An Israeli-made antimissile tank defense system under serious consideration for use by the IDF was blasted recently by Maj.-Gen. Jeff Sorenson, deputy assistant secretary of the US army for acquisition, logistics and technology. He told US congressmen it was not "operationally ready or safe."
The comments sparked a whirlwind of activity among rival Israeli defense contractors vying for a major contract to supply the IDF with an active-protection system for its tanks and other armored vehicles.
The system in question is the Trophy, developed by the Haifa-based Rafael Armament Development Authority. It is said to be capable of creating a hemispheric protective zone around armored vehicles such as the Merkava tank that counters incoming missiles with radar-guided projectiles.
While Rafael officials said the system would be operational in a "number of months," Sorenson told a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee last week that integrating the system into US Bradley, Abrams and Stryker tanks and combat vehicles would take years.
"The army continues to upgrade and modernize its equipment," Sorenson told the panel. "We will not, however, procure and field any system that is not operationally ready or safe, nor will we give our soldiers a false sense of security."
"The Trophy system," he said, "is not an operationally validated and proven system as proclaimed."
The congressional hearing was convened following an in-depth NBC report that questioned why the US Army had decided to award the $70 million contract to US company Raytheon, whose active-protection system will only be ready in 2010, while Rafael said the Trophy was operational and ready for sale.
Sorenson defended the US Army's decision to go with Raytheon's Quick Kill system.
"Quick Kill is a solution envisioned to defeat the full spectrum of threats," he said. "Quick Kill, with its vertical launch and fire control capabilities, is best suited to support current force active-protection ground combat system requirements."
With the Trophy's capabilities now in question, one company sure to benefit is Israel Military Industries (IMI), whose own tank missile defense system, the Iron Fist, is in the advanced stages of development.
Reportedly capable of neutralizing all antitank threats, including kinetic shells fired by enemy tanks, the Iron Fist is in the final stages of testing, according to IMI CEO Avi Felder, and will be ready for mass production by the end of 2007, only a few months behind Rafael's Trophy.
Developed by IMI's Slavin Division, the Iron Fist consists of a radar and passive-optical system that detects incoming threats and destroys them using a combustible blast interceptor within a fraction of a second, said Eyal Ben-Haim, acting general manager of the Slavin Division.
Unlike the Trophy, which fires a large number of projectiles that risk injuring soldiers and innocent bystanders - a claim made by Sorenson - the Iron Fist intercepts incoming projectiles by using a rocket that destroys them with a blast effect that crushes its soft components or deflects the missile or kinetic rod.
Felder said one of the main advantages of the Iron Fist was its ability to be integrated into routine operations. Its radar provides essential input to tank crews, he said. Unlike competing systems, it can be installed on light as well as heavy vehicles and can be used to protect sensitive installations such as power plants, military posts, ships and aircraft from incoming rockets and missiles, he added.
The Defense Ministry's Tank Program Office, headed by Brig.-Gen. Amir Nir, is scheduled to decide which system to purchase for IDF tanks by the beginning of 2007.
Sources in the Tank Program Office recently told The Jerusalem Post they were leaning toward the Iron Fist, although if the Trophy was ready considerably earlier, it might be chosen instead.
Meanwhile, the General Staff is scheduled to decide how many Merkava tanks and armored personnel carriers they plan to procure for the coming years during a budget workshop. IDF sources said the Merkava project would remain operating for the next decade, although the number of tanks ordered would be reduced.