Modern armour-piercing munitions defeat all species of armoured vehicles, including MBTs, despite advances in armour and mobility. The optimum countermeasure is to add levels of protection – both active and passive. However, although such solutions have been available for decades, progress remains relatively slow.
Rapid development in armour-piercing weapons, in terms both of their guidance and their penetration capabilities, is pushing engineers to focus on better crew protection. This applies even to well-protected tanks such as the Israeli MERKAVA, the American M1 ABRAMS, the Russian T-90, or the British CHALLENGER 2. Despite their advanced multi-layered armour and well-trained crews, a number of tanks have either been damaged or destroyed in recent conflicts, for example, in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
Highly capable tandem warhead ATGMs, such as the Russian 9M133 KORNET or the Chinese HJ-8, are not the only problem, since even less advanced systems can now be lethal. Light, cheap and relatively widely available shoulder-fired grenade launchers, such as the tandem warhead RPG-29 or RPG-30 with a tandem shaped charge, are reportedly capable of penetrating over 650mm of armour. At the same time, vehicles are also vulnerable to modern armour-piercing projectiles from tank guns.
The fundamental element of a crew’s passive protection is still armour that offers protection against light arms and some armour-piercing rounds. It is a truism that increasing armour is not possible without increasing the weight of a vehicle, which triggers higher fuel consumption, shorter range, more logistical problems, and reduced manoeuvrability. Furthermore, standard armour is not effective against although there are concerns, e.g., that the DM53/63 cannot easily modern tandem warheads and Armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding-sabots (APFSDS) – penetrate the T-90. Even the popular solution of slat armour, now seen on many AFVs, is useless against this threat. RUAG’s SIDEPRO-RPG/LASSO or BAE Systems’ L-ROD armour solutions, e.g., only offer protection against RPG-7s with a single-stage HEAT warhead. Other passive systems, such as Rheinmetall’s ROSY 360° smoke/obscurant system, which provides protection against TV-, EO-, IR-, IIR-, laser- and SACLOS-guided antitank weapons, also have their limitations.
Explosive reactive armour (ERA) is one of the few workable passive solutions and is still under development, mainly in the former Soviet bloc. However, even ERA does not provide full spectrum protection against advanced systems such as RPG-30s or ATGMs with a top-attack capability, as it usually has a protection envelope limited, for instance, to parts of the turret or glacis: a fundamental problem, especially in irregular, urban combats in which adversaries can strike from behind or above.
Modern APFSDS rounds also present a growing challenge. One passive solution is the Advanced Modular Armour Protection (AMAP) system, developed by IBD Deisenroth Engineering and produced by Rheinmetall Chempro. Constructed from nano-ceramics and modern steel alloys, it succeeds IBD’s Modular Expandable Armour System (MEXAS), was developed in the early 1990s and has been used on various vehicles since then.
Based on work in the 1970s, Soviet engineers designed an ERA system which is still in service – the KONTAKT, which has become a standard add-on passive armour (or ‘dynamic protection complex’ as it was then known) for T-55s, T-62s, T-64A/Bs, T-72Bs, and T-80s, among others.
The KONTAKT-1, now used on T-72s in Syria and Ukraine, reduces the penetration capabilities of HEAT projectiles by up to 80% and provides protection against the majority of shoulder-launched threats. An ongoing conflict in Ukraine illustrates the relatively high efficiency of the KONTAKT-1 – only multiple hits from RPGs or ATGMs with a single-stage HEAT warhead guarantee success. However, KONTAKT-1 does not provide protection against RPG-29/30/32s and advanced ATGMs such as the 9M133 KORNET, the 9K115-2 METIS-M, the HJ-8 or the TOW-2A. The most advanced version is KONTAKT-5, which provides better protection against 120mm APFSDS projectiles, including the DM43 and M829A1, which became outdated soon after entering service and were replaced by the DM53 and M289A2. At the same time, KONTAKT-5 has a lower protection envelope compared to KONTAKT-1. The system is now a standard add-on armour for Russian tanks, including the T-72B3, some of which were deployed in eastern Ukraine.
Currently, KONTAKT-5 does not provide adequate protection against contemporary threats, including the PzF-3IT600. By contrast, Poland’s ERAWA-2 ERA, used on the PT-91 MBT, reportedly reduces its penetration capabilities by 50 percent. RELIKT was therefore designed as a successor to KONTAKT-5 and as a solution against tandem warhead HEAT and modern APFSDS projectiles. Mönch understands RELIKT reduces the penetration capabilities of APFSDSs by 50%, single-stage HEAT warheads by up to 90%, ATGMs with a tandem warhead by 50% and tandem warhead RPGs by 95%. RELIKT is planned for installation on the latest T-72s (B3) and T-14s, and reportedly currently equips some T-90s.
Another ERA still under development are Ukraine’s NOZH and a more advanced version, known as DUPLET. According to official data, it is 80% effective against HEAT single-stage warheads and APFSDS projectiles, and 20% effective against tandem warheads. DUPLET has a declared efficiency of 90% against APFSDS projectiles and HEAT tandem warheads. These systems are now integrated onto Ukrainian tanks such as the T-84 OPLOT-M (also headed for Thailand), T-64BM BULAT, T-64BM1/BM2 and T-72UA1.
Given the situation of improving penetration capabilities of ATGMs, grenade launchers, and tank munitions, as well as the increasing sophistication of sensors, the defence industry is being forced more than ever to focus on active defence/protection solutions (APS), which neutralise threats before they reach the target. A major consideration, even if the target is not completely destroyed, is the potential for severe damage to vulnerable elements mounted externally, such as electro-optics.
Of the three potential solutions, the first is known as a ‘hard-kill’ solution; detection and destruction or neutralisation of the incoming threat before impact, either by changing its trajectory or reducing its penetration capabilities. This requires some kind of projectile to be fired to intercept the threat. The second option is a ‘soft-kill’ solution, which uses various countermeasures, such as infrared or thermal jammers, laser spot imitators or a smokescreen, to distract the threat or prevent an operator from acquiring and tracking the target. In consequence, the threat misses the target. The third solution is a combination of both options. A commonly required feature is full automation – an APS relies on a powerful computer, able constantly to scan the vehicle’s surroundings, using radar or optical sensors, and to analyse acquired data. An efficient APS must also be able to discriminate between real threats and non-threats (i.e., those that will miss the target or objects such as birds, etc.) and neutralise objects moving at speeds typically between 70-1,500m/s.
Active defence solutions are still in their developmental infancy, despite the first systems appearing in the late 1970s. The first operational APS was the DROZD ‘hard-kill’ system, designed in the Soviet Union. It used millimetre-wave Doppler radar sensors mounted on a tank turret, which provided coverage for the forward 60° arc. According to some sources, it was 80% effective against RPGs during the Afghan War in the 1980s. A more current and advanced version is the SHTORA, a ‘soft-kill’ system mounted on various Russian tanks, including T-80s, T-90s (including Algerian) and Ukrainian T-84s. It disrupts the guidance of all semi-automatic SACLOS ATGMs, as well as laser designators and laser range-finders. SHTORA is equipped with a laser warning system and smoke grenades, but can also jam ATGMs by using an infrared radiator to emit a jamming signal. It is understood it can also automatically slave the turret to face an incoming threat with the vehicle’s thickest armour. Against more advanced missiles, including thermal- and TV-guided, or those with a coder laser signal, SHTORA is less efficient. The same applies, paradoxically, to simple systems, including unguided RPGs, which cannot be distracted. To compensate for these deficiencies, a ‘hard-kill’ system designated ARENA was developed by Russian engineers for the latest generation of AFV, including T-90s. It is equipped with a Doppler microwave radar and interceptor which can neutralise more advanced armour-piercing threats moving at speeds from 70-700m/s. This encompasses most modern ATGMs, including those with a top-attack capability.
The latest Russian tank, the T-14, is also equipped with an APS. The AFGHANIT, a development of the DROZD-2, is equipped with 10 launchers covering approximately 180° in azimuth. It is believed that incoming threats are neutralised by a blast wave of exploding interceptors, but their location suggests there is no ‘hard-kill’ protection against air-launched ATGMs or those fired in top-attack mode. This feature is provided by the latest version of the SHTORA, with four launchers firing a total of 24 multispectral smoke grenades, integrated with a fire control system. Vertically located launchers enable the vehicle to be hidden from air-launched ATGMs and those with a top-attack mode. According to some sources, the T-14 is protected from depleted uranium-cored APFSDS projectiles, but this claim cannot be verified.
In the late 1990s, the LECLERC tank was equipped with the GALIX protection system, providing 360° protection with smoke grenades, infrared screening rounds and anti-personnel grenades. Interestingly, the GALIX system was presented by French company Lacroix during MSPO 2016 in Poland. Lacroix is a provider of similar defence systems for naval surface vessels. GALIX is equipped with the SYLENA Mk 2 command unit and the SEACLAD family of countermeasures: SEALEM (radar decoys to distract radar-guided anti-ship missiles), SEALIR (thermal decoys to distract thermal-guided missiles) and SEALAT (electric-acoustic decoys to distract torpedoes).
Based on its naval experience, Lacroix developed a land version using the same idea, in cooperation with Nexter. GALIX is equipped with a command unit able to control a variable number of up to 24 decoy launchers. They can be fired manually by a Basic System Control Unit (BSCU) or automatically by a Fully Automatic System Control Unit (FASCU) after a threat is detected by laser warning sensors, with optional integration of meteorological sensors. The manufacturer states that GALIX can also detect a launching location and pass this information onto other units in order to neutralise the operator. At the same time, the system can attack enemy troops with 80mm grenades provided by Nexter, including the GALIX 4 (self-defence grenade), GALIX 15 (tear gas), GALIX 19 (warning grenade), GALIX 29 (blast grenade) and GALIX 46 (crowd dispersal grenade). The GALIX 13 (broad band infrared-visible smoke grenade) can jam optical sensors, laser-guided weapons and thermal cameras for up to 40 seconds. GALIX has been integrated into Swedish STRIDSVAGN 122 MBTs and CV90 AIFVs, Saudi Arabian LAV vehicles, Italian CENTAURO tank destroyers and ARIETE MBTs, and LECLERC MBTs in the UAE.
The most advanced and combat-proven APS is still the TROPHY, designed and produced by Israel’s Rafael. This ‘hard-kill’ solution can be used against RPGs, ATGMs and kinetic armour-piercing projectiles fired from tanks and AIFVs. When dozens of MERKAVA tanks were reportedly hit and many crew members killed or injured during the 2006 Lebanon War, work on the APS was accelerated. The system – TROPHY – has now been in service with the Israeli Army since late 2010 and has proved its worth many times, including during Operation “Protective Edge” in 2014, when Israeli tanks were attacked by Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. During its combat service, TROPHY has neutralised multiple threats, including tandem warhead RPG-29s and ATGMs such as the 9M133 KORNET and the 9K113 KONKURS.
To detect the threat, TROPHY uses 360° radar with four vehicle-mounted antennae. The on-board computer detects the missile launch and identifies its essential flight parameters, including trajectory and launch location, as well as the type of threat (tank projectile, grenade, ATGM, etc.). The crew of a protected vehicle knows the launch location and can destroy the operator before he launches another grenade/missile or, alternatively, can pass information to its own or allied forces. When the on-board computer determines that a hit cannot be avoided, countermeasures are fired to neutralise the threat. For these purposes, TROPHY uses small shaped charges attached to a gimbal on top of the vehicle. According to US press reports, the US Office of the Secretary of Defence’s Office of Force Transformation claimed that TROPHY was 98% effective against RPGs during live-firing tests. The only anomaly was that during one test (of a total of 30), TROPHY’s countermeasure hit the RPG’s tail instead of its head. Meanwhile, according to Rafael, TROPHY is now able to neutralise more demanding systems, such as the RPG-30, which fires a decoy projectile in order to trick APS.
Currently the TROPHY APS is mounted not only on MERKAVA 4 tanks, but also the NAMER heavy APC, for which the first installation was announced in January 2016 and has the potential to be installed on lighter armoured vehicles. Recently, it was announced that it will also be fitted to the EITAN wheeled 8x8 AIFV. The Israeli MoD reports that two full brigades of MERKAVA 4 have so far been equipped with TROPHY and one NAMER IFV brigade is an advanced stage of installation. In August 2016 it was announced that TROPHY, along with SPIKE ATGMs, is being offered to Australia for its LAND 400 modernization programme, aimed at comprehensive replacement of its M113s, ASLAVs and BUSHMASTERs. No matter who wins the Phase 2 tender (either Patria/BAE Systems’ AMV35 or Rheinmetall Defence’s BOXER), Rafael’s TROPHY could be selected. The TROPHY APS is also being offered to Poland for its ROSOMAK (8x8) wheeled APCs and it is understood the USMC will test it for its M1A1 ABRAMS MBTs.
TROPHY has several rapidly developing competitors on the international market, primarily IRON FIST on offer from another Israeli company – IMI Systems. This is also a ‘hard-kill’ APS which can be integrated onto various platforms, from MBT to lighter AFV. According to IMI Systems, it has been successfully tested against a variety of threats including armour-piercing HEAT projectiles, which are the most challenging for any APS due to their penetration capabilities and high speed. IRON FIST has a multi-sensor early warning system with a fixed radar developed by Rada and an optional infrared detector developed by Elbit Systems Elisra. The system uses interceptors that explode near an incoming threat, either destroying or deflecting it.
In June 2016, the US Army selected IMI Systems to develop APS technologies for the Modular Active Protection Systems (MAPS) programme, which aims to provide protection against a wide range of armour-piercing threats. Such a system is planned initially for the M1A2 ABRAMS MBTs and, if this proves successful, for other vehicles including STRYKER and BRADLEY. At a later stage, this APS is slated to be integrated onto tactical vehicles, including trucks and Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs). Vehicles of the latter category are believed be equipped with the IRON FIST - LIGHT CONFIGURATION (IF-LC). At the same time, the US Army will test TROPHY on M1A2 and STRYKER.
Although the US has been exploring APS technologies since the 1950s, it has no mature solutions as yet available. One of its few advanced projects is Raytheon’s QUICK KILL. It has a multi-mission AESA fire-control radar for threat detection and tracking and vertically launched ‘hard-kill’ countermeasures with two types of interceptors: small for use against RPGs and large for more demanding threats. Each launcher typically has eight to 16 missiles. According to Raytheon, QUICK KILL provides 360° protection against all armour-piercing threats. The project’s future remains doubtful, however.
Another US example comes from Artis, a new player on the market ,established in 1999, whose flagship project is the IRON CURTAIN. It can be integrated onto any ground platform but also, at least according to the manufacturer, to fixed sites such as buildings, watchtowers or guard posts, small surface boats and helicopters. IRON CURTAIN provides protection from RPGs and other shoulder-launched armour-piercing projectiles and, according to Artis, can be improved so as to offer protection against more demanding threats including ATGMs and advanced RPGs with tandem warheads, such as the RPG-29V used by some guerrilla groups, notably Hezbollah.
The project was born in 2004 under the aegis of DARPA. In 2013, it was live-tested as part of the US Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) programme and was also integrated onto the MATV and HMMWV for test purposes. IRON CURTAIN has a radar able to detect all threats, including fast moving projectiles and then fires a countermeasure from the upper ring straight down in order to neutralize the incoming RPG just centimetres from a protected vehicle, deflagrating the threat without detonating it. Initially, the radar was supplied by Mustang Technology Group, but in September 2016 it was announced that Israeli company Rada would provide its RPS-10 compact hemisphere S-band pulse-Doppler AESA radar for the system. Its integration with IRON CURTAIN is planned for early 2017. IRON CURTAIN has a hemispheric coverage achieved by either three or four sensors working in parallel, each providing 120° coverage in azimuth and 70° in elevation.
When talking about APS technologies, one must not forget Dynamit Nobel Defence, whose weight-optimised and fragment-free protection technology against the effect of anti-tank handheld weapons and other threats has been developedin recent years and is under series production today.
Other nations have also been developing APS. For instance, the Czech Republic has designed a ‘hard-kill’ system known as EFA (Explosively Formed Axe), which is available in two variants – lighter against targets moving at speeds of up to 600m/s and heavier against fast moving targets up to 1,900m/s. Ukraine has developed the ZASLON ‘hard-kill’ solution. Every protection module is equipped with a millimetre-wave radar and two interceptors. According to its producers, ZASLON’s countermeasures “do not need to be fired in the direction of the incoming threat to disable it, which gives the ZASLON a time advantage for responding to the incoming threat, and also enables it to intercept fast-moving targets”. For example, the ZASLON’s response time is claimed to be 0.001 to 0.005 seconds, as compared to 0.07 seconds for Russia’s ARENA.
Future challenges will require new solutions. Not only is traditional, passive protection no longer enough, but even current active systems might very soon become outdated. Both ATGMs and APFSDS projectiles are placing more and more demand on protection systems and are increasingly lethal for crews. This applies, for example, to the latest 125mm Russian tank shells, which can now penetrate almost 1,000mm of steel from a distance of 2km. Even the best ASP will not be able to sufficiently reduce their penetration capabilities to a safe limit. In addition, engineers must take into account systems such as the RPG-30, in Russian service since 2012, which is designed to seduce the ASP by launching a small diameter decoy projectile before the main round, in order to force the protection system to focus on the former, allowing the latter to hit the armour.