Australia studies active protection systems for its major fighting vehicles
The videos are almost formulaic; a team of militants set up the missile launcher, takes aim through the sights, and fires off a missile. The scene then cuts to, or focuses on, a distant target, and from one of the corners of the frame, a dipping and swerving reddish dot appears and heads inexorably towards the target before exploding in a cloud of flame, smoke, and dust.
Such videos have been posted online on video-sharing websites and social media since the brutal civil war in Syria began in 2012, and highlight a problem faced by armed forces worldwide: the proliferation of advanced rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) in the hands of non-state actors and irregular armed groups, and their use in the urban or semi-rural battlespace where lines are blurred and threats
can appear from any direction.
Together with the enhanced lethality of modern kinetic penetrators designed to defeat armour in a number of different ways, as well as the ubiquitous improvised explosive device (IED), the modern battlefield can be a very dangerous place for an armoured vehicle indeed. Today’s tanks and armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) are expected to deal with an array of threats from multiple axes.
These can take the form of insurgents or irregular forces attacking from rooftops, or against the rear of the vehicle in an urban setting, or in a battlefield with no defined frontlines, or a conventional adversary using top-attack anti-tank weapons, or even expendable drones dropping grenades. This means that vehicle protection today is a very different game and any armoured vehicle with a reasonable chance of encountering an adversary will need greater all-round protection built in.
Despite great advances in metallurgy and materials technology over the past couple of decades, the design triangle of mobility, payload, and protection still holds. Most traditional armour is what is known as passive armour, generally comprising a base hull material made from either armoured steel or high strength aluminium. This provides not only basic protection, but also provides primary structural strength to the vehicle.
This is bolstered by add-on armour, usually in the form of thick armour packages to prevent penetration from various threats, and usually attached to the vehicle hull to provide the bulk of protection.
Unfortunately, with the continually improving penetrative ability of today’s threats, adding increasing layers of armour to vehicles in an attempt to defeat penetrators is a race the armour cannot win. Adding armour translates into a corresponding increase in vehicle weight which will, in turn, negatively impact mobility and payload.
Due to the fact that many Western militaries have drawn down their Cold War forces to become ‘boutique militaries’ operating smaller numbers of high-end systems, the loss of an advanced armoured vehicle and potentially its crew to enemy action will be felt more keenly quantitatively and qualitatively than ever before. As such, it has become imperative to ensure that the potential for losses in a conflict is reduced as much as possible, leveraging modern technology to improve survivability of vehicles on the battlefield.
This technology is now here in the form of Active Protection Systems (APS). APS can be autonomously triggered when an incoming projectile is detected by sensors and warning devices which can also alert the crew when they are being targeted.
APS can also prevent line-of-sight guided anti-tank missiles or projectiles from acquiring and/or destroying their targets, and is generally split into hard or soft-kill systems.
Hard-kill APS works by physically counter-attacking an incoming threat, thereby destroying or altering its warhead, usually in the form of projectiles automatically triggered by detection systems such as radars on board the target vehicle. Soft-kill systems jam or obscure the target from the incoming guided projectile’s sensors.
Examples of hard-kill systems are Israel’s Rafael Trophy and Elbit Iron Fist, Russia’s Arena, Raytheon’s Quick Kill system. Trophy, in particular, has been successful in action since entering service in 2009.
RAFAEL’S TROPHY – COMBAT PROVEN
The Rafael Trophy APS was the first such system to be used operationally when, in 2011 – two years after entering service – it successfully foiled a missile attack on an Merkava IV tank near the occupied Gaza Strip. Since then, the Trophy has been successfully employed on numerous other occasions in the Middle East.
The Trophy’s primary sensor is the Elta EL/M-2133 F/G-band fire-control radar, arranged in four flat-panel antennas mounted on the vehicle to provide a 360-degree field of view. When an incoming projectile is detected, the internal computer calculates an approach vector before the projectile arrives. Once the threat is classified, the computers calculate the optimal time and angle to fire the countermeasures.
The response comes from two rotating launchers installed on the sides of the vehicle which fire a very small number of a MEFPs (Multiple Explosive Formed Penetrators). They form a very tight, precise matrix aimed at a specific point on the projectile’s warhead to defeat the threat.
The system is designed to have a very small kill zone so that it does not endanger nearby dismounted personnel or unprotected vehicles, with pre-defined safety zones already established to allow troops and personnel to operate around the vehicle without risk of injury by the system if it is triggered.
Rafael says that the Trophy will not engage projectiles that will miss the target vehicle, although the system’s sensors will pinpoint the origin of the projectile for the operators enabling them to engage the hostile position. It also boasts that the APS is integrated with the company’s Samson 30 Remote Weapon Station (RWS), and can be networked with Battle Management Systems (BMS).
The company says that more than 1,000 Trophy Systems have been contracted and are fitted to all major Israeli ground combat platforms (Merkava Mark III & IV, and Namer APCs), and are being progressively installed on US Army M1 Abrams main battle tanks. Interestingly, the US Army adoption of Trophy could also provide a potential path for Australia to adopt the system for its LAND 907 Phase 2 program to upgrade Army’s Abrams MBTs.
Rafael has also developed variants of the Trophy that can be adapted for light armoured vehicles or even smaller unarmoured vehicles with lighter system weight and power requirements.
THE ELBIT IRON FIST
Israeli companies have been at the forefront of developing active protection systems for armoured vehicles and the most mature APS after Trophy is also from Israel. Elbit’s Iron Fist originated as a concept by IMI in 2006.
Its primary sensor is a fixed active electronically scanned array radar developed by RADA Electronic Industries, and an optional passive infrared detector developed by Elisra.
When a threat is imminent, an explosive projectile interceptor is launched towards it. The interceptor explodes very near the threat, destroying or deflecting and destabilising it by detonating its warhead. To reduce the likelihood of collateral damage, the interceptor’s fragmentation is minimised with the use of combustible materials in its casing.
A ‘Light’ version of the Iron Fist is undergoing trials in the US with the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), after being short-listed for that service’s Modular Active Protection System program. The Netherlands has also awarded BAE Systems a contract to test the Iron Fist on their CV9035 IFVs and, in January 2021 the Dutch decided to fit their entire fleet with the APS under a mid-life update program.
A report by the US Army after the first phase of tests that ended in 2018 said that the APS encountered issues with drawing sufficient power from the vehicle to operate the munitions launcher, and an unrelated problem of munitions not exploding as expected after launch. However, the service is due to continue the testing phase this year with fixes to the APS by Elbit and its US partner, General Dynamics.
In 2019 the Israeli Ministry of Defence awarded Elbit a contract to fit the Iron Fist onto its armoured D9 bulldozers and its new Eitan 8×8 wheeled APCs. Later that year, Australian Army Brigadier Greg McGlone – then Director General for Armoured Fighting Vehicles – directed Rheinmetall to integrate Iron Fist on to the Boxer CRV that was selected in 2018 for LAND 400 Phase 2 to replace the ASLAVs in Army service (see page 44 this issue).
Iron Fist has also been seen on both the Rheinmetall KF41 Lynx and Hanwha AS21 Redback IFVs that are currently being evaluated for the Risk Mitigation Phase of the LAND 400 Phase 3 program (see page 36 this issue). Although it has not been selected by Defence, the trials of the system would suggest, at the very least, it is the frontrunner in any effort to equip Defence’s future armoured vehicles with an APS.
German company ADS Gesellschaft für aktive Schutzsysteme, a joint venture of Rheinmetall and IBD Deisenroth Engineering offers a hard-kill protection system in the form of its Active Defence System (ADS).
The company described the ADS as a new generation of stand-off active protection technology. It works by detecting and destroying incoming projectiles through directed energy, immediately before they reach their target. It says it can be used against RPGs, ATGMs, and even kinetic projectiles.
Rheinmetall boasts that the ADS is able to detect, classify, and neutralise threats in milliseconds, enabling it to counter threats launched from as close as 10-15m away. The bank of multiple sensors and countermeasures offers overlapping, redundant coverage all around the protected vehicle, enabling the system to tackle multiple threats coming from the same direction or sector.
In addition, the countermeasure is claimed to be fragment-free, enabling it to be used with friendly troops or civilians in close-proximity with low risk of collateral damage. This is particularly useful in close-in fighting in urban areas.
ADS has reportedly been fitted on the upgraded Leopard 2SG main battle tanks operated by Singapore. The system has also been extensively tested in the US with different types of RPGs and ATGMs launched at various spots, such as the sides or the roof, from close ranges of 15 metres. These tests included the firing of multiple threats in a short period of time. IBD Deisenroth said the system met or even exceeded all US requirements during the tests.
A NEW THREAT VECTOR
The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh (see Loitering Menace) might have been of little geopolitical consequence outside of the region and its two main powerbrokers Russia and Turkey.
But the conflict sent reverberations throughout the defence and security community, as Azerbaijan used Turkish-supplied armed UAS and Israeli-built loitering munitions to great effect against Armenian vehicles and troop positions.
The use of those systems handed Azerbaijan a decisive tactical advantage during the six-week conflict which ended with Armenia finding itself in a much weaker position militarily and politically following the Russian-brokered ceasefire which came into effect in early November.
The Azerbaijanis released a stream of videos of these battlefield successes, in particular of guided weapons or loitering munitions hitting all sorts of Armenian armoured and unarmoured vehicles, artillery, troop concentrations, and fighting positions.
The videos have raised questions in some quarters about the utility and viability of tanks and armoured vehicles in a battlespace filled with such systems, although it was pointed out that the Armenians fielded Soviet-era tanks and armoured vehicles that lacked any real form of self-protection that might have provided the capability of defeating incoming threats.
That said, contemporary systems are designed to deal with threats coming in from a relatively flat trajectory such as RPG rounds or typical ATGMs, and may not be able to counter threats coming in from above such as UAS-dropped weapons or loitering munitions.
Responding to questions from ADBR about the potential for Iron Fist to deal with such threats, Elbit Australia said, “expansion of system ability to detect and react against additional aerial and top-attack threats are part of system technology roadmap.”
The company said Iron Fist is already able to engage anti-tank weapons, “approaching from high elevation angles, to include operational scenarios of low/high terrain’s differences, urban and aerial platform launch”, adding that, “coverage of the entire elevation can be incorporated with limited engineering modifications and will be implemented upon customer request.”
The question of costs will also arise, as militaries will also need consider equipping even soft-skin trucks with APS given they will be targeted in wartime. Both Rafael and Elbit have developed versions of the Trophy and Iron Fist for light and soft-skin vehicles, but large fleets of these vehicles operated by armies around the world may yet make it prohibitive even for richer nations to equip APS fleetwide.
ADBR asked Defence if it could provide an update to the trials with Iron Fist for LAND 400 Phases 2 and 3, and if an APS is one of the items being assessed for LAND 907 Phase 2 program to upgrade the Abrams MBT.
We also posed the question to Defence if it had considered or if it was considering the issue threats posed by systems such as armed UAS or loitering munitions, however Defence was unable to respond by press time.
The predictions in some quarters that the proliferation of ATGMs, armed drones, and loitering munitions spell the end of the tank’s domination of the battlefield are likely premature, but events have proven that even the MBT is vulnerable to these new technologies likely to be prevalent over the battlefield of the future.
To ensure that the MBT and other armoured vehicles continue to remain relevant, the equipping of these vehicles with APS to cover attacks from multiple aspects will take on an increasing urgency.
This article appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of ADBR.