The prospect of large-scale, high-intensity conflict, specifically between the United States and a major regional power in the near future has become too serious to ignore. As the new Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, observed in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Right now the level of uncertainty, the velocity of instability, and potential for significant inter-state conflict is higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.” It should be noted that at that time the size of the Active Component of the Army stood in excess of 700,000 and the Total Force stood at more than 1.2 million.
The nation that poses the greatest threat of triggering a high-intensity ground conflict is an increasingly aggressive Russia. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and attempts to destabilize Ukraine marked the beginning of a campaign against Russia’s neighbors to the West, including NATO. The new Russian National Security Strategy for the first time explicitly calls out the United States and NATO as threats to Russia’s security and global stability. A few days ago, Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, characterized the relationship between his country and the United States as “a new Cold War.” There are increased signs that the Minsk Agreement to create a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine between the government in Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists is falling apart.
Over the past decade, Russia has undertaken a remarkably successful transformation of its military. It has improved recruitment, training, equipment and combined arms integration. Russian forces have successfully made the transition to precision strike operations, as demonstrated by its air and missile strikes in Syria. It has leapt ahead of the U.S. and NATO in such areas as electronic warfare and artillery/missile strikes. In addition, the Russian Army is deploying an array of advanced anti-armor weapons systems.
The Russian military is not the only threat confronting the U.S. military, in general and the Army, in particular. Other countries and even terrorist groups have gained access to advanced weapons systems including artillery rockets and missiles, drones, anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank guided missiles.
The Army is considering deploying active protection systems (APS) on a portion of its vast fleets of combat and support vehicles. APS employ a central computer or controller, a series of sensors that provide 360-degree surveillance of the area around a vehicle and launchers for countermeasures. When an incoming anti-tank guided missile, rocket propelled grenade and possibly even tank projectile is detected, the system tracks the threat and launches a countermeasure to defeat the attack at a calculated distance from the vehicle. Different APS designs employ a variety of sensors, countermeasures and battle management systems. Some are better suited for heavily armored vehicles such as tanks and others are intended for lighter skinned vehicles.
The Army is reported to be planning to test a number of currently available APS systems. These include the U.S.-designed Iron Curtain, the Israel-designed Trophy and Iron Fist and Rheinmetall’s Active Defense System. The Israeli Ministry of Defense has tested both the Trophy and Iron Fist systems on a variety of vehicles and against a range of threats. The Trophy system was so successful that it was deployed on Israeli Merkava tanks during the 2014 Gaza conflict. In at least 15 instances, Trophy-equipped Merkavas successfully defeated incoming anti-tank weapons. In fact, no Trophy-equipped Merkava was lost during this conflict.
In a different era, when threats to U.S. and allied security were not proliferating almost daily, it would make sense to follow the Army’s proposed approach of deliberate comparative testing of APS alternatives. But comparative test programs can take several years. Time may not be on the Army’s side. This is one reason why U.S. Army Europe is pursuing an urgent operational requirement to equip its lone Stryker brigade with a more lethal 30mm cannon.
Given the Israeli experience with the Trophy APS, it would make sense for the Army to pursue a two-track approach to deploying APS. It should acquire sufficient Trophy units to equip several Heavy Brigade Combat Teams, including the rotational brigade being deployed to Europe, while it simultaneously conducts the necessary comparative testing. Adding Trophy to the armored forces being reoriented towards Europe would help bolster the Army’s ability to deter Russian aggression.
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