number of areas, the Army and Marine Corps are waiting on Special Operations Command to develop and test new capabilities which they then may adopt.
The threats aren’t standing still. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have acquired advanced Russian rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), some with tandem warheads designed to defeat the reactive armor on most Western tanks. In its 2006 operation against Hezbollah, the Israeli Defense Forces lost a number of its top-of-the-line Merkava tanks and the lives of soldiers to these ATGMs. These same weapons have shown up in the hands of Ukrainian separatists. In five years, when the conventional arms embargo on Iran ends, you can be sure that these RPGs and ATGMs will be high on Teheran’s shopping list.
The U.S. Army is beginning the re-pivot to Europe. In order to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, U.S. forces will need to demonstrate that they can take on the best that the Russian Army can send their way. The Stryker Brigade Combat Team commander in Europe recently put out an urgent request to have his vehicles upgunned with a 30mm cannon in order to give them some capacity to take on Russian armor.
So, it might be a good idea to equip the current fleets of tanks, armored fighting vehicles and Strykers with better protection. The Army has already conducted failed experiments in providing force protection by making its armored fighting vehicles light but agile (Future Combat System) or slow but heavily armored (Ground Combat Vehicle). It appears that the only avenue left open is some kind of active protection system (APS).
Fortunately, there are a number of APSs readily available. Most of them operate the same way. A set of sensors are deployed around the vehicle to provide 360 degree coverage. When an incoming threat is detected a battle management system determines where the attack came from, its incoming vector and the best moment for interception. At the right moment a countermeasure is launched for the purpose of defeating the inbound weapon.
So far there is only one APS that has been tested in combat. This is the Israeli Trophy system. Integrated by Rafael and employing an ELTA-built radar, the Trophy can detect RPGs, ATGMs and kinetic rounds from tank cannons. It fires a series of small shaped charges at the incoming target. A brigade of Trophy-equipped Merkava tanks were employed during the 2014 conflict with Gaza in extremely complex urban terrain. Some 15 Merkavas were reportedly attacked with RPGs or ATGMs; none were lost.
There are other APSs that have been developed and even tested. There is the Iron Curtain, built by Artis, an American company. Iron Curtain employs both radar and optical sensors and uses explosively forged projectiles as its defeat mechanism. Another Israeli company, IMI, developed the Iron Fist similar to Trophy. Rheinmetall, a German company developed a modular APS, the AMAP-ADS, which is reported to employ some form of directed energy as its defeat mechanism. Finally, there is Raytheon’s Quick Kill APS which has been reported to perform well in tests against RPGs.
With so many options from which to choose, you might think that the Army could easily get an 80 percent solution to its APS requirements, conduct a competition and buy at least enough units from the winner to equip a brigade. That would allow for experimentation to take place leading to new technologies and tactics. Instead, the institutional Army, led by the Tank and Automotive Command, has decided to begin a multi-agency effort to deliver a common Modular Active Protection System framework that will enable affordable, reduced-weight, protective systems for ground vehicles across the fleet. In other words, the Army is going to spend a lot of time and money trying for the perfect solution that will work equally well on all Army vehicles and probably end up with nothing to show for its efforts. Apparently the Army has learned nothing from its failures in the FCS and GCV programs.
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