"Force fields": An operational reality or costly countermeasure?

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  11/22/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   Armour

Active Defence Systems (ADS), Defensive Aid Systems (ADS), HardKill DAS, Active Protection Systems (APS), Advanced Defence Systems (ADS).

By whichever catchphrase you know them, be they large ground-based batteries or mobile systems, counter-rocket and anti-missile technology advancement is gathering apace and is gradually being rolled out for live operations. But how reliable are they? Will they ever be able to identify, target and destroy all incoming threats? What happens if just one missile circumvents the system?

Rafael’s Iron Dome is a mobile ADS solution for countering short range rockets and 155 mm artillery shell threats with ranges of up to 70 km, according to the company website. Iron Dome has an interceptor with a warhead that targets and detonates multiple airborne threats.

Earlier this year Iron Dome was selected by the Israeli Defence Ministry to protect and defend its borders with the acquisition of two batteries, with a third on order. Each battery costs around $50 million (£32 million) and each missile is $40,000 (£26,000).

Reassuringly expensive? Perhaps, if it guaranteed to stop all threats, every time. But does it?

According to Israeli newspaper, the Haaretz, during the first few days of November 30 rockets were fired into Israel’s airspace. Two Iron Dome batteries were deployed to counter the threat. Of the 30 rockets, only 5 were intercepted and destroyed while the remainder hit targets within the state.

According to UPI the Israeli military has conceded that this is not optimal performance, but put it down to there not being enough Iron Dome batteries in the field, rather than any fault with the system itself. “It could take 15-20 Iron Dome batteries to effectively cover the northern and southern border areas anywhere near effectively,” UPI reports.

Active Protection Systems are clearly not infallible and should never be used as the only means of protection in any combat zone – something the armour community may have been concerned about when the technology first filtered through to the market – but that is not to say they aren’t a valuable addition to the armed forces’ arsenal.

Indeed, the Israeli government has already confirmed that it will invest a further $1 billion (£640 million) in Iron Dome, according to Defence Ministry Director General Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, Haaretz reports. This is on top of the $205 million (£131 million) that President Obama has earmarked for Israel to procure more Iron Dome batteries. The US is also looking to buy some batteries of its own to protect its forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Rafael partnered with Raytheon in August to market the product in the US. “Iron Dome complements other Raytheon weapons that provide intercept capabilities to the U.S. Army's Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar initiative at forward operating bases," said Mike Booen, Vice President of Raytheon Missile Systems' Advanced Security and Directed Energy Systems product line. "Iron Dome can be seamlessly integrated with Raytheon's C-RAM systems to complete the layered defence.”

Rafael is not the only company working on these ‘force field’ countermeasures though. Northrop Grumman Corp., ELTA Systems Ltd., Israeli Military Industries, Saab and IBD Deisenroth Engineering are all deep in the R&D stages of their own versions. It’s a little early to know if this will be money well spent but the advantages of such systems are palpable.

We haven’t yet seen any significant uptake of Active Protection Systems for applications on armoured vehicles, but that is one of the key goals for the future. Should an Active Protection System ever replace the armour component of an armoured vehicle? Quite simply no, because you cannot prove that they would work 100% of the time, in all conditions, in any environment, against every threat. However, it would be a reassuring – if not expensive – addition to a vehicle’s system of protection.

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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