In a first for international media, Major Sapir of the Israeli Defence Force has spoken about what is was like to be inside a Merkava Mark 4 tank fitted with the Trophy defence system during the 2014 conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Katherine Ziesing | Israel
A Hamas ‘success’ video shows a Merkava tank taking a ‘direct hit’ but in fact the explosion seen is the Trophy countermeasure taking out the Kornet missile. In spite of the fact that successful defeats of Trophy accrued in battles around the Gaza strip since early 2011, this was the first public evidence of Trophy's defeat capabilities to what is known to be the most advanced Russian anti-tank guided missile (ATGM).
Major Sapir, the tank company commander at the time, spoke to ADM about the incident and what the Trophy system has meant for tank operations in the IDF.
Major Sapir has been involved in tank operations for well over a decade now and has watched the volution of the Trophy system from testing through to deployment under various postings.
"Honestly, I’ve only ever served in Trophy-fitted tanks and I wouldn’t want to not be in one."
In essence Trophy is made up of four phased array radars (one on each corner of the tank), a countermeasure and dispenser and is plugged into the battle management system (BMS)of the tank. When a threat is detected, the system deploys without the crew having to take action by firing a countermeasure to take out the rocket or missile. The whole process happens in seconds with the countermeasure defeating the incoming projectile at the optimal time to minimise collateral damage coupled with an alarm and shooter location designation to the crew.
“You don’t have to worry [about anti-tank weapons] with Trophy,” MAJ Sapir explained to ADM. “The system is so fast you don’t even know it’s gone off. And it will help you not just bring down the threat but also tell you where it was fired from.”
Indeed, MAJ Sapir as tank commander has operated with his head out of the hatch right next to the countermeasure launcher. All he felt was a ‘hot flash’ on his face, much like the main gun going off. It wasn’t until his crew told him what had happened that he realised that Trophy had deployed rather than the main armament.
Major Sapir explained how Trophy would find the anti-tank threat launch site based on various sensor feeds into the BMS and then the main gun can ‘slew to cue’ based on that information by a click of a button. This means that the radars are also able to patch in situational awareness to the wider BMS architecture, providing another level of sophistication to tank operations. In fact, every platform that is connected to the BMS could engage any aggressor that was detected by any Trophy system. Trophy can then provide a firing solution based on its sensor feed, which the crews can then choose to act on or not.
Major Sapir recounted a situation during Operation Protective Edge (the IDF terminology for the 2014 conflict) where a tank was parked outside of a building with two more tanks around the corner while tank commanders met inside to discuss strategy going forward.
“We were inside the Gaza Strip, doing a brief inside a Palestinian house with some infantry,” MAJ Sapir said. “Suddenly we heard a big bang. At first, we didn’t understand what had happened. A tank commander radioed in and told us that he saw a missile fly above his head and the Trophy system on the tank next to him took it out between the two tanks, about 15 metres from him.
“The rocket had come from a building about 300 metres away, which the tank commander had seen. We were then able to fire back directly. There was even a crew member on top of the tank when Trophy went off and when we returned fire.”
Trophy is not designed to act as a protective shield for accompanying infantry but the system can clearly be used that way.
“Honestly, I don’t know how Trophy works exactly,” MAJ Sapir admitted. “I’m just glad it does. Every time Hamas fired on a Trophy tank, they failed. Tanks aren’t good targets anymore.”
Fast forward to 2016 and there are now IDF soldiers that have only ever served on Trophy-fitted tanks. Visiting Vampire Company (52 company), part of the 401st Armoured Brigade, at a post near the Lebanese border, Sergeant Ben-David updated ADM on how the system is seen in the IDF.
“Honestly, I’ve only ever served in Trophy-fitted tanks and I wouldn’t want to not be in one,” SGT Ben-David said.
Like many bases in high-tension areas, there was a sense of hurry up and wait amongst the men and women stationed there. This is of course the perfect time to train and sustain to maintain the high readiness of the company. SGT Ben-David is in charge of the training element of the tank company. Much of the Trophy maintenance is superficial at the operational base level; basic cleaning and keeping an eye of the self-diagnostic system. TTPs are practiced by the crews in the tanks by switching the system to practice mode to allow for drills and simulations.
In practice mode, tank crews will experience identical actions as if they were under a real attack: in a certain position defined by training instructor, an alarm will be heard in intercom and exact aggressor position identified by an icon on the BMS screen. A Trophy generated target will receive the highest priority and crews will immediately aim weapon system at the aggressor.
The system allows the company to ‘always be ready for the mission’ because ‘when it happens, it happens fast’ SGT Ben-David said.
“In terms of infantry support, they have to be cautious of the system as its pretty loud,” according to SGT Ben-David when asked about the safety of ground troops operating near Trophy tanks. The system and Rafael, its producer undertook four years of safety certification process as directed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the IDF to make sure that it met a stringent level of safety for both the tank crews and surrounding troops.
For more on the technical aspects of the Trophy system and how the technology could fit into an Australian context, see the September edition of ADM with a special feature on Land Forces.
Note: The writer travelled to Israel as a guest of Rafael. She would like to thank the men and women of the IDF who shared their time and experiences as well as the Rafael team. This article first appeared in the August 2016 edition of ADM.