Armor: Double Tap Taps Out

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September 23, 2018: A mid-2018 Russian a weapons sales event included several live fire demonstrations. One was curious, for a number of reasons. The demo in question had a Russian wheeled APC (armored personnel carrier) showing how it could destroy tanks protected by ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) or APS (Active Protection System). The tactic involved the Russian vehicle firing two Kornet EM missiles at the same target. The Kornet EM is a new (since 2013) version which is meant for use mounted on vehicles. This arrangement consists of four Kornets (in their storage/launch tubes) and the operator has the option to rapidly fire two missiles at the same target the fire control system is aiming at. Since Kornet uses a “beam riding” guidance system (where the operator aims a laser beam at the target and the missile follows that beam to a specific area of the target vehicle) that enables two Kornets to hit the same target in quick succession. Russia touted this as a way to defeat ERA and APS.

What was curious about this demonstration (that used an old 1960s era T-62 as a target) was that it used a target that had neither ERA nor APS. Moreover, a cheaper solution to ERA was introduced decades ago in the form of tandem warheads. In effect, a tandem warhead was two warheads in one with the first detonating the ERA and the second penetrating the regular armor behind the ERA. There are some new ERA systems that are designed to defeat tandem warheads but there have not been a lot of realistic tests. Tandem warheads are available for Kornet, but they are expensive. The Russians were pointing out that in an emergency (where a vehicle equipped with Kornets lacking tandem warheads) the dual firing system to have the same effect. What the “double tap” (two Kornets on one target) feature was really there for as to defeat vehicles with APS.

Israel, and now the United States, are installing combat proven APS on their tanks and light armored vehicles (including wheeled ones). Russia did not demonstrate the Kornet dual shot technique on an APS equipped tank. There was a good reason for that. Although Russia was one of the pioneers in developing APS they never got their APS systems to work reliably in combat. The Israeli Trophy APS has been successfully used in combat since 2010 and Russia failed to mention that Trophy was designed to handle multiple targetings so two Kornets coming in following the same laser beam would not be a problem. Moreover, current APS designs make greater use of electronic countermeasures (like detecting the use of laser beam riding systems and disrupting the beam.) With all that the vehicle-mounted Kornet system has found export customers because Kornet itself has proved itself in combat and there was demand for a vehicle based version. Thus using two Kornets on the same targeting laser beam to defeat ERA or APS was more of a stunt that a reality.

ATGMs are having a real problem with APS systems because ones like Trophy are quite effective. This year the U.S. Army began upgrading 261 M1 tanks with the Israeli Trophy APS. Trophy has already been tested on the M1, a process that occurred after the Americans noted that Western tanks, like the M1 and Leopard 2 are vulnerable to weapons like Kornet (which Russia will sell to just about anyone). This was demonstrated recently in northwest Syria where Turkey lost at least ten Leopard 2s and older American M60s to Kornet ATGMs.

Israel has been a pioneer in APS development and there are several Israeli firms developing and selling APS gear. The most well-known of these is Trophy but another Israeli firm created the Iron Fist APS, which found a market by evolving into an APS that is lighter, more compact, easier to install and, on paper at least, has more features than Trophy. Thus Iron Fist will be equipping lighter American armored vehicles like the M2. Iron Fist contains heat sensing as well as radar to detect threats and that includes rifle and machine-gun fire. These weapons cannot damage armored vehicles but it is useful for the crew to know where the fire is coming from. A full-size Iron Fist can also jam guidance systems on some missiles and has a lower false-alarm rate. There is also a lightweight version with fewer of the extras but that can be put on much lighter vehicles like trucks. While Iron Fist has not been proven in combat like Trophy the manufacturer says it has worked well in tests and that was enough to encourage the American and Dutch armies to evaluate it on some of their armored vehicles. The Israeli army also selected Iron Fist for its Nemer heavy IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle).

The U.S. also planned to install the American developed Iron Curtain APS on Stryker armored vehicles. Iron Curtain began development in 2005 and was part of a Department of Defense effort to catch up in APS development. In mid-2018 the U.S. dropped Iron Curtain because it was not ready for combat while Iron Fist and a lightweight version of Trophy were.

Until now Trophy was the only APS most people heard about, and for good reason. In 2010 the first battalion of Israeli Merkava tanks was equipped with Trophy. Then in 2011 Trophy defeated incoming missiles and rockets in combat for the first time. This included ATGMs like the Kornet E. This is a laser guided missile with a range of 5,000 meters. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate enough modern tank armor to render the side armor of the Israeli Merkava tank vulnerable. The Kornet E missile weighs 8.2 kg (18 pounds) and the launcher 19 kg (42 pounds). A few weeks before the first ATGM intercept Trophy defeated an RPG warhead (an unguided rocket-propelled grenade fired from a metal tube balanced on the shoulder). As it was designed to do, Trophy operated automatically and the crew didn't realize the incoming RPG warhead or missile had been stopped until after it was over. That is how APS is supposed to work and Trophy has proved to be the most reliable and effective APS out there. By 2012 Israel was convinced sufficiently to equip all the Merkava tanks in an armor brigade with the Trophy APS. Now the U.S. Army is planning to eventually equip three brigades with Trophy. More brigades would follow if Trophy proved necessary in future combat situations.

This first combat use doe Trophy was a big deal because APS has been around since the 1980s but demand and sales had been slow until Trophy showed up. The main purpose of APS is to stop ATGMs but on less heavily armored vehicles, stopping RPG type warheads is important as well. The Israeli Trophy APS uses better, more reliable, and more expensive technology than the original Russian Drozd (or its successors, like Arena) APS. This includes an electronic jammer that will defeat some types of ATGMs. For about $300,000 per system, Trophy will protect a vehicle from ATGMs as well as RPGs (which are much more common in combat zones). Israel is the first Western nation to have a lot of their tanks shot up by modern ATGMs and apparently fears the situation will only get worse. Trophy protected several Israeli tanks from ATGM and RPG attacks during the 50 Day War with Hamas in mid-2014.

In 2015 a lightweight (200 kg/440 pound) version of its Trophy APS called Trophy LV was introduced. This is intended for MRAPs (heavily armored trucks), IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and other heavy vehicles that are lighter than tanks. The regular Trophy weighs about a ton and is one of several APS models on the market but it is also the one with the most impressive combat record. The Israeli manufacturer of Trophy also partners with American firms to manufacture Trophy and Trophy LV for the U.S. market. Meanwhile, another Israeli firm entered the American market with the similar and more capable Iron First.

 


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