A video has emerged showing an ISIS-fired Russian-made anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) obliterating a US-made M1 Abrams tank illustrating the disturbing degree to which the US’s tanks have fallen behind on the modern battlefield.
The US’s M1 Abrams, first introduced in 1979, has undergone a number of updates to deal with evolving threats on the battlefield, but it has fallen behind in a key area — active protection.
Active Protection Systems (APSs) are subsystems integrated into or installed on a combat vehicle to automatically acquire, track, and respond with hard or soft kill capabilities to a variety of threats, including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). APS technologies are not new, and a number of nations have already employed APS on the battlefield. The U.S. military is now beginning to include APS as part of its formal combat vehicle modernization plans and, if the initial deployment of APS proves successful, could expand the use of APS to potentially thousands of tactical military vehicles—a complex and potentially costly undertaking.
The proliferation of advanced RPGs and ATGMs is of concern to some defense officials and policymakers, including Congress. These weapons—RPGs in particular—have been particularly popular with insurgents because they are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and require little training. Israel’s experiences with RPGs and ATGMs in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War and the 2014 Gaza Conflict and growing concerns with Russian military capabilities and activities in Eastern Europe have possibly served as catalysts for intensifying U.S. APS efforts. Technical and operational challenges to APS include being able to work under extremely demanding circumstances and compressed timelines, robustness against countermeasures, minimizing the threat to friendly forces and civilians, being compatible with the space and power allocated to it on the vehicle, and affordability.
A number of nations have operationally deployed APS on combat vehicles—Russia and Israel most notably—and some experts characterize U.S. efforts as somewhat lagging. U.S. military officials contend there are still a number of developmental and safety challenges that must be overcome before current APS systems are suitable for battlefield deployment. According to the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC), “Active Protection Systems have been in the design and development stages since the early 1950s, but none have successfully made the transition from development to integration on a platform.”
The Army’s and Marines’ current APS efforts are described as technology demonstrations and have not progressed to formal Programs of Record. The Army and Marines are coordinating their respective efforts, although no joint program currently exists. The Army is currently involved in two separate parallel and distinct APS efforts—the Expedited, Non-Developmental Item (NDI) APS effort and the Modular Active Protection System (MAPS) effort. The Marines describe their APS efforts as a “technology demonstration” whereby the Marines would attempt to install a Trophy APS on the M-1A1 tank in coordination with the Army’s Expedited NDI effort. The Marines have a number of unique APS requirements—including the ability to be transported by ship and withstand salt water corrosion—which will also factor into their eventual APS plans.
Potential issues for Congress include whether current NDI APSs are effective and safe enough for operational use, the benefits of MAPS relative to non-developmental efforts, MAPS’ impacts on NDI APS performance and costs, the Army’s and Marines’ detailed plans for APS fielding, and APS adaptability to future threats.