US Army Buys Israeli Trophy System So Its Tanks Can Blast Incoming Projectiles

The service has an "urgent" plan to install Israel's Trophy active protection system on at least some of its tanks.

US Army

The U.S. Army will finally install the Israeli Trophy active protection system on at least some M1A2 Abrams tanks in response to an urgent request. The service is still in the process of deciding whether or not to widely deploy the self-defense equipment, which it has been testing in response to concerns about a variety of threats, including Russian aggression in Europe and the proliferation of guided anti-tank missiles among insurgent and terrorist groups.

On Sept. 28, 2017, in its daily contract announcement, the Pentagon reported that the Army had hired General Dynamics Land Systems to add the system to an unspecified number of tanks in an “armor brigade combat team” as part of an “urgent material release.” The deal, which was a modification to a previous contract, was worth almost $10 million and covered work at the firm’s Sterling Heights, Michigan location through March 2019.

Trophy, a joint development between Israeli state-owned defense contractors Rafael and the Elta Group division of Israel Aircraft Industries, is a so-called “hard kill” active protection system for tanks and other armored vehicles. It combines a radar with launchers that shoot a burst of metal pellets, akin to a large shotgun, to destroy incoming anti-tank rockets and missiles.

Israel declared the system operational on its own Merkava main battle tanks in 2009 and first successfully intercepted a hostile projectile two years later. According to the Israel Defense Forces and Rafael, no Merkavas suffered damage during the Israeli intervention into Gaza in 2014, thanks in no small part to Trophy, which experienced no false alarms or misfires during the approximately three week long ground operation. You can see the system take out a projectile while operating in Gaza here

The U.S. military’s latest announcement did not specify how many tanks would receive the modifications or what unit they will belong to. As of December 2016, the Army had 14 armor brigade combat teams, which have Abrams tanks and mechanized infantry in M2 Bradley fighting vehicles at their core. At that time, the service was in the process of converting another existing brigade to the armor configuration.

In April 2017, the Army also announced it would deploy 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division to Europe to take over for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. Both of these are presently set up as armor brigades. Though 2/1st Infantry’s rotation will likely end before the Trophy work is completed, it is possible that the “urgent” modifications could be in preparation for a future rotation.

The troops in Europe are part of a U.S. mission to reassure allies in the face of the Kremlin’s revanchist foreign policy. Nicknamed Operation Atlantic Resolve, this effort began following the Russian seize of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and subsequent support for separatists fighting the government in Kiev, which as resulted in a protracted crisis.

US Army

A US Army M1 Abrams tank fires a round during a training exercise in Romania in August 2016.

Though there is no immediate prospect of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia, the Trophy system is part of a number of U.S. military initiatives intended to demonstrate a credible deterrent against both the Kremlin’s improving conventional military forces and hybrid warfighting style. After more than a decade battling terrorists and other militants, the Army in particular has become increasingly concerned it has a limited capability to respond to this type of “near-peer” threat, something highlighted in a recent official manual on Russian military developments.

In March 2017, the Army announced it would install explosive reactive armor, which detonates outward to absorb the blast from an incoming warhead, on Abrams tanks in Europe. Unfortunately, this type of system has a number of significant disadvantages, which I discussed in detail at the time. The service has also sent early iterations of the up-gunned Stryker wheeled armored vehicles and new electronic warfare systems that can knock down enemy drones to help bolster its existing commitments.

On top of that, man-portable anti-tank guided missiles, including the American TOW and the Russian Kornet, have become increasingly prevalent even in more limited conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Houthi rebels in Yemen and ISIS terrorists in Iraq have both attacked advanced tanks with these types of missiles and caused significant damage.

“The [anti-tank guided missile is the singular greatest threat to tanks today,” a 2016 Army training handbook on foreign weapon systems declares. “Nearly all … launchers are high-level threats to vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft in the U.S. Army. They can also be used against personnel and materiel targets. The variety of launch platforms is increasing.”

As such, the Army has already been testing Trophy and other active protection systems for months. Other possible systems include Israel Military Industries’ Iron Fist system, which the service is looking at as an option for the M2 and M3 Bradley fight vehicles, and American defense contractor Artis’ Iron Curtain for the Stryker and other lighter vehicles.

Both of these similarly employ a radar to detect incoming projectiles before firing intercepting projectiles at them. The idea of active protection is by no means new, though. The Soviets fielded one of the first systems to see widespread service, called Drozd, in the late 1970s. Iron Curtain itself was the product of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort that began in 2005.

The Army has long been interested in the concept, as well, planning to incorporate the defensive equipment into the abortive Future Combat Systems vehicle program. The same day it awarded General Dynamics the Trophy modification contract, the service also said it would pay DRS Sustainment Solutions, the U.S. subsidiary of Italian defense contractor Leonardo, to supply another unspecified “kinetic defeat solution” for the M1277 M-ATV mine-protected 4x4 vehicle. Rafeal is pitching a lightweight version of Trophy as a possible addition for Army and Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, a small and lighter cousin of the M-ATV.

Active protection systems aren’t perfect of course. Most notably, just like reactive armor, they only supply a limited number of total “shots” before they become dead weight and crews cannot readily reload them during a fight. In addition, the interceptors could be dangerous to nearby supporting infantry, critical to any armor operation, especially in dense urban terrain, as well as innocent bystanders. With this limitation in mind, tactics will have to be adapted for M1A2 equipped units that field the system operationally. 

An ultimate solution would be the development of a rapid fire, but ammo-less system. The most obvious example would be a turreted laser that could quickly target and destroy rockets and missiles. In June 2017, Raytheon reported that it had successfully tested a relatively small turreted laser pod on an AH-64 Apache helicopter. The Army has a Stryker-mounted system in the works, but primarily for shooting down small drones. Another option might be passive electronic warfare equipment that pre-detonates rounds before they hit the vehicle, something the Russian military has reportedly fielded already.

There are possible limits to both of these concepts, though. A laser or other directed energy beam could lose strength and become unreliable in adverse weather conditions or smoky and dusty battlefields. Also the laser would need to be powerful enough to kill the incoming round in a very short period of time. Although solid-state lasers are quickly becoming more powerful, they have a ways to go before such a solution is viable. A jammer would have to be able to create a “bubble” around a vehicle without disrupting friendly communications or other electronic systems, and it would likely be less reliable against wide range of system than a kinetic or laser kill option. 

With these issues in mind, the Army itself has struggled to decide how much to rely on active protection systems. With any vehicle only able to handle so much weight, designers have to offset the additional strain of new defense equipment, no matter how lightweight, elsewhere.

“The real sort of Holy Grail of technologies that I’m trying to find on this thing is material – is the armor itself,” U.S. Army General Mark Milley told reporters at the National Press Club in July 2017. “If we can discover a material – and I’ve got a lot of research and development going into it – if we can discover a material that is significantly lighter in weight that gives you the same armor protection, that would be a real significant breakthrough.”

Earlier in Sept. 2017, the Army Requirements Oversight Council, which works to develop overarching operational requirements and concepts, had decided that more testing was needed on Trophy. This was due to an unspecified loss of performance with regards to the turret and other impacts on the Abrams’ basic functioning.

US Army

Smoke and dust covers an M1 Abrams after it fires a shot during a drill in Germany in 2014.

Other Army officials have suggested in the past there is an institutional reluctance to eschew any amount of passive armor plating in favor of active protection. Confidence in a system is an important, if intangible factor.

“There has to be a level of trust in whatever it is that you're trying [to use] to displace that passive armor,” U.S. Army Lieutenant General John Murray, Deputy Chief of Staff for Resource Management, told industry representatives in March 2017. He said at the time he wasn’t sure troops had that level of faith in active protection.

Given the latest contract announcement, it seems that this perception has changed, at least for some members of the Army’s leadership.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com