A number of folks have contacted me concerning the stories that started running last night about the military’s rejection of the Trophy Active Protection System (APS), an anti-RPG system that’s designed to detect and destroy incoming rocket-propelled grenades before they strike their targets.
I saw the story early yesterday evening on MSNBC.com, and it goes like this:
Army shuns system to combat RPGs
Experts agree it might help save lives, so why isn’t it in the field?
WASHINGTON – Rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, are a favorite weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are cheap, easy to use and deadly.
RPGs have killed nearly 40 Americans in Afghanistan and more than 130 in Iraq, including 21-year-old Pvt. Dennis Miller.
“They were in Ramadi, and his tank was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade,” says Miller’s mother, Kathy. “Little Denny never knew what hit him.”
Excuse me for a moment, and please forgive any unintended crassness towards Mrs. Miller. But any story about military procurement that begins with a sobbing mother and “Little Denny” getting killed should be approached with extreme caution. Really.
This Trophy system is the one that was labelled by morons in the press as being a ‘Star Trek’ force field.
Sixteen months ago, commanders in Iraq began asking the Pentagon for a new system to counter RPGs and other anti-tank weapons.
Last year, a special Pentagon unit thought it found a solution in Israel — a high-tech system that shoots RPGs out of the sky. But in a five-month exclusive investigation, NBC News has learned from Pentagon sources that that help for U.S. troops is now in serious jeopardy.
The system is called “Trophy,” and it is designed to fit on top of tanks and other armored vehicles like the Stryker now in use in Iraq.
Trophy works by scanning all directions and automatically detecting when an RPG is launched. The system then fires an interceptor — traveling hundreds of miles a minute — that destroys the RPG safely away from the vehicle.
A “five-month exclusive investigation”, huh? Let’s see, September minus five months would make, oh, about April or so. Which is when all of this was publicly announced. I hope this article is the first of a ten-part series, because there’s nothing here that wasn’t available in April.
In early April, Fox News ran a video of a test of this system (repeating the “force field” nonsense) and I pointed it out in Linkzookery. As noted in May’s Military Transformation Uplink, Defense Tech covered this in depth on April 26th and Defense Industry Daily did the same on May 8th. Army Times had an article just before those two posts went up, and I intended to write about it myself, but I had trouble finding more info besides what was in Army Times. DT and DID did a far better job than I would have, so I left it at that.
One point I wanted to make was that for such a near-perfect system, the Israelis don’t seem to be falling over themselves to install it on their own vehicles. The MSNBC.com article has this:
The Israeli military, which recently lost a number of tanks and troops to RPGs, is rushing to deploy the system.
Trophy’s manufacturer, Rafael, claims that the system is more than 90% effective. The US military’s Office of Force Transformation says that it’s more than 98% effective.
I’d sure like to see a successful anti-RPG system, but 90%? Come on. That isn’t even remotely believable and anyone who follows military technology knows it. Oh, sure, it might shoot down 9 out of 10 RPGs on a testbed vehicle in a carefully controlled test environment, but I’d suggest that an anti-RPG system that’s even 50% effective in the real would be a great boon to our troops.
But expect to hear the 90% number parroted around as if the Army is intentionally killing its own soldiers.
A major concern seems to be the safety of things around the vehicle armed with Trophy. In the real world, vehicles are surrouned by friendly troops, as well as civilians. Just like they aren’t in static tests.
Remember Atari’s Missile Command? What was the most fun strategy? It was rolling the targeting cursor across the screen, firing missiles off willy-nilly. This created an impervious “force field” of destruction that was at least 90% (and more like 98%) effective at stopping incoming warheads.
But what if friendly troops and civilians (not to mention cars and buildings and puppy dogs) are in the line of fire? They’ll be cut to ribbons more often than we’d like, wouldn’t they?
This sort of system, like the Navy’s Phalanx CIWS and the (in)famous Patriot missiles, needs to run on automatic mode, meaning that a computer is “watching” for incoming RPGs and automatically fires when it detects one. There simply is no time for a human to recognize the threat, decide what to do, target, and fire.
Navy ships turn off their Phalanx systems when in port. Remember the attacks on US ships in a Jordanian port a year ago? They had their systems turned off according to policy. I thought it was only in US ports that they were off, but it’s in ALL ports. Why? Because the risk of opening up on something besides a missile is too great. Whatever RPG defense we go with is going to have to take all of this into account.
One line of reasoning seems to be that the Future Combat System’s active defense will tie in with all the other tracking and communication gear in use or being developed, allowing the system to know where our guys are at all times. It could then factor this in when deciding how or if to fire. This would still leave civilians at risk, though.
Of course, another line of reasoning is that the US doesn’t want to buy someone else’s system when we have all this money in the defense budget just burning a hole in our pocket. Why buy something built in Israel now when we can buy something built in the proper Congressional district five years from now? I’d say that this line of reasoning seems perfectly reasonable, given the sorry state of military procurement these days.
All this being said, I’d sure like to see more tests and some real-world use of the Trophy. If nothing else, it will help make the future FCS system (to be built by Raytheon) more effective. And, even if not suited to use on our vehicles, maybe Trophy has uses in static emplacements. We’re already trying out the Phalanx on the ground. Maybe this system has uses along those lines.
Just keep all this in mind if media reports about Bush and Rumsfeld and the all the generals not caring about soldiers start making waves.
UPDATE: Here’s the Fox News report from earlier in the year: