Experts contradict Pentagon on anti-RPG tests

WASHINGTON — Last September, NBC News first reported on a fierce debate within the Pentagon over Trophy, an Israeli-made weapons system, that literally shoots down rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and even more deadly anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). There were plans to battle-test Trophy in Iraq, but the U.S. Army blocked them and instead hired a favored defense contractor, Raytheon, to build a system from scratch.

Now, a new congressionally-mandated review — obtained exclusively by NBC News — raises serious questions about the Army’s decision and what Army officials have told Congress.

Over the last three years, U.S. commanders in Iraq have issued a series of urgent pleas for a defense against RPGs — a favorite weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Technologies which combat RPGs and ATGMs are technically referred to as Active Protection Systems (APSs).

In the summer of 2005, the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation (OFT), which was created to cut through red tape, asked a team of Army and Navy engineers to analyze six different Active Protection Systems. Their conclusion? Trophy was the "best candidate," the "most technically advanced" and the "most technically mature system." [.PDF link]

Built by Rafael, Israel’s Armament Development Authority, Trophy works by scanning all directions and automatically detecting when an anti-tank weapon is launched. The system then fires an high-speed interceptor that destroys the threat safely away from the vehicle. Trophy has undergone more than 400 tests in Israel against nearly every RPG and ATGM in existence.

In March 2006, Pentagon testers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., put Trophy through its paces and found it remarkably effective at killing RPGs. An official involved with the 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 moved forward with plans to battle-test Trophy — which cost $300,000-$400,000 per system — on several Strykers headed to Iraq in early 2007.

But the U.S. Army scuttled the effort. Why? Pentagon sources tell NBC News — and internal Army documents seem to confirm — that Army officials came to see Trophy as a threat to the Army’s effort to field an RPG defense system as part of the biggest procurement program in Army history, the $200 billion Future Combat System (FCS).

Under FCS, the Army is building a series of complex weapons systems — including an Active Protection System — from scratch instead of taking and improving upon existing technologies. That approach has led to skyrocketing costs and concerns in Congress that the Army is letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

OFT’s plan to battle-test Trophy in Iraq, therefore, hit a sore spot. Why spend years building a ‘perfect’ system as part of FCS, Pentagon and congressional sources wonder, if Trophy — a very capable system in existence today — might do the job, and potentially answer those urgent calls by U.S. commanders in Iraq for help against RPGs?

The Army originally planned to pick an APS based on a live, side-by-side competition — called a “shoot-off rodeo” — scheduled for the summer of 2005. At the time, Trophy and at least one other system were prepared to compete. Raytheon’s system, however, was still on the drawing board and the Army opted to cancel the test citing “concerns related to cost, supportability, practicality and fairness.” Officials opted instead for what they described as a “traditional source selection” — Army speak for picking a weapons system.

But when it comes to FCS, source selection is anything but traditional: the Army essentially pays weapons manufacturers to tell the Army which weapons systems to buy.

Army officials argue such an unusual arrangement is necessary to manage an acquisition program as large and complex as FCS. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other watchdogs worry about the potential for conflicts of interest where defense contractors with systems up for consideration as part of FCS, have decision-making input about which systems are ultimately bought.

There’s also growing concern about the pace at which the Army and its FCS contractors are developing these brave new systems. As the GAO told Congress in March 2007:

"FCS technologies are far less mature at this point in the program than they should be, and they still have a long way to go to reach full maturity. The Army only sees the need to reach a technology readiness level that requires demonstration of capabilities in a relevant environment by 2011. This does not assure that these capabilities will actually perform as needed in a realistic environment, as required by best practices for a sound business case." [.PDF link to full GAO report]

In March 2006, the Army awarded Raytheon a $70 million FCS contract to investigate promising RPG-defense technologies — from all sources, foreign and domestic — and present the Army with a ‘best of breed’ solution that could be fielded both on current combat vehicles, like the Stryker, Abrams and Bradley, as well as the Manned Ground Vehicle, being built as part of the FCS.

As Col. Donald Kotchman, the Army official overseeing the process, told NBC News in a June 26, 2006 interview: “We did not contract with Raytheon for their system. They partnered with a variety of vendors in the development of a solution to meet the requirements that would bring the best of capabilities to the service.”

But that’s not exactly what happened. In May 2006, a technical team was put together and, in the span of three days, evaluated Trophy, Raytheon’s own system — called Quick Kill — as well as five other Active Protection Systems. We asked Kotchman about the team’s composition:

Lisa Myers: Do you know how many of the 21-person technical team worked for Raytheon?

Kotchman: To the best of my knowledge, none.

Army documents obtained by NBC News, however, show that nine of the 21 technical experts — as well as all the administrative personnel — were from Raytheon.

Despite a mandate to present the Army with a solution incorporating the best elements of other systems, the selection team concluded that of the seven APS considered, Raytheon’s own Quick Kill was “the clear winner” and “scored highest in the trade study in all categories except risk.”

Myers: It appears as though Raytheon was allowed to select itself.

Kotchman: I don’t know that to be a fact, and so I really can't comment on it.

The Army later told NBC News that, its own document notwithstanding, the technical team actually consisted of 30 people plus two administrative assistants and that a total of eight people were from Raytheon.

“That sure doesn't look like an objective panel to me,” says Phil Coyle, a former principal adviser to the secretary of defense on weapons testing and evaluation who is now a senior advisor with the Center for Defense Information. “It just doesn't pass the ho-ho test when you have that many people from one company on the selection panel and then that company is the one that's chosen.”

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, a top Army acquisition official, told Congress that the selection process was free from taint and that Raytheon’s Quick Kill was selected over Trophy because it was “deemed to be less power, less weight, less volume, [and] provide the 360-degree hemispherical capability.”

In other words, Sorenson said Raytheon’s system would fit inside a Stryker without drawing too much power and could handle so-called top-attack threats — where the enemy shoots nearly straight down onto the vehicle.

Although Kotchman told NBC News that Quick Kill wouldn’t be ready for fielding until 2011 at the earliest, Sorenson later testified that Raytheon’s system would be ready to “hang on a vehicle in about 2008” and that the Army was already beginning to do integration work to put the system on the Stryker.

By contrast, he said, Trophy was too big for the Stryker, drew too much power and couldn’t handle top-attack. '“Our testers said, at best, even with Trophy system, at best, today if we had the system, and get it integrated, to get it tested, and then ultimately get fielded, we're looking at 2008 at best.”

The clear implication, say congressional sources, was that Raytheon’s system was easier to integrate onto a Stryker and that the system could be fielded — and out protecting U.S. forces — at least as fast as Trophy and with less hassle.

After a series of reports by NBC News raised questions about the Army's efforts to scuttle Trophy and the propriety of the Raytheon selection, Congress passed a law ordering the Secretary of Defense to assemble an “independent” panel to do what the FCS technical team was supposed to have done in May 2006; namely, conduct a comparative analysis and assessment of foreign and domestic APS.

The new panel was supposed to pay particular attention to the “feasibility, military utility,  cost, and potential short-term and long-term development and deployment schedule” of the systems considered.

To carry out this work, the Office of the Secretary of Defense picked the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a respected federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) which the Pentagon frequently calls upon for scientific and technical expertise.

Over the course of four months, IDA analyzed classified and unclassified data on 15 different APS, including Trophy and Quick Kill. The team also met with the U.S. Army as well as the Navy, Marine Corps, Office of Force Transformation (OFT), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), elements of the Intelligence Community (IC), and the government of Israel.

Their mandate, as set forth by Congress, was to find the most promising short- and long-term solutions to the scourge of PRGs and ATGMs.

IDA’s draft report, obtained exclusively by NBC News, found Trophy "the most mature" APS, one "with significant demonstrated capabilities against several types of threats."

“They rated Trophy the farthest along, the top system of the 15 that they looked at,” said Phil Coyle, the longtime Pentagon tester, who reviewed the IDA report for NBC News.

By contrast, IDA found Raytheon’s Quick Kill to be relatively immature and fraught with significant development risks. Important components like the radar, which is supposed to track and identify incoming threats, are not yet fully developed and testing of the system as a whole is on hold while the warhead — needed to intercept and destroy threats — is redesigned.

Congressional and Pentagon sources tell NBC News that the new report raises serious questions about the Army’s decision to go with Raytheon, the Army’s decision to block Trophy as a potential stopgap solution, and the truthfulness of statements Army officials have made to Congress.

IDA employed so-called Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) to measure the maturity of technologies. Originally developed by NASA, TRLs have been adapted and codified in Defense Department regulations. In short, TRLs rank technologies on a scale of 1-9:

  • 1. Basic principles observed and reported
  • 2. Technology concept and/or application formulated
  • 3. Proof of concept has been demonstrated, but not necessarily with the hardware intended for fielding.
  • 4. Components have been validated in a laboratory environment
  • 5. Component have been validated in a relevant environment
  • 6. A system or subsystem model has been demonstrated in a relevant environment
  • 7. System prototype demonstration in an operational environment
  • 8. Actual system completed and qualified through test and demonstration
  • 9. Actual system proven through successful mission operations.

Trophy was found to be “in an advanced state of development” with a TRL of 7-8. Meanwhile Raytheon’s Quick Kill was judged a 3 for threshold capabilities (RPGs, ATGMs).

While Maj. Gen. Sorenson told Congress that Raytheon’s system would be ready at about the same time as Trophy, the IDA report estimates it will take Raytheon some five years to catch up to Trophy. Quick Kill, according to the report, won’t achieve a TRL of 8 until “2012 at the earliest.”

Said one top congressional source, “It’s hard to imagine what Sorenson plans to hang on a vehicle next year [2008].”

As to the Army’s claim that Quick Kill can more easily be integrated onto a Stryker than Trophy, IDA concluded that “integration has not yet been demonstrated and may not be feasible because of space and power issues.” What’s more, Quick Kill, as currently designed, will not be able to defend against top-attack threats.

Thus, the new report found, Raytheon's Quick Kill does not appear to meet the space, power and top-attack criteria which the Army says it used to select Quick Kill over Trophy.

According to Phil Coyle: “From the Army's point of view, the most damaging thing is that senior military officers testified before Congress to facts that are at variance with this report.”

IDA’s experts concluded that while development of Quick Kill ought to continue, an “independent” technology readiness assessment should be done. IDA also suggested the Army “develop a fall-back plan with clear decision criteria in case Quick Kill fails to achieve desired technology or performance levels in time.”

As for Trophy, IDA recommended that U.S. evaluations of Trophy and integration onto a Stryker vehicle be continued and that officials “monitor all continuing Trophy developments to maintain an option for possible future adoption on U.S. vehicles.” In the meantime, IDA suggested that Trophy could be used by the Army and Marine Corps to develop technical, operational, and live-fire standards and procedures and rules of engagement.

In a statement to NBC News, the Army insists that it is “an open and transparent institution that continually learns and adapts from new perspectives; we of course welcome fresh and independent analyses.” It goes on to say that the Army still believes its Active Protection System (Raytheon’s Quick Kill) “will best protect Soldiers against current and rapidly emerging threats.”