WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army late last year was nearly done with required testing to integrate a protection system on its Bradley combat vehicle fleet, but the service still isn’t seeking money to buy the Iron Fist in its next budget.
The Army had encountered technical problems and funding gaps in its effort to field the active protection system on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Brig. Gen. Glenn Dean, the program executive officer for Army ground combat systems, told Defense News in the fall that Iron Fist was nearing completion of the majority of required testing.
According to fiscal 2023 budget justification documents, the Army planned to wrap up testing and integration work by the end of FY22, but the documents provided no further timeline or funding.
“We’re essentially reaching the point where we’re just waiting for resources, whether Army- or congressionally provided, to proceed into procurement,” Dean said.
The Bradley Iron Fist Light Decoupled program, or IF-LD, received additional FY22 congressional funding — a total of $16 million — to continue a second round of testing and the completion of documentation in support of procuring a single brigade’s worth of IF-LD systems.
“No procurement funds have been identified to procure IF-LD systems at this time,” the Army’s Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems confirmed.
An Army spokesperson also told Defense News in a statement that the service “will review the IF-LD test data and look for opportunities in the future to fund this requirement.”
Iron Fist was developed by IMI Systems. Israeli firm Elbit Systems, which bought IMI, partnered with American company General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems to integrate the system to serve as an interim active protection system for the Bradley.
The system is meant to provide the Bradley with protection from rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles and other threats. The Army Requirements Oversight Council in November 2018 opted to field one brigade by the end of the fourth quarter of FY20.
Despite the council’s decision, the Bradley couldn’t supply enough power to the launcher system, and the Iron Fist experienced counter-munitions dudding in testing. Those issues delayed the program by about a year.
In earlier testing, “we had some issues with Iron Fist, mostly maturity issues, and it’s centered around power within the Iron Fist system itself and a problem with the ignition train within the interceptor,” Tim Neaves, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems senior business development director, told Defense News last fall.
Coming out of those tests, Neaves said, the company worked with the Army to find a solution, which included internal investment to continue development and tests. The company has worked on that solution for the last 18 months.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve demonstrated that we have fixed those issues, and we’ve gotten a significant maturity level and performance demonstration within the system,” Neaves said. The system, he explained, was put up against roughly 400 threats including single and dual-warheads, anti-tank guided missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifles.
In 2016, the Army determined it needed an interim active protection system for Abrams tanks, Stryker combat vehicles and Bradley vehicles, and so the service decided to rapidly assess off-the-shelf APS systems to fulfill that urgent need.
The Army has already fielded the Rafael-developed Trophy APS on Abrams tanks. Troops have used those in the European theater for more than a year now.
But the service also ran into problems finding an effective system that would work on the Stryker, and it is yet to decide on a way forward.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., recently cited the effective use of Javelin anti-tank guided missile systems against Russian tanks and armored vehicles in Ukraine. “The broad range of affordable, easy-to-operate ATGMs has certainly changed the calculus of armor on the battlefield,” he said May 5 during an Army posture hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Other countries around the world, some of our allies, have embraced the solution and have been putting it on their armored vehicles in a pretty aggressive way,” Peters said of active protection systems. “The U.S. seems to be somewhat reluctant, with the exception of a small amount of our Abrams tanks that have the systems. Like, the Army doesn’t seem to have a plan to test and field anti-protection systems for the entire fleet of Strykers, for example, or other armored vehicles.”
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth responded that the service is closely watching the war in Ukraine and is “certainly very concerned about threats to our tanks.”
“I think that the protection systems that we have on our Abrams, on our Strykers are quite good,” she said, adding that she’s willing to look into more detail on the Army’s next steps. “There is a balance between how quickly we can modernize some of our enduring platforms, like Stryker, while also modernizing.”
The Army is working on a vehicle protection suite, according to FY23 budget justification documents, that will establish a variety of capabilities through a base kit, or VBK, to “develop configurable vehicle Survivability Sets that will mitigate existing protection gaps, allow for future technology insertion to meet evolving threats, and minimize the impact to the current capabilities hosted on Army ground combat and tactical vehicle platforms.”
The Army held a rodeo with vendors in 2021 for a laser warning capability for the system. It selected Danbury Mission Technologies’ AN/VVR-4 Laser Detecting Set in February. The company was part of Collins Aerospace but was spun-off during the United Technologies Corporation and Raytheon merger.
The laser warning capability is the first of its type to be integrated with the Army’s common interface and controller, which Lockheed Martin is developing after winning a contract in February.
Base kit integration is to take place through FY24 across Bradley, Abrams, Stryker and the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle. A procurement contract award will take place in the second quarter of FY23, according to budget documents.
Survivability improvements will roll into the capability through FY26, with a procurement decision on a way to defend against threats attacking from above — like drones — in the second quarter of FY24, and an integration decision on soft-kill capabilities in the first quarter of FY27, per the documents.
A trade study for the vehicle protection suite is ongoing and is expected to finish mid-FY23, budget documents noted.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.