“Active Protection” Speeds Up

Armies around the world have been spending a ton of time and money trying to figure out how to keep their fighting vehicles, trucks, and personnel carriers safe. Better armor is one answer. Another is to stop attacks before they ever hit.
trophy-seequence.gifSeveral of these so-called “active protection” systems are making progress, both here and in Israel. Generally speaking, they all work in the same way, Defense News‘ Barbara Opall-Rome notes:

A radar detects and identifies an approaching threat.
Target information is transferred to a kill mechanism.
The kill mechanism destroys the target at a safe distance from the vehicle.

A few weeks back, Trophy, an Israeli active protection set-up, went through its first tests on an American Stryker vehicle. It’s already being used to protect Israeli tanks against rocket-propelled grenades.

[In a] Feb. 28 test… two inert RPGs were fired simultaneously; one would hit the Stryker while the other was intentionally aimed for a near miss Trophy was able to track the trajectory, discriminate among the two parallel targets, and determine which one would actually hit the Stryker before selectively unleashing its lethal countermeasures. The actual method used to destroy the targets is classified.

The Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation is planning on using Trophy on its Project Sheriff vehicles — those experimental personnel carriers, armed with pain rays and sonic blasters.
Meanwhile, the Army is pursuing its own active protection plans. Its Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center has been test-firing a system which blasts incoming RPGs with foot-long fragmentation rounds. Raytheon has just been handed a $70 million contract to actively protect the Army’s next-generation combat vehicles. Last month, the company successfully demonstrated its “Quick Kill” RPG-stopper, eDefense notes.

The precision-launched weapon employs a technique called “soft launch,” whereby it launches vertically from the vehicle, pitches over, and is propelled by its rocket motor to the point of intercept with the RPG, at which point it fires its warhead. This method provides a combat vehicle with full hemispheric protection from a single system, rather than placing a number of them around the sides of the vehicle. It also avoids the concussion and stress that a more traditional launch method would put on the vehicle.
In addition, a vehicle equipped with the Quick Kill system would typically carry eight to 16 such rounds that could be launched in a salvo to counter multiple RPG attacks.

There are other, more exotic active protection approaches, too. Army-funded researchers recently filed a patent to stop attacks with parachutes. The Brits think they can stop RPGs with massive electrical charges. And a Navy-backed company, Aoptix Technologies, wants to “apply… high energy light based weapons” to keep RPGs from landing.
UPDATE 03/15/06 11:50 AM: “Lightly armored vehicles such as the Humvee are unlikely ever to get [Quick Kill-style] defenses,” says Defense News‘ Greg Grant. “The blast pressures generated when the incoming warhead detonates would buckle lightly armored vehicles.”

For lighter vehicles, an innovative air bag system is in development, Army sources said, called the Tactical Vehicle RPG Air-bag Protection System, or TRAPS. Made from the same material in automotive air bags, they detonate incoming RPGs at a distance from the vehicle and cushion the blast.
The air-bag defense is in its final test stages this week, and could begin production later this year.
Nadeau said its tough to develop an active-armor system that can be used around dismounted soldiers or innocent civilians. The hard-kill defensive warheads launched by the vehicle resemble huge shotgun blasts to shred incoming projectiles, and would prove highly lethal to anybody nearby.
When you put it on a vehicle that is going to be around dismounted soldiers, you have to have the ability to turn quadrants on and off, to avoid the collateral damage, Nadeau said.

  • James

    The Russians have fielded a couple of these systems with mixed results, as I understand it. I guess I have a couple of practical objections. First, wouldn’t the radar tend to attract enemy attention, especially if you’re trying to hide? Once the frequencies are known, isn’t it possible to build a missile that will home in on the signal itself? And second, how will nearby infantry feel about the tanks when they find out they might suddenly start spewing submunitions at any time?

  • Brian

    First, our vehicles aren’t trying to hide. This is to protect them as they drive down the middle of the street. Certainly, one could build a missile to home in on the radar these will emit. However, RPGs are direct fire weapons. You aim these by pointing them at the target. At that point, you’ve already got a visual lock on the target. There’s no reason to spend the money for it to lock onto the vehicle, especially when the vehicle’s protection system will fire anyway, taking care of the missile no matter how well it targets. Besides, any additional targeting equipment will add thousands of dollars of electronics to what is the only anti-tank system these people can really afford.

  • TrustButVerify

    I think these are some legit concerns. It echoes concerns folks have been voicing since the first ERA came out- what about the poor bloody infantry who are supposed to be screening you?
    Fortunately for the grunts, the system (as described) is a good deal more focused than the old ERA blocks; the odds of Joe Infantryman taking one in the neck are much lower with this sort of precision system than with sheets of plastic explosive going off near him.
    The radar-homing question is also a valid one but inasmuch as the Stryker is not meant for engaging a heavy force (such as would have radar-seeking ATGMs, of all things) it is less applicable.
    Come to think of it, shouldn’t the system be able to stop the anti-radar RPG as easily as normal RPGs?
    This one will bear watching in any event.

  • Noah Shachtman

    Good point, DCL. And what happens when one of these interceptors goes astray, and takes out the wrong Iraqis?
    There are some less-lethal active protection schemes being considered, as well — using things like nets to throw an RPG’s course off. Maybe they’ll turn out to be a more sensible alternative.

  • David Hambling

    The principle is sound enough, the question is if it can be made to work in practice.
    Abrams armor is excellent, but the vehicle is still vulnerable to RPGs because of weak spots. Active armor may also have blind spots or other limitations.
    If it can be triggered by the bad guys at will, this could have horrific results. A vehicle passes by a schoolyard when the active defense system fires…who are the locals going to blame for the casualties?
    Could be very useful, but someone is going to have to think very carefully about this.
    Incidentally, I have even seen one firm’s plans for active body armour which throws out little Kevlar airbags which can slow and deflect bullets. Just don’t be standing next to the wearer.

  • Jombs

    Boooo ! I had dibs on this idea back during my freshman year in college (02′). hehe, o’well
    haha, my “detailed abstract” is worded almost exactly the same except for the device name of course. I knew those defense contractors were to interested in my idea during my interviews :
    ” The Trophy system has three elements providing Threat Detection and Tracking, Launching and Intercept functions. The Threat Detection and Warning subsystem consists of several sensors, including flat-panel radars, placed at strategic locations around the protected vehicle, to provide full hemispherical coverage.”

  • oz

    “And we have to make sure that if someone throws a rock, or a bird flies by, that it doesn’t go off.”
    I’d be more worried if someone threw something like a beer can. Being metallic I would assume it would be pretty hard to diferenciate between an incoming RPG and a can of Fourex.
    Using munitions that fire out of the AFV is stupid, both in terms of possible friendly casualties (as James pointed out) and civilian casualties.
    To me, the British are on the right track.

  • James

    Well, I guess to be more clear I would say that the Army would be very surprised to hear that are never expected to lay in ambush again. Camouflaging vehicles has been a standard tactic since…forever. If the radar emissions give them away that’s a downside. And my concern would be indirect fire weapons lobbed in the general direction of the vehicles would be able to home in on the radars. Being able to kill flies is good, but not if you attract a swarm of them doing it.
    But chasing away the protecting infantry is probably the worst danger. Then you really will be more vulnerable to enemy infantry with short-range rockets.

  • Alex

    As mentioned, Russians have been playing along with it since the 70s. Drozd sytem was effective in Afganistan but tended to pump the support squads full of ball bearings. The Arena system is suppoused to be even more effective, but the friendly fire problems remain.
    Description & Videos for Arena

  • Andrej

    1.Well, for some reason the article does not mention that Russian were the first to develop active protection systems years ago (Drozd 1 and 2 and Arena). (Or copied it, as this site appearently claims for any Russian equipment). Although, there does not seem to be any further development in the past years.
    2. Diferentiating “beer cans” (as one reader commented) and ATGM or RPGs is extremly!!! easy. It is much harder to disinguish between hits and near misses (not to mention the difficulty if the vehicle is moving).
    3. The problem in defeating such a system is not of guiding a missile to the tank (some of you mention using vehicles radar-pointless since a properly designed system will shoot down the missile be it passive radar guided or whotsever).
    However their is always the possibility of destroying sensors/protective munitions with some other type of weapon (AHEAD?)- but anyway this makes an oponent have to overcome another major barrier in defeating the armored vehicle).There is no 100% proetction.