WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has decided to equip a brigade’s worth of Abrams tanks with the Trophy Active Protection System and urgently field them to the European theater, Col. Glenn Dean, the program manager for Stryker, who also manages the service’s effort to install APS on combat vehicles, told Defense News.
The service made a decision to buy Trophy for Abrams on Sept. 29, Dean said, and now the Army is moving out to deploy the systems to Europe by 2020. The decision marks a major step in achieving a capability that has been continuously out of the service’s reach for many years.
A little over a year ago, the Army determined it needed to field an interim APS solution for the Abrams, Stryker combat vehicle and Bradley fighting vehicle and decided to rapidly assess off-the-shelf APS systems to fulfill an urgent operational need.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve never fielded an APS system even though we invested a lot of money in a range of development projects trying to get to one,” Dean said. “We could never get to the desired level.”
So to rapidly find solutions for three very different combat vehicles, the Army tapped into a consortium of companies participating in a science and technology effort to develop the Modular Active Protection System, the Army’s future APS solution, for readily available systems.
Ultimately, the Army selected Israeli company Rafael’s Trophy system -- that is deployed in the Israeli army -- for Abrams; Iron Fist from IMI, another Israeli company, for the Bradley; and Herdon, Virginia-based Artis’ Iron Curtain for Stryker.
The Army got started with Trophy’s installation onto Abrams earlier because there was funding available within the program in 2016 to move forward. The other two vehicles didn’t receive funding until fiscal year 2017, Dean said, so Abrams is moving out ahead of Stryker and Bradley.
“Stryker is the next one in the chute,” Dean said. Artis has completed its work designing, installing and tuning the system to fit on the vehicle and the system has now entered government characterization efforts. Testing will continue into mid-December where a decision will be made whether to proceed with buying and fielding the system early next fiscal quarter, according to Dean.
Bradley is “a bit behind” Stryker because it is a much more challenging platform to integrate on because of the limitations of the vehicle in terms of space, weight and power. The Bradley could not support APS without an upcoming upgrade that helps restore power to the vehicle.
IMI has begun the tuning phase of characterization, having completed design and installation activity, Dean said. If all goes according to plan, government characterization will begin in the November time frame and will last roughly four months. Bradley’s government characterization phase is expected to last longer than the other two vehicles because of the added challenges of the platform, he added.
With both vehicles, the Army will assess how the systems perform and then service leadership will decide “is this good enough and, if so, what do you want to do, do you want to push that for rapid deployment, do you want us to go back to the drawing board, do you want us to evaluate a different system,” Dean said. “All those options are on the table until we come back with data.”
All of the systems have gone or will go through rigorous characterization testing. In the case of the Abrams, it had two-live fire phases. One phase was a performance characterization, which is to assess how the system itself performs, and the second phase is to test it in operationally realistic conditions in a cluttered battlefield with moving vehicles against live threats.
“Unique to this evaluation that we, the U.S., hasn’t done before and, frankly, most nations and contractors evaluating their APS systems, we are shooting live threats at real vehicles,” Dean said, “not next to the vehicle, not at a test rig, at the actual platform. We are taking a fair amount of risk that, hey, if the system doesn’t perform as indicated, we are going to hurt some very expensive pieces of hardware.”
Fortunately for the Trophy system, it “exceeded our expectations, it performed extremely well,” Dean said. “Really the only issues we had were those things that were associated with the tank, not so much with Trophy and we worked out how to address and mitigate those to the point the tank crews we had evaluate it were happy with them.”
For example, installation issues on the tank weren’t so much related to the weight of the system but more the balance of the Abram’s turret, which was affected because of where the system had to be mounted on the vehicle, according to Dean.
“There were some concerns that, hey, this may have an impact on the tanks’ ability to engage targets,” Dean said, that pushed the fielding decision back slightly, by just a few weeks.
But the Army quickly went out and tested the tank’s ability to engage targets with Trophy installed on it and “all the crews said, ‘We would take this to war tomorrow,’” following the exercise, Dean said.
“This was to give more confidence,” he said. “There was never a question about performance of Trophy itself. This was about, okay, Trophy works great, does the tank still do all the things it needs to do.”
Now that the Army is moving forward with fielding Trophy on Abrams, it will move into some more advanced testing and also begin production in parallel, Dean said.
The service has to procure more test hardware because it shot down a large amount of missiles and fired many countermeasures, “so we’ve got to replenish our test stock,” he said.
The second phase of testing Abrams and Trophy will enter is to prove the system is safe enough to deploy by running it through more complex conditions. One test, for example, will evaluate what happens when you have multiple tanks in close proximity on the battlefield all running an APS system at the same time, Dean said.
The Army will also buy the Trophy systems early during the second phase of simultaneous testing and production because there is nothing that is going to change in the design of the system, he noted.
Dean said the Army remains interested in “at least one other commercially available system” -- a German system from Rheinmetall called the Advanced Defense System. “It was actually very close in the running for Bradley, but ultimately Iron Fist was selected because of the integration burdens of the platform,” he said. “If we had the budget to do a fourth system right now, we’d be doing a fourth system right now.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.