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Future wars will be fought in cities and megacities. These complex battle grounds absorb combat power like a sponge absorbs water. Military strategists from Sun Tzu to the current day have warned commanders to avoid urban combat whenever possible. Today’s megacities are the focus of political, economic, military and human power. In 2019, nearly 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 2050, the UN projects that 68% of all humans will live in cities.

In the wars to come, it will be nearly impossible to avoid the concrete and steel battlefield of urban combat. Modern cities are often composed of buildings that are 20-70 stories tall. Fighting to take a vigorously defended modern city will require a tremendous investment of combat power and will most likely result in heavy casualties to both friend and foe alike. Sieges may become the preferred tactic, but in every fight, military forces must think carefully about how to improve the survivability of their forces in urban combat.
Urban terrain poses challenges to military operations, diluting the range, precision, sensing, communication and protection advantage of modern military forces. Successful military operations in cities require a well-trained and properly equipped combined arms team. There are no easy, high-tech, bloodless solutions to this kind of battle. In addition, anyone who has studied urban combat knows that the central element of any combined arms team is the main battle tank (MBT). Tanks, therefore, are vital to winning in urban combat. Tanks provide mobile precision, high-calibre, highly destructive firepower, command and control, networking and co-operative engagement capabilities – a term that is becoming known as mobile striking power. Only tanks can provide this mobile striking power and manoeuvre over and through the ruined city-scape in urban warfare while protecting their crews. MBTs today, however, are optimised for open terrain, long-range combat and not the close-in battle of the urban canyon. An urban canyon is a place where the street is flanked by tall, concrete and steel buildings on both sides, creating a man-made canyon-like environment. In this terrain, tanks and armoured infantry fighting vehicles are easy prey for short-range attacks from rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

Although the traditional method of increasing the survivability of armoured vehicles is to add more armour, the weight of the current generation of main battle tanks is now so heavy that adding additional armour is no longer practical. Other means of enhancing armoured vehicle survival involve active and passive protection against attacks. Recent technological advancements are now addressing some of the limitations of armour survivability in the steel of concrete canyons of modern cities. Let us look at some recent technical developments in active protection systems and reactive armour that can improve the survivability of armoured vehicles in city fights.

Active Protection Systems

Active protection systems (APS) are designed to automatically acquire, track, and respond with hard or soft kill capabilities to incoming threats. APS technologies have been employed for decades on some armoured vehicles and have recently been deployed and proven on battlefields in Iraq, Syria and Israel. There are two general categories of APS: ‘hard-kill’ and ‘soft-kill’.

‘Hard-Kill’ APS

A hard-kill APS detects, engages and destroys or neutralises an incoming threat by firing some type of projectile before the threat can strike a protected vehicle. There are many hard-kill APS systems. The best APS defeat laterally fired RPGs, ATGMs and tank projectiles. Only a few of the hard-kill APs, which are currently deployed, will defeat top-attack munitions, and this is an important discriminator. The most prominent hard-kill systems are TROPHY, IRON FIST, the Active Defence System (ADS), ARENA and AFGHANIT.

  • TROPHY is an APS that is produced by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems. Rafael produces the IRON DOME system that is battle proven in defending Israeli cities from rocket and missile strikes. The Trophy APS is the second operational system ever deployed (the first was the Russian DROZD APS developed in the 1980s) and is battle-tested. TROPHY is comprised of three elements: an advanced detection system using a EL/M-2133 four-faced distributed active electronically scanned array Pulse Doppler radar, a sophisticated tracking system and automated hard-kill countermeasures. The automated hard-kill countermeasure consists of two containers that fire explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) to explode near the incoming warhead to deflect it from the intended target. With two containers mounted on the M1A2 SEPv3 MBT, and each container holding two sets of countermeasures, TROPHY can stop four incoming attacks. According to Rafael, this provides the vehicle with ‘360-degree protection in azimuth, as well as extensive high elevation coverage’. Upon an attack, trophy alerts the crew with an instant indication to identify the source of hostile fire. It operates on the move, protects the vehicle against both long and short-range RPG, ATGM and tank High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds. It can also defeat multiple attacks from several directions. TROPHY is operational on many of Israel’s MERKAVA Mark-IV MBT and is being installed on four brigades of US M1A2 SEPv3 MBTs. TROPHY has a proven capability to fully operate with other radio frequency (RF) systems in a close proximity, which helps to limit interference from other APSs operating in multiple vehicle formations. TROPHY cannot stop kinetic energy (KE) tank or artillery rounds. In addition, a pre-defined safety zone for friendly troops on the ground should be set to preclude casualties from friendly APS fire.
  • IRON FIST is an APS designed by Israel Military Industries (IMI) for light 4×4 vehicles, to medium and heavy armoured vehicles. The Iron Fist uses a multi-sensor early warning system, consisting of infrared and radar sensors, to detect the threat and activate multi-layered defences, comprising electro-optical jammers, instantaneous smoke screens and, when necessary, automatically fire an explosive projectile interceptor to defeat an incoming RPG or ATGM. The Iron Fist effectively protects against the full spectrum of Anti-Tank (AT) threats, including AT Rockets fired at short range, in open area or urban environments, AT Guided Missiles and tank launched High Explosive AT rounds. IMI also claims that IRON FIST can stop KE rounds. The Israeli Defence Forces have installed IRON FIST on the NAMER armoured personnel carrier. In May 2019, the US Army and UK Ministry of Defence announced plans to test a version of the IRON FIST (designated as IRON FIST Light Decoupled [IF-LD]) active protection system (APS). “These items will be installed on BRADLEY Fighting Vehicles (IFV) for testing and as needed to meet the demands of the European Deterrence Initiative,” the US Army stated at the time.
  • Active Defence System (ADS) is an APS designed by Germany’s Rheinmetall Defence. ADS is one of the fastest and lightest APS and uses ‘directed energy’ to destroy incoming projectiles. This is not ‘directed energy’ in the form of a laser. The Rheinmetall ‘directed energy’ system is a closely guarded secret, but it seems to be a system where a tungsten powder or other metal powder is fired in a jet-stream-like counterstrike against the incoming threat. Rheinmetall states that the ADS “is based on the hard-kill principle, in which incoming projectiles are detected and instantly – for example within microseconds – destroyed by ‘directed energy’ immediately before reaching their target. It is the only high-performance close-in defence system which minimises collateral damage in the vicinity of the vehicle.” Rheinmetall declares that this APS is a critical capability for urban combat where engagement ranges are close and every sharp corner could hold an ATGM ambush. ADS is the only known system that, according to Rheinmetall, “can defeat any threat which is launched from closer to 10-15 metres. This is achieved by a Micro-Second System which works with ultra-short System Reaction Time (SRT).” The system consists of a central computing unit, countermeasure boxes, pre-warner sensors, and electro-optical sensors. In addition, ADS lowers collateral damage by destroying the threat projectile ‘fragment free,’ except for the fragments caused by the explosion or deflection of the incoming projectile. The system defeats improvised explosive devices (IEDs), RPGs, ATGMs or KE projectiles. ADS can be coupled with Rheinmetall’s ROSY smoke/obscurant protection system to render ground vehicles nearly invisible in the event of an attack.
  • ARENA is a Russian APS developed in 1993 by the Kolomna, Moscow region-based Engineering Design Bureau. ARENA uses a multi-function Doppler radar system to detect, track an engage an incoming RPGs and ATGMs by firing rockets that detonate in proximity of the incoming missile and destroy the threat within about 50 meters of the protected vehicle. It has greater than 22 protection rounds, has entirely automatic (crew-unattended) operation, is all-weather capable and can work on the move and during turret rotation. Arena is mounted primarily on the T-90, T-80U and T-72 MBTs, and BMP-3 IFVs.
  • AFGHANIT is an APS produced by the Russian Instrument Design Bureau (KBP) based in Tula, Russia, about 173 kilometres south of Moscow. The Russian news agency Izvestia claims that Afghanit is capable of intercepting both tandem ATGM warheads and tank fired depleted uranium Armored Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) projectiles. Afghanit uses millimetre wave radar to detect, track and engage incoming projectiles. The Afghanit APS is mounted on the new Russian T-14 Armata MBT and T-15 Heavy IFV and is planned for the T-90M MBT. However, Afghanit does not protect the vehicle from top-attack munitions.

Soft-Kill APS

A soft-kill APS uses electronic countermeasures and other means to protect the vehicle. The defeat mechanism usually involves several soft-kill effects such as the automatic employment of multi-spectral smoke and the automatic jamming of the electro-optical/infrared (OE/IR) signal of any incoming threat. The best-known soft kill systems are the Russian SHTORA and BAE’s RAVEN system.

  • SHTORA is a soft kill system developed by Russia in the late 1980s. SHTORA employs an electro-magnetic jammer to disrupt the laser designators and laser rangefinders of incoming Semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) ATGMs and guided munitions. SHTORA is mounted on the Russian T-90 and T-80 MBTs and on the BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicle. You can identify the SHTORA dazzlers as the ‘eyes’ on the left and right side of the T-90 turret. These dazzlers fire a beam of intense directed radiation toward the target to blind the attackers’ sights. When SHTORA senses an attack, the dazzlers emit, grenade launchers discharge smoke grenades, and an automatic alarm is sounded to the vehicle crew. The two dazzlers continue to emit infrared jamming until the attacking ATGM is neutralised. SHTORA can operate continuously for up to six hours.
  • RAVEN Multi-Function Counter-Measures (MFCM) is a soft kill jamming system developed by BAE. The RAVEN is an example of aircraft technology applied to ground combat vehicles. Essentially an electronic jammer, Raven broadcasts a wide spectrum burst of electromagnetic energy to disrupt the incoming missiles targeting signal. In 2019, US Army decided to mount RAVEN on the M2 BRADLEY IFVs that were upgraded with the IRON FIST APS.

Reactive Armour Systems

Reactive armour creates greater protection by adding additional armour that reacts to an attack in some fashion to minimise the damage from the impact of an RPG, ATGM, or tank launched HEAT or APFSDS round. Reactive armour can be explosive and non-explosive. Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) is the most common form of reactive armour. ERA is composed of explosive tiles that are placed on the armoured vehicle and generate a counter-explosion when penetrated. This counter-explosion disrupts the attacking projectile, either by diffusing the chemical warhead effects of an RPG, ATGM, round or by deflecting the path of a KE penetrator. The Russians have used ERA on their armoured vehicles since the 1950s. The US started using ERA in 2006 during the Iraq War on the M1A2 TUSK URBAN MBTs and are now installing ERA on the M1A2 SEPv3 MBT and M2 BRADLEY IFVs. European armies also have various forms of reactive armour. New and non-explosive reactive armours, such as electric reactive armour are under development but have not yet been fielded. Two of the most common ERA-type systems are the American XM-19 and Russian KONTAKT-5 and RELIKT ERA.

  • XM-19 Abrams Reactive Armour Tile (ARAT) system, designed by Ensign-Bickford Aerospace and Defence, has recently been installed on US M1A2 SEPv2 MBTs that are operating in Europe. The XM-19 tiles cannot be set off by small arms fire and require a 23mm calibre shell or higher to detonate. In the past decade, during the fighting in Iraq, XM-19 was battle tested and saved lives when M1 ABRAMS MBTs were struck by enemy IEDs, RPGs and ATGMs.
  • KONTAKT-5 is a Russian integrated ERA system that is currently available for all Russian MBTs. Developed by NII Stali (Research Institute of Steel), the leading Russian developer of applique protection packages, KONTAKT-5 can defeat HEAT and APFSDS rounds. According to NII Stali: “The system reduces armour piercing capabilities of ATGM by 60 per cent, of RPG by 90 per cent and of kinetic energy AT ammunition (APFSDS) by 20 per cent.The key component of the system is the 4S22 ERA panel.”
  • RELIKT ERA is a multi-purpose ERA system and the most modern in the Russian Army. RELIKT uses new ERA tiles of armour plates that detonate in opposite directions to protect T-72, T-80, T-90 MBTs. NII Stali reports that RELIKT will break the penetrator of KE rounds and protect Russian tanks against all available and future KE and HEAT threats, including tandem HEAT warheads. It also works against low and high velocity missiles. NII Stali claims that RELIKT ERA will defeat the M1A2 ABRAMS’ M829A3 Depleted Uranium APFSDS, with a segmented penetrator designed to counter the KONTACT-5 ERA.

The heavily populated, highly urbanised urban canyon is the battlefield of the future. As General Mark Milley, then Chief of Staff of the US Army and the future Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said: “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. We need to man, organise, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organised like that right now.” If the US Army is not prepared for urban combat, NATO is even less ready. It is time to face the possibilities and prepare.

There will never be enough infantry to take or defend a modern major city, and even if there were, the casualties would most likely be so high as to be prohibitive. Winning the urban fight will require capable combined arms units, centred upon tanks, IFVs and armoured vehicles. These vehicles will provide protection, firepower, mobility and more. Creating those units will require armoured vehicles that can survive because they are enveloped in layers of integrated active and passive protection systems. Soft Kill APS should provide the first line of defence, since a soft kill system is less likely to run out of ammunition. The second line of defence is the hard-kill APS, with a limited number of shots, followed by reactive armour systems, and then, ultimately, the strength of the vehicle’s primary steel. Upgrading sufficient armoured vehicles now could boost deterrence, provide confidence to the crews, and will provide a means for realistic training. Most importantly, generating the foresight, willpower and resources to provide this type of layered defence today may determine the outcome of the high-intensity battles in the urban canyons of tomorrow.

John Antal is an expert on military affairs. He has published 14 books on military and leadership subjects and over 500 articles in military professional journals. He served 30 years as a soldier in the US Army, retiring as a Colonel, having commanded combat arms units from platoon to brigade.