Is Now the Time to Arm US Tanks with Israeli Anti-Missile Tech?

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tanks maneuver in the streets as they conduct a combat patrol in the city of Tall Afar, Iraq, on Feb. 3, 2005. DoD photo.
U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tanks maneuver in the streets as they conduct a combat patrol in the city of Tall Afar, Iraq, on Feb. 3, 2005. DoD photo.

The U.S. Army is poised to step into a new world of armor protection if it equips its tanks and combat vehicles with anti-missile technology such as Trophy, an active protection system that cut its teeth with Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.

For the past few months, Army leaders have been openly touting the service's accelerated effort to arm the M1 Abrams tank and other key platforms with APS technology to counter the proliferation of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and Russia's aggressive modernization of its armored fleet.

The accelerated APS effort, and the larger, long-term strategy to develop the Modular Active Protection System for the Army's entire combat-vehicle is a new path for a service that's been reluctant to commit to this type of sophisticated protection system in existence for more than two decades.

Now, Army testers are well into an evaluation of a Trophy APS-equipped M1 tank.

The effort is also evaluating the Israeli-made Iron Fist APS and the U.S.-made Iron Curtain, but the Trophy system, designed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is the only one of the trio that has seen combat and actually defeated advanced ATGM threats.

Data from militarydotcom.silk.co

Israeli Merkava MK IV tanks equipped with Trophy APS withstood multiple anti-tank missile attacks from Hamas fighters in July 2014 during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.

Maj. Mike Meir Walker saw Trophy in action during this operation while serving as a deputy battalion commander in the Israeli Defense Force.

"I had tanks in my battalion that had anti-tank missiles fired at them, and I saw how it intercepted very advanced anti-tank missiles," Walker told Military.com in a recent telephone interview from Israel.

"In my battalion, we had one tank that was hit by an AT system throughout the operation because they turned the Trophy off; they were just parking the tank and that was the only tank that was hit by a missile," he said.

Now the executive officer at the IDF's tank commander school, Walker remembers being a tank commander in Lebanon during Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah when the IDF did not have the Trophy APS.

"The first and foremost difference in the tank commander's behavior -- we used to be a lot more defensive, and we found ourselves sort of hiding on the battlefield and trying to get out of the range of the anti-tank systems," Walker said.

With Trophy, "you feel you have the ability to be more offensive and put yourself out there a little more and allow yourself to accept a little more risk than what we did before," he said.

Military.com beginning in April sought to interview Army subject matter expects for this story, but a spokesman for the service said they weren't available due to the testing schedule.

In an April 5 Army release, Lt. Gen. John M. Murray, deputy chief of staff for financial management (G-8), said the Trophy system "has a great reputation in terms of being effective."

In addition to testing Trophy on the M1, the Army aims to put Iron Curtain on a Stryker and Iron Fist on a Bradley, Murray said.

"The one that is farthest along in terms of installing it is ... Trophy on Abrams," he said. "We're getting some pretty ... good results. It adds to the protection level of the tank. Trophy has an interesting capability, slew to cue. We're finding that we can incorporate that into the installation on the Abrams."

Army leaders said earlier this year that they hope to have APS evaluations completed by this fall so they can make a decision how to move forward with the effort.

Overdue or Right on Time?

Despite the urgency, APS technology is nothing new to the Pentagon's research and development machine. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, began working on active protection in the mid-1980s, but the program was shelved after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Army selected the Quick Kill APS, made by Raytheon Co., to equip its leap-ahead manned ground vehicles under the Future Combat Systems program. The effort died, however, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the FCS program in 2009 -- the same year the IDF fielded the first Trophy APS systems.

Nearly a decade later, Russia has become more militarily aggressive around the world, frightening European NATO countries with its aggression into Ukraine and its rapid military buildup and launching airstrikes into Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Army generals and U.S. lawmakers have taken notice of Russia's newest tank -- the T14 Armata. The 50-ton tank being developed by Uralvagonzavod is designed to carry a crew of three and features a top speed of as much as 56 miles per hour, a range of about 310 miles and a 125mm smoothbore main gun.

The T14, and the T15 heavy infantry carrier, are also equipped with a new active protection system.

In addition to knocking out ATGMs, the T14's Afghanit APS is rumored to have successfully stopped high-speed depleted uranium-cored kinetic-energy penetrator tank rounds, a capability of concern to Army leaders.

Murray told the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland Subcommittee in late March that he did not believe the third-generation M1 Abrams, built by General Dynamics Corp., currently has overmatch over modern tanks such as the T14.

But some defense experts question the hype over the T14's capabilities.

While "it's possible" that the T14's APS can stop high-speed KEP tanks rounds, "it only addresses horizontal threats; it's more oriented toward insurgent warfare," according to a former defense official with acute knowledge of APS technology, who asked to remain anonymous.

Unlike other APS technologies, the Russian Afghanit APS does not protect against missiles that attack from above, such as U.S. Javelin or Hellfire anti-tank missiles, he said.

One reason the Army has waited until now to develop an APS strategy is because the theater of operations, which focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, didn't require such expensive hardware, according to James Hasik, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Instead, the Army opted to field relatively inexpensive, stand-off cage armor that wrapped around vehicles such as the Stryker and performed fairly well against rocket-propelled grenades.

And while Russia has reportedly stopped buying the T-90 to develop the T-14, this next-generation tank is believed to still be in testing and not yet operational.

The Russians "are going to be producing probably a handful of those things for a while," Hasik said. "The Russians just don't have that much money -- they have the same problems we do. We'd love a massive military build-up, but we also wouldn't like to pay the taxes to make that happen."

In late February, President Donald Trump outlined his fiscal 2018 budget priorities, pledging to increase defense spending by $54 billion, a roughly 10 percent increase across the services. The administration's defense spending request for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1, is expected to be released on Tuesday.

Right now, the U.S. Army has very formidable armored fighting forces, but "what the M1 lacks is robust protection against heavy anti-tank missiles," Hasik said.

"If there is a war in Europe, in which NATO forces and Russian forces end up fighting on the ground -- on the Russian side, the majority of that fighting is going to be done with T90s and BMP2s, BTR90s ... and lots of anti-tank missiles," he said.

Trophy in Battle

On a hot July day in 2014, Walker remembers watching his tanks move into an anti-armor ambush on the outskirts of an urban area in the Gaza Strip on his IDF battlefield situational awareness system, similar to the U.S. Blue Force Tracker.

In the tanks that were fired upon, the tank commander "hears it on his radio. In his ear phones, he hears, 'You are being fired at right now,' " Walker said.

Once armed, the Trophy system really operates by itself, he said. Its 360-degree radar detects the incoming missile threat, notifies the commander of the direction the threat is coming from, and fires a countermeasure that's designed to knock out the main warhead on the threat missile.

"Not only does the system intercept, but the tank commander knows what is coming and he knows what he has to do it about it," Walker said. "The system gives you a direction from where the missile was being fired, so I can point the whole battalion toward that threat."

Related Video:

The challenge for any APS system involves more than just knocking a threat out of the sky, said Mike O'Leary, director of business development for survivability and lethality at Leonardo DRS, the American firm that is marketing Trophy in the U.S.

"The real performance measure of the system is not can you hit the threat, but can you hit the threat without allowing any residual jet, shrapnel, whatever to penetrate the tank or put the vehicle or the crew in danger because there is still residual junk that will fly toward the platform after the intercept," O'Leary said.

O'Leary said he was not authorized to talk about the specific platform Trophy is being tested on but did say that Trophy has performed well in the Army's evaluation.

"It's doing exceedingly well from our perspective," O'Leary said.

Iron Fist on the Bradley is also "moving along," Murray said. But there was a problem installing the system on the Bradley, due to the size, weight and power requirements of the system, in addition to space constraints on top of the turret of the Bradley, he added.

A Danger to Friendly Troops?

Murray, along with other senior leaders, has expressed concern over the risk to dismounted soldiers who are near a vehicle when an APS fires a countermeasure at an incoming missile.

"Anything that shoots off an armored vehicle, 'x' amount of meters, and makes something blow up, is not good for the integrated dismounted/mounted operations," Murray said. "So we have some concerns about tactics, techniques, and procedures and how we adjust those."

A similar risk has always existed with the reactive armor used on U.S. vehicles, O'Leary said.

"Reactive armor is an explosive charge; the threat hits it, and it creates an outward blast," O'Leary said. "And it has its own radius of potential danger to anyone standing in the vicinity."

Militaries have adopted reactive armor and have adapted their tactics, techniques and procedures to deal with that, O'Leary said.

The alternative is "not only the destruction of my vehicle but also the lives of anywhere from three, four or even nine or 10 personnel inside the platform, so that is a big tradeoff and that is a commander's call on the ground," he said.

The Iron Curtain APS, produced by ARTIS LLC -- was initially developed by DARPA in 2004 to deal with the risk to dismounts. Instead of shooting toward an incoming threat, Iron Curtain shoots straight down at the ATGM at very close range.

The IDF also weighed this issue when it was making the decision to field Trophy, Walker said.

"We did have those same concerns ... but if you had dismounts next to that tank and that tank was hit by a missile, it would be a lot worse," he said.

"Dismounted soldiers who are next to a tank on any battlefield might get hit. That's why they don't walk in the middle of the street next to the tank but stick to areas where they have an advantage.

"There is a risk, but the risk is a lot smaller than the tank being hit the ATGM."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related Video:

Show Full Article