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Army shuns system to combat RPGs

Rocket-propelled grenades have killed nearly 40 Americans in Afghanistan and more than 130 in Iraq. Israel has developed a system that effectively thwarts them, so why isn't it seeing action in the war on terror? NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.

Rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, are a favorite weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are cheap, easy to use and deadly.

RPGs have killed nearly 40 Americans in Afghanistan and more than 130 in Iraq, including 21-year-old Pvt. Dennis Miller.

“They were in Ramadi, and his tank was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade,” says Miller’s mother, Kathy. “Little Denny never knew what hit him.”

Sixteen months ago, commanders in Iraq began asking the Pentagon for a new system to counter RPGs and other anti-tank weapons.

Last year, a special Pentagon unit thought it found a solution in Israel — a high-tech system that shoots RPGs out of the sky. But in a five-month exclusive investigation, NBC News has learned from Pentagon sources that that help for U.S. troops is now in serious jeopardy.

The system is called “Trophy,” and it is designed to fit on top of tanks and other armored vehicles like the Stryker now in use in Iraq.

Trophy works by scanning all directions and automatically detecting when an RPG is launched. The system then fires an interceptor — traveling hundreds of miles a minute — that destroys the RPG safely away from the vehicle.

The Israeli military, which recently lost a number of tanks and troops to RPGs, is rushing to deploy the system.

Trophy is the brainchild of Rafael, Israel’s Armament Development Authority, which has conducted more than 400 tests and found that the system has “well above [a] 90 percent” probability of killing RPGs and even more sophisticated anti-tank weapons, according to reserve Col. Didi Ben Yoash, who helped develop the system. Ben Yoash says he is “fully confident” that Trophy can save American lives.

And officials with the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT) agree. Created in 2001 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, OFT acts as an internal “think tank” for the Pentagon and is supposed to take a more entrepreneurial — and thereby less bureaucratic — approach to weapons procurement and other defense issues, and to get help to troops in the field more quickly. OFT officials subjected Trophy to 30 tests and found that it is “more than 98 percent” effective at killing RPGs.

An official involved with those tests told NBC that Trophy “worked in every case. The only anomaly was that in one test, the Trophy round hit the RPG’s tail instead of its head. But according to our test criteria, the system was 30 for 30.”

As a result, OFT decided to buy several Trophies — which cost $300,000-$400,000 each — for battlefield trials on Strykers in Iraq next year.

That plan immediately ran into a roadblock: Strong opposition from the U.S. Army. Why?  Pentagon sources tell NBC News that the Army brass considers the Israeli system a threat to an Army program to develop an RPG defense system from scratch.

The $70 million contract for that program had been awarded to an Army favorite, Raytheon. Raytheon’s contract constitutes a small but important part of the Army’s massive modernization program called the Future Combat System (FCS), which has been under fire in Congress on account of ballooning costs and what critics say are unorthodox procurement practices.

Col. Donald Kotchman, who heads the Army’s program to develop an RPG defense, acknowledges that Raytheon’s system won’t be ready for fielding until 2011 at the earliest. 

That timeline has Trophy’s supporters in the Pentagon up in arms. As one senior official put it, “We don’t really have a problem if the Army thinks it has a long-term solution with Raytheon.  But what are our troops in the field supposed to do for the next five or six years?”

Kotchman, however, says the Army is doing everything prudent to provide for the protection and safety of U.S. forces and insists the Israeli system is not ready to be deployed by the U.S. “Trophy has not demonstrated its capability to be successfully integrated into a system and continue to perform its wartime mission,” he says.

That claim, however, is disputed by other Pentagon officials as well as internal documents obtained by NBC News. In an e-mail, a senior official writes: “Trophy is a system that is ready — today... We need to get this capability into the hands of our warfighters ASAP because: (1) It will save lives!”

Officials also tell NBC News that according to the Pentagon’s own method of measuring a weapons system’s readiness, Trophy is “between a 7 and an 8” out of a possible score of 9.  Raytheon’s system is said to be a “3.”

So why would the Army block a solution that might help troops?

“There are some in the Army who would be extremely concerned that if the Trophy system worked, then the Army would have no need to go forward with the Raytheon system and the program might be terminated,” says Steven Schooner, who teaches procurement law at both George Washington University and the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s School.

Trophy’s supporters inside the Pentagon are more blunt. As one senior official told NBC News, “This debate has nothing, zero, to do with capability or timeliness. It’s about money and politics. You’ve got a gigantic program [FCS] and contractors with intertwined interests.  Trophy was one of the most successful systems we’ve tested, and yet the Army has ensured that it won’t be part of FCS and is now trying to prevent it from being included on the Strykers” that OFT planned to send to Iraq.

For families of soldiers like Denny Miller, any delay in getting help to the troops is unthinkable.

As Miller’s mother, Kathy, put it, “Do they have children over there? Do they have husbands or wives over there? They need to sit back and look at it maybe from a different angle. I just think it's ridiculous!”

The Pentagon is now trying to interest the Marine Corps in testing Trophy. But because of Army opposition, there are currently no plans to send the system to Iraq.

Wednesday on “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams”: Did the U.S. Army stack the deck to favor Raytheon at the expense of our troops?