Steel and aluminum armor plate supply represents a sizable niche market in the US, dominated by a few distributors and producers with the knowledge, inventory and credentials to meet the demanding standards required for this critical application. With major campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military and supply base have certainly gone through a learning curve over the last ten years, particularly around improvised explosive devices (IED’s) as a major source of casualties. In previous decades, the main threat to heavy armor involved the anti- tank missile or its cheaper brother, the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). An article by the Economist on the subject explains that even as far back as the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, the arrival of the simple Soviet made anti-tank missiles, the “sagger RPG and highly portable could fire from 3kms (1.9 miles) allowing the user near impunity, undermining the tank’s dominance on the battle field. Out of a total of 2120 tanks, the Israelis lost 840 in the 20-day war and the RPG took over from the tank as master of the battlefield. Arguably the cavalry on the back foot ever since, and increased use of IED’s have merely added to the challenge as the front line has dissolved in modern wars to become anywhere within a country under occupation.
In simple terms, the problem for armor plate centers around one fact – that missile warhead technology has moved faster than the capability of plate to withstand armor piercing rounds. Even the thirty-year old RPG round employed (usually) a copper spike forced through the armor milliseconds after impact that little short of a modern tank can withstand. One technology deployed since the 1980’s comprises “bricks of sandwich steel/explosive/steel across the surface of the vehicle. On impact, the explosive detonates under compression making the outer plate bulge and shatter the incoming spike, reducing its effectiveness. Collateral fragmentation damage from the outer plate though makes this system almost more dangerous for supporting infantry than the original risk to the vehicle occupants.
Clearly once a brick detonates, that area becomes more vulnerable to a second strike. Missiles with tandem charges, the second positioned at the rear of the missile and detonating just 500 milliseconds after the first, can still penetrate the vehicle. Defense contractors, in turn, have developed rubbery non explosive armor that can maintain a degree of protection against a second or tandem strike. Alternatively, cage armor in the form of a strong fabric-like material can provoke the detonation a few inches away from the surface reducing the warheads effect.
Maybe we will never see the day when armor becomes redundant. However, the technology behind the star wars solution blocking incoming fire has already arrived. A technology called Iron Curtain that uses radar and optical sensors to track incoming warheads and then intercepts them with a projectile, currently under fine tuning for American forces probably holds the most hope of slowing the demand for ever stronger (and heavier) armor. An Israeli system called Trophy has already successfully defended a tank this year against an RPG attack in the Gaza Strip. Although these “active-Protection systems don’t defend against mines or IED’s they could (due to their relative light weight) free up APC’s and armored reconnaissance vehicles to transfer more of their heavy armor to the underside. Modern military vehicles in an attempt to simultaneously protect against upper surface strikes from anti tank and RPG missiles and lower surface strikes from mines or IED’s have become so heavy they lose maneuverability and flexibility.
Indeed rather than fear these new technologies could replace armor, they could greatly prolong the use of human occupied fighting vehicles and hence the demand for armor full stop. The armor plate market will likely remain a profitable niche for years to come.