A few years ago, the leadership of the U.S. Army, most notably then incoming Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, concluded that their service had lost overmatch vis-à-vis the Russian military.
U.S. ground forces deployed in Europe had been reduced to a faint shadow of their former greatness. They lacked heavy armor, combat aviation, long-range fires, short-range air defense and electronic warfare. In addition, historically low rates of investment left the Army without the modernization portfolio needed to regain its erstwhile dominance in maneuver warfare.
General Milley instituted a crash program to fill a number of critical capability gaps. Among the bold decisions the Army made was to initiate a rapid program to provide its ground combat vehicles with an active protection system (APS). APS employs a central computer or controller, 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, or long-rod penetrator 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 best for lighter skinned vehicles.
The Program Executive Office – Ground Combat Systems, under the direction of then-Brigadier General David Bassett, organized an effort to test currently available APS systems. One of these was the Trophy system, designed and built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aircraft Industries' Elta Group.
Trophy employs a set of radars, a battle management system and countermeasure launchers that intercept the incoming warhead some distance from the target. The Trophy system was so successful that it was deployed against Israeli Merkava tanks during the 2014 Gaza conflict. In at least 15 instances Trophy-equipped Merkavas successfully defeated incoming anti-tank weapons.
While Trophy is the sole battle-tested APS, there are others that are in an advanced stage of development. One of these is Iron Curtain, a system developed by a U.S. firm, Artis, LLC, which provides a unique close-in defeat mechanism. Iron Curtain employs both radar and optical sensors and uses explosively forged projectiles to defeat a warhead inches from the vehicle. This kill mechanism is believed to reduce the risk to dismounted personnel and nearby civilians.
Both Trophy and Iron Curtain were first selected for Army testing based on system maturity. A third system, the Israeli Iron Fist, developed by Israel Military Industries (which was recently acquired by Elbit), uses multiple sensors and was added to the rapid fielding characterization testing. Meantime, a fourth system made by German defense giant Rheinmetall, called Active Defense System, is similar to Iron Curtain, insofar as it too seeks to intercept the warhead just short of impact.
The Program Executive Office – Ground Combat Systems has tested or is testing Trophy on the Abrams tank; Iron Fist on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle; and Iron Curtain on the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle.
Initial results from the APS test program validated the Army’s decision to pursue a non-developmental solution, at least initially. In about a year, the decision was taken to acquire the Trophy system to protect the Abrams main battle tank.
In fact, the initial procurement of one brigade set of Trophy was recently amended. According to Major General John Ferrari, Director, Program Analysis and Evaluation, G-8 “not only will…be fielding one set of Trophy on Abrams tanks to Europe, but also three other brigades.”
The question to ask now is what comes next in active protection? Four brigade sets of Abrams with APS is a good start. But what about all the other armored combat vehicles that make up an Armored Brigade Combat Team or a similar Stryker-equipped unit?
Armored Brigade Combat Teams operate in the field like a carefully choreographed ballet with Abrams, Bradleys, Paladin mobile gun systems and the new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, moving back and forth and providing mutual support. It makes no sense to deploy APS only on Abrams.
If General Milley’s past actions are any guide, the Army is not likely to rest on its laurels. However, even as the Army is deploying to Europe the first brigade of Strykers equipped with the lethality upgrade package, that unit might not have an APS system to enhance its survivability.
It has always been understood that the Army was pursuing multiple paths towards an APS capability. The Army wants to develop its own modular active protection system (MAPS). The centerpiece of MAPS will be an open-architecture controller that would allow, in theory, the use of any of the above-mentioned systems or to employ a mix-and-match approach using components from different APS systems to achieve the optimum defense for each specific type of vehicle.
Concurrent to MAPS, the Army must realize that APS is in the Model T stage of technology evolution. Extremely fast processing speeds can knock down the fastest and most dangerous threats, and the Army would do well to make future APS development a priority as it moves forward on its planned new Futures Command.
But for the present, acquiring existing APS systems is all that is available. The Army needs to be as aggressive in its pursuit of APS options for the other armored combat vehicle fleets as it has been with the Abrams.
If an APS system has demonstrated effectiveness and can be successfully integrated on a vehicle, then it makes sense to acquire at least an initial capability. If the Army wants to test additional systems it should do so, but not at the cost of delaying deployment of viable candidates.
To counter a clearly aggressive threat armed with ample anti-tank weaponry, all U.S. armored fighting vehicles deployed to Europe should be equipped with an APS system as soon as possible. The threat is here now, so there is little reason to delay fielding capable systems for countering it now.