The Army Wants This Modular, Universal System To Shield Its Armor From Rockets And Missiles

The Modular Active Protection System will be able to run multiple types of protection systems and could pave the way for networked defenses.

US Army

The U.S. Army has hired Lockheed Martin to continue development of a universal control system that will be able to run current and future active protection systems to defend a variety of vehicles. The goal of the Modular Active Protection Systems program, or MAPS, is to craft a common system that can rapidly accept upgrades in response to emerging threats, and could open up the possibility for a networked arrangement that links systems on multiple platforms.

On March 27, 2018, Lockeed Martin announced it had received a new contract from the Army to further mature the basic MAPS controller. The system, which the service first began working on in 2014, forms the core of its long-term plans to add active protection systems to its armored vehicles. In the interim, it has already begun to integrate existing commercially available designs onto a portion of its M1 Abrams tanks, with the possibility that it could add similar equipment to select Bradley, Stryker, and other vehicles.

The MAPS “enables automatic protection against threats like rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles,” according to a video presentation from Lockheed Martin. “Because it’s a modular system, proven elements stay right where they are, while you update or add components to defeat the new threat.”

Active protection systems work in a wide variety of ways, but the end goal is always the same, to destroy or otherwise neutralize incoming rockets or missiles with some form of countermeasure. Radars, electro-optical or infared cameras, microphones, or other sensors detect the threat and then the system attempts to prevent it from hitting its mark. There "soft-kill" designs that either setting it off early or preventing it from going off at all and "hard-kill" types that use explosives or kinetic projectile to physically shoot it down. 

Soft kill systems can attack in a variety of ways. An electronic warfare suite might jam or even destroy guidance system or fuze inside a rocket or missile. Lasers or other directed energy beams can blind or disorient an enemy vehicle's targeting system or optical and infrared seekers on the weapon itself. Arrays of launchers can automatically fire grenades with smoke to conceal the vehicle from the enemy or release chaff to confuse radar guidance systems. 

Hard kill setups, on the other hand, generally fall into one of two categories. These are either explosive panels that destroy the rocket or missile with a focused blast before it hits the vehicle or countermeasure launchers arrayed around the sides and top of a vehicle that fire a shotgun-like burst of pellets or other shrapnel to destroy the threat.

Unfortunately, as active protection systems have become more common, many newer infantry anti-tank weapons have similarly gained their own countermeasures to break through those defensive systems. A key benefit then to the MAPS concept is that instead of having to rip out an defense suite and install a new one every time the sensors or countermeasures become obsolete, the Army will be able to readily swap out specific components as necessary. 

Lockheed Martin

An infographic depicting the basic components of the Modular Active Protection Systems program.

In addition to staying "ahead of the threat curve" by allowing the Army to rapidly update particular components as necessary, the arrangement might reduce overall cost and the time it takes to upgrade vehicles with the improved defenses. On top of that, it uses a software architecture that the Army, not Lockheed Martin, owns, which means the service can hand out the source code to any potential vendor interested in trying to develop a better active protection suite. If the equipment proves itself, it can then slot right into the control system. The only necessarily modifications will be actually fitting the the sensors and countermeasures to the vehicle.

The Army’s first live MAPS test, in April 2017, involved a so-called “soft kill” active protection system. The service did not specify what type of system it employed, but it may have been German defense contractor Rheinmetall’s Rapid Obscuring System (ROSY), which involves banks of compact grenade dischargers linked to laser and acoustic sensors to fire automatically upon detecting an incoming threat. In addition to smoke, it can also fire tear gas in riot control situations.

Earlier in March 2018, the Army tested ROSY on M1 Abrams and M2 Bradleys as part of the annual Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments to evaluate potential new equipment. Rheinmetall has also proposed an even more flexible version that would allow customers to install individual launch tubes and clustered arrays in positions tailored to specific vehicles.

The universal controller will also be able to manage hard-kill active protection systems, such as the Israeli designed Trophy active protection system, which the Army is already putting on a portion of its Abrams tanks, is one such system that could end up part of the larger MAPS framework. The service is also interested in using vehicle-mounted directed energy weapons to actively knock down threats, including small drones, in the future.

MAPS’ inherent modularity and flexibility could offer impressive active protection capabilities. It might give particular units the option of only adding systems to respond to the particular enemy weapons they’re facing, rather than burdening their vehicles in an attempt to protect against any conceivable potential threat.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily get around the basic deficiencies of many active protection systems, such only being able to defeat a limited number of threats before becoming dead weight or potentially posing a danger to nearby friendly troops or innocent bystanders. So far, active protection systems are most useful against infantry anti-tank weapons, such as rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles, rather than tank or artillery shells, too.

An ammo-less directed energy weapon with unlimited magazine depth could be an optimal solution to many of these limitations, but there are potential limitations in these cases, too. Laser or microwave energy beams typically need significant power to remain capable at long ranges and can become unreliable when trying to penetrate through dust, smoke, and other obscurants. Those systems would also need to be powerful enough to defeat the threat in a relatively short engagement window. A viable system of this kind is still likely years away from becoming a reality.

The U.S. military has explored the potential of jammers to form a protective “bubble” around vehicles, primarily to defeat improvised explosive devices, and the Russians have reportedly fielded similar systems that can either pre-detonate or disarm incoming rockets, missiles, and shells. The biggest problem here is ensuring that these electronic warfare suites don’t disrupt friendly communications or other electronics, but are still reliable enough to serve their purpose and do so out to an effective range.

US Army

A US Army Stryker fitted with an experimental solid-state laser weapon. Primarily intended for countering small unmanned aerial vehicles, a more mature system could serve as the basis for a directed energy active protection system.

Still, MAPS might open up the possibility for novel ways to mitigate at least some of these issues, especially if the Army pushes ahead with plans to increase network connectivity between vehicles. On top of that, the service has made manned-unmanned teaming a central theme in the still developing requirements for its future Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) family, which it hopes will eventually replace some, if not all of its existing armored vehicles.

Linking individual MAPS together could help improve sensor ranges, giving more warning of hostile threats. It could also allow one vehicle to try and shoot down a projectile aimed at another in a larger formation and simply add more active protection capacity to groups of vehicles large and small. Combined with unmanned vehicles, these capabilities could grow even more since sensors and active protection systems could be more widely distributed across the battlefield at lower costs.

US Army

An unmanned Humvee "wingman," in green-brown-black camouflage, sites next to a manned teammate, painted in sand scheme, during a test earlier in 2018.

A single unmanned ground vehicle could serve as a dedicated sensor node or as a truck loaded with active countermeasures. This could help keep costs down, too, since each drone might not necessarily require the full suite of systems. This will be an important consideration if the Army intends to field large numbers of these vehicles to go along with manned vehicles. These more traditional platforms could easily be expensive in their own right if they end up packed with robust active protection suites, as well as advanced weapons, fire control systems, communications, and more.

It’s not hard to imagine a future where wheeled or tracked drones act as pickets to lead the way for formations of manned armor into hostile territory. This could be especially valuable in tightly packed or otherwise constrained environments, such as dense urban areas, where unmanned vehicles could scout ahead to spot of neutralize threats, reducing risks to manned vehicles and dismounted troops.

US Army

An unmanned M113 armored personnel carrier leads a pair of M1 Abrams tanks in a test in 2017.

The MAPS plan could also serve as a good model for how to develop complete future vehicles that can be more rapidly improved upon as time goes on and as new technology become available. It might also help the Army meet its aggressive development schedule for its Next Generation Combat Vehicle family, or NGCV, which will include both manned and unmanned types.

The service hopes these will replace existing Abrams Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Stryker wheeled armored vehicles, and more by 2028. It expects to pick a vendor or vendors to build the first demonstrator vehicles later in 2018 and have those designs ready for testing the year after.

Active protection is already a major consideration in the NGCV project, which will likely include the MAPS architecture, so we may get a closer look at how the Army plans integrate this new modular system in the near future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com