UNTERLUESS, Germany — Germany company Rheinmetall has made another push to show the U.S. Army that it has a ready and working active protection system. The company’s marketing effort this week at its Germany-based proving grounds comes as potential fiscal 2018 funding would cover the qualification of another APS for Army combat vehicles waiting in the wings for congressional approval.
The company hosted a number of U.S. Army representatives March 7, firing three RPG-7Vs at its active defense system (ADS), a distributed APS configuration — as opposed to a launcher-based APS system. The ADS uses an explosive charge to blast incoming weapons off their paths in extremely close proximity to the vehicle. The explosive cuts at a downward angle on a threat roughly 1 meter from the vehicle’s hull, disabling the threat’s main charge and drastically minimizing an explosion.
The U.S. delegation present for the demonstration included Elizabeth Miller, the deputy product manager for the Army’s vehicle protection systems, and Clifton Boyd, the deputy project manager for the Stryker brigade combat team effort.
Putting ADS to the test
Rheinmetall took pains to challenge the system in front of the delegation, cluttering the environment around the system, which was positioned on a rig to represent a combat vehicle.
Using old cars and mannequins, the company painted a picture of a crowded urban marketplace. And though unplanned, the demonstration was performed in a mix of snow and rain, adding to the complexity.
For the demonstration, Rheinmetall crafted a scenario that could occur during combat operations:
Two roadside bombs detonate in front of and behind a convoy of combat vehicles as they move through a crowded marketplace, causing the vehicles to come to a halt. A suicide bomber in a car then drives into another car and explodes.
As the explosion causes mayhem around the convoy, two rocket-propelled grenades are fired, one aimed directly at the ADS system and another at a vehicle behind the rig. The second RPG was meant to demonstrate that the ADS system will only trigger if the RPG is directly headed toward the system.
Rheinmetall’s Rapid Obscuring System, or ROSY, was supposed to deploy, enshrouding the vehicle in thick smoke to deter further RPG attacks, but a small piece of shrapnel from a previous explosion severed a wire connecting the system on the rig and it failed to work.
With the vehicle still visible to the attackers, another RPG is fired at the system.
When the smoke clears, the ADS system’s rig shows clear signs it worked. The only evidence of an RPG attack are small pock marks on one side of the rig and white residue on the other side.
Rheinmetall subsequently demonstrated ROSY using a small Polaris ultralight RZR vehicle equipped with the system. The vehicle drove through the scene, deploying smoke. In less than a second, nothing in the area was visible.
Rheinmetall sets sites on US
More than a year ago, the Army determined it needed to field an interim APS solution for the Abrams tank as well as the Stryker combat vehicle and the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The service decided to rapidly assess off-the-shelf APS systems to fulfill an urgent operational need after failing — over a 20 year period — to field an APS system.
The Army’s program manager for APS has said if more funding became available to qualify another system, ADS would be at the top of the list and came in a close second in a design runoff against Iron Fist.
The Army ultimately selected three different systems: Israeli company Rafael’s Trophy system, which is deployed in the Israeli Army, for the Abrams; Iron Fist from IMI Systems, another Israeli company, for the Bradley; and Herndon, Virginia-based Artis’ Iron Curtain for the Stryker.
While the Army has stayed on track with Abrams, due to a combination of earlier funding availability and qualifying an already fielded system, it has struggled to stay on schedule with the other two configurations. Iron Curtain is six months behind, and Iron Fist is delayed by eight months.
Col. Glenn Dean, who is in charge of the program, told Defense News in a recent interview that Iron Curtain turned out to not be as mature as the service envisioned and that there was some “friction on the test range.”
Unlike ADS, Iron Curtain uses a projectile-like countermeasure to defeat threats before they have a chance to explode. And similar to the German system, Iron Curtain takes out incoming threats very close to the vehicle.
With Iron Curtain’s fate uncertain, Rheinmetall has an opportunity to swoop in if it receives FY18 government funding to qualify its system with the U.S. Army.
The demonstration comes at an important time, as Congress could potentially pass the FY18 defense budget this month. The upcoming deadline for a continuing resolution will force Congress to either vote to fund the Defense Department at last year’s levels or finally reach a budget deal.
A growing track record
Rheinmetall believes its testing and demonstrations performed over many years on a variety of combat vehicles makes it ready to step up to the task for the U.S. Army. The company has already sold the system to a non-NATO country.
Rheinmetall wouldn’t name the country, but it has been publicly announced Singapore bought the system for its Leopard tanks.
Rheinmetall has extensively tested the system for the Swedish government and for Germany, and it has formulated designs for integration onto a wide variety of vehicles to include an eight-wheel drive vehicle similar to the Stryker.
The system has successfully demonstrated it can defeat real and decoy anti-tank rounds as well as anti-tank guided missiles.
During tests with the Swedish Army, 76 percent of shots left zero residual penetration on the vehicle. The rest of the shots — save 6 percent — left damage measured in millimeters. The remaining 6 percent of the shots were undefeated, resulting in full penetration, according to Ron Meixner, an engineer at Rheinmetall.
He blamed the undefeated shots on the specific detonator used inthe test. The system now has a new detonator that is safer and more reliable, according to Meixner, and “current trials show that this problem has been eliminated.”
The success rate for residual penetration of less than 20 millimeters is 94 percent, he added.
And because the system is designed to defeat an incoming threat at close proximity, there is a wider radius around the vehicle where soldiers can safely operate and where civilians can be present without being harmed by collateral damage, Meixner explained.
One mannequin’s plastic head was found in a pool of mud on the range post-test, its body still standing. The rest of the mannequins were simply splattered in mud.
For APS systems that defeat threats farther away from the vehicle, the area where soldiers can safely operate near the vehicle is more limited.
The system’s radar is also capable of weeding through the clutter of a busy urban environment and can precisely distinguish the type of incoming threat. That way the system can fine-tune its response depending on what kind of projectile is fired at the vehicle, Meixner said.
Rheinmetall has done everything it can to confuse the system’s radar, including building a leaf tosser to send leaves into the air around the system in an attempt to throw the system off. But the radar has been able to detect threats appropriately in every scenario the company has thrown at it.
And while many radars turn vehicles into easy targets in an environment where an adversary can detect signals in an electromagnetic environment, the radar in ADS is low-power enough to limit its detection in the spectrum, according to Meixner.
APS systems have been in development for roughly 40 years. The Russians first developed a system in the 1970s. But it’s only now that countries, including U.S., are getting serious about the capability.
Those looking for APS now include a number of European countries. Poland, for instance, is serious about procuring something to protect its combat vehicles. Several military representatives also attended the March 7 demonstration from the Spanish Army and said they were conducting a study to determine a requirement for APS.
Meixner theorized as to why countries are now just getting on board. “You have for the first time an autonomous system on the battlefield that is firing just by the decision the system itself makes, and of course this is really scary.”
But Meixner equated the ADS system to an air bag, another autonomous system with explosives set up to respond on its own when a car is in a crash.
Yet, Rheinmetall has taken extra steps to ensure the safety of the system. The German government aided in funding safety certification of the system and signals — perhaps a sign that Germany intends to ultimately field ADS to its combat vehicles, too.
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.