WASHINGTON - In September, NBC News first reported on a fierce debate within the Pentagon over an Israeli-made system that shoots rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) out of the sky. The Army seems intent on killing the system, but officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense believe it can save American lives.
Over the last three years, U.S. commanders in Iraq have issued a series of urgent pleas for a system to counter RPGs — a favorite weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation (OFT) scoured the world for a solution and thought it found one in "Trophy," which was developed over the last decade in Israel.
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.
OFT subjected Trophy to 30 tests and found it is "more than 98 percent" effective at killing RPGs. Officials then made plans to battle-test the system on some Stryker fighting vehicles headed to Iraq this year.
But the U.S. Army blocked that testing. Why? Pentagon sources tell NBC News — and internal Army documents seem to confirm — that Army officials consider Trophy a threat to their crown jewel, the $160 billion Future Combat System (FCS). Under FCS, the Army is paying Raytheon Co. $70 million to build an RPG-defense system from scratch.
In an interview with NBC News on June 26, 2006, an Army official said Trophy simply is not ready.
"The Army is opposed to deploying a system before we assure that it's safe, effective, suitable and supportable," said Col. Donald Kotchman. "Trophy is not there yet."
In letters to Congress since our first reports, the Army says that the best proof Trophy is not ready is that the "Israeli Defense Forces have yet to integrate and field Trophy."
To check out the Army's claims, we went back to Israel. We found that the Israeli military has indeed begun to integrate and field Trophy on tanks, buying at least 100 systems.
Brig. Gen. Amir Nir leads that effort. We asked him about claims that Trophy has not been sufficiently tested and that it's not ready to be deployed.
"It's the most mature, and it can do the job," he said. "We cannot afford waiting for the next generation."
This fall, after our first reports aired, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson gave Congress a laundry list of reasons the U.S. Army opposes Trophy.
Can Trophy handle attacks from every direction?
"From the standpoint of providing 360-degree coverage, we have issues," Sorenson told the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 21, 2006.
What does Nir say? Will Trophy be able to engage targets from all directions?
"Yeah, 360 degrees," he says.
Can Trophy reload automatically?
"From the standpoint of an autoloader that's not yet developed, we have issues," said Sorenson before Congress.
Sorenson suggested that in the absence of an autoloader, soldiers would have to climb out of the vehicle and manually reload the system, perhaps under hostile fire?
We went to Trophy's manufacturer, Rafael, to see if there is an autoloader.
Col. Didi Ben Yoash, a reservist in the Israeli Defense Forces who works for Rafael, showed us one.
"Absolutely, this is an autoloader," he said.
How does he respond to U.S. Army claims that Trophy doesn't have an autoloader?
"Well, this is an autoloader," he said.
Gen. Nir also confimed to NBC that "the full system provides you the ability to reload automatically."
What’s the risk to troops when Trophy intercepts an RPG?
After our first report on Sept. 5, 2006, the Army told Congress it has "serious concerns over soldier safety."
What is the Israeli army's view of how much additional risk there is to the troops?
"As far as we tested, it added at most 1 percent," says Nir. "Not a significant risk."
In fact, the Israelis argue that Trophy, while not perfect, will provide much-needed protection for troops and save lives — the same conclusion reached by Trophy's backers in the Pentagon. They argue that Trophy should be fielded as an interim solution in response to U.S. commanders requests for help against RPGs. These officials believe that the troops cannot afford to wait while the U.S. Army and Raytheon perfect a longer-term solution.
We wanted to ask the U.S. Army about all this. Sorensen first agreed to an interview, then canceled it. The Army also refused to answer 29 specific questions we submitted.
The Army did give us two statements, one saying, in part: "The U.S. Army is dedicated to ensuring our soldiers deploy with the best force protection capability" and is working on a system to counter RPGs.
When will that system, being built by Raytheon, be ready?
The Army previously told us it could get it to the troops in four years, by 2011, but now declines to say whether it still is on course to meet that deadline.
Later this week on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," Lisa Myers will continue her reporting on the Trophy weapons system. She'll reveal new internal Army documents that suggest the Army went even further than she previously reported to block Pentagon efforts to test Trophy.
I can imagine two reasons why the Army is against deploying Trophy. One is, as suggested, they want to give the business to Raytheon.
But beyond that, I think that there is a bit of hubris in the US Army where they do not want to use weapons not developed in the US, more specifically, where they were not heavily involved in the development. People naturally tend to prefer their own products and the Army doesn't just buy weapons, but it helps design them. This gives the generals a psychological stake in the results; their egos become part of the specs.
The problem is, of course, that it is possible that this egoism is resulting in the unnecessary deaths of US soldiers. The idea of waiting five or more years for a "perfect" system when a usable system is available today is simply immoral.