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FCS Active Protection Is Troubled

GAO came out with its annual assessment of the Army’s FCS program and it says exactly what anybody who had been following the program expected it to say: the program’s “critical technologies” have made little to no progress since last year’s assessment.

Where the sprawling, $200 billion, becoming ever more difficult-to-define program has made any progress, it has come in the program's low-hanging fruit, such as little robots that long ago lost their gee-whiz factor and some basic sensors and motion detectors that were in development long before FCS was a gleam in the Army’s eye.

Of the program’s 44 “critical technologies,” GAO said in last week's report that only three resembled a finished product and that the remainder were still in prototype stage and not at a “minimum acceptable level of maturity.” The communications network, that vital component that will tie soldiers, vehicles and sensors together is “largely unproven.” Of course, the Army and FCS lead contractor Boeing dispute GAO’s findings.

The part that stood out to me was what the report had to say about the Army’s progress in developing an active protection system to protect the lightly armored FCS vehicles from RPGs and anti-tank missiles. Remember, the original idea behind FCS was to develop a lighter, more agile and deployable family of armored vehicles. That meant giving up thick layers of steel in favor of mobility. The Army has long said active protection would give the FCS vehicles survivability approaching that of the 70-ton Abrams main battle tank.

GAO investigators found:

“Many of the technologies intended for survivability have experienced developmental delays. As a key component of FCS survivability, the short range active protection system is intended to neutralize incoming munitions and help protect vehicles from threats such as rocket-propelled grenades. Initially, Army requirements for the system included the ability to defeat long-range anti-armor threats, such as antitank missiles. However, Army officials have decided to delay demonstration of this capability until 2011 or 2012. The Army held a short-range active protection system demonstration in the latter part of 2008 and declared that the system had reached TRL 6.

The results of these demonstrations are pending validation from technology review authorities. It is important to note that the Army plans to continue active protection system technology development and demonstration for some time to ensure that it is an operationally effective and safe capability. This is challenging because the active protection system is to provide 360-degree protection for the relatively lightly-armored FCS manned ground vehicles by using, among other things, sensors, processors, rocket motors, and a counter-munition warhead to counter multiple threats.”

The Army is having trouble developing an APS system that can protect against heavy anti-tank missiles. That is a big problem. Those are the same weapons Hezbollah used to take out almost a battalion worth of Israeli armor in Lebanon in 2006. Heavy anti-tank missiles, such as the U.S. made TOW 2 and the Russian made Kornet can defeat most any main battle tank, even the Abrams, if the warhead hits somewhere other than the frontal arc. Those missiles can penetrate up to 1,000 millimeters of steel armor.

I spoke recently with RAND’s David Johnson, who knows a lot about armored warfare and has a new book out that examines the performance of medium armored forces in past conflicts. In the real world, he says, no matter how good your sensors, you’re not going to see first, particularly in urban or complex terrain> There are just too many places an individual can hide or use camouflage. So the notion that electronic eyes are going to detect all threats is fantasy. Fighting vehicles entering high threat areas must pack enough armor that “things will bounce off you so you can survive and return fire.”

There are also certain operational limitations to APS. Most APS involve a sensor that detects an incoming round and then fires out what is in essence a claymore mine to shred the incoming projectile. As Johnson says, if we’ve learned one thing about operating tanks and other vehicles in terrain other than the open desert: they need accompanying dismounted infantry to survive. That’s why the Army added telephones to the rear of the Abrams tanks. Infantry is not going anywhere near a tank if it’s going to shoot out high-explosive claymore like warheads when fired at. Then of course there is the issue of nearby innocent civilians.

Armored vehicle authority Steven Zaloga, of the Teal Group, finds APS even more suspect. “APS is sort of like Star Wars, just much more compressed in space and time, and the radar is operating in an extremely dirty environment… Radar clutter is a big issue for a tank on the ground in an urban environment, you have buildings… [and] other moving object such as small arms fire and shrapnel. Is the system going to engage every flying piece of metal?” Trying to “scale” the radar to filter out other objects and focus on that incoming RPG warheads is an enormous challenge, he said. Zaloga also raised the “tactical collateral damage/fratricide” issue with APS which he said is not being addressed.

Another problem, APS can be easily countered. “These systems are relatively brittle,” Zaloga said, “in the sense that once the other side determines what technology is being used they can be countered relatively easily.” An example, he said, the more sensors and devices on ground vehicles depend on electronics the greater temptation by nations to develop High Power Microwave warheads that emit a very strong energy signal that can fry electronic sensors. “If we go with FCS with lightly armored vehicles that are protected by an APS system that depends on electronic sensors, the first thing the other side is going to do is come up with HPM warheads to defeat the sensors.”

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