HAIFA, Israel – On a dusty, wind-swept field overlooking the Mediterranean, a small team of researchers is putting the final touches on what Israel says is a major game changer in tank defense: a miniature anti-missile system that detects incoming projectiles and shoots them down before they reach the armored vehicles.
If successful, the "Trophy" system could radically alter the balance of power if the country goes to war again against Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon or Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Its performance could also have much wider implications as American troops and their Western allies battle insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think people will be watching the Israelis roll this thing out and see if they can get the hang of it," said John Pike, director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. "The future of the United States army is riding on the proposition that something like this can work."
The Trophy is believed to be the first of a series of so-called "active defense" systems to become operational. Such systems aim to neutralize threats before they strike the tank. In the past, tanks have relied on increasingly thick layers of armor or "reactive" technology that weakens an incoming rocket upon impact by setting off a small explosion.
Israeli weapons maker Rafael, the developer of the Trophy, says the system has been in the works for years, but the bitter experience of Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon gave the project an extra push.
Developers say the Trophy can stop any anti-tank rocket in the formidable Hezbollah arsenal, which struck dozens of Israeli tanks and killed at least 19 Israeli tank crewmen during their monthlong war.
"We can cope with any threat in our neighborhood, and more," said Gil, the Trophy's program manager at Rafael. Citing security considerations, the company would not permit publication of his last name.
Israeli analyst Yiftah Shapir said it is premature to tell whether the Trophy can make a major difference, however. He said the army must cope with the high costs of the system and determine exactly how it will be used.
"When everyone knows that it works properly, it will change the battlefield," he said.
Israeli media have said the cost is about $200,000 per tank. Rafael refused to divulge the price of the system, saying only that it's a "small fraction" of the cost of a tank.
Gil and his small team of scientists conduct tests at a site in the outer reaches of Rafael's sprawling headquarters in northern Israel — firing rocket-propelled grenades, Sager rockets, and TOW and Cornet missiles at a lone tank set up in front of a massive fortified wall. The results are analyzed in a concrete hut loaded with laptops and flat-screen monitors.
The tiny Trophy system, lodged behind small rectangular plates on both sides of the tank, uses radar to detect the incoming projectiles and fires a small charge to intercept them, said Gil.
After firing, the system quickly reloads. The entire process is automated, holds fire if the rocket is going to miss the tank, and causes such a small explosion that the chances of unintentionally hurting friendly soldiers through collateral damage is only 1 percent, the company says.
Pike, the military analyst, said systems like the Trophy are considered the way of the future for ground warfare. The technology is a key component of the U.S. "Future Combat System," the master plan for the American military, he said. The U.S. and Russia are developing similar systems.
If the technology works, he said it will reduce the need for heavy armor on tanks — resulting in lighter vehicles that are easier to transport and deploy and are more nimble on the battlefield. But, he noted, "it's a lot easier to get it to work on a test range than it is to get it to work on a battlefield."
Lova Drori, Rafael's executive vice president for marketing, said "there is a lot of interest" internationally in the Trophy and he expects "quite a few customers" in the coming years.
Rafael officials said the Trophy has passed more than 700 live tests, and already has been installed in some Israeli Merkava 4 tanks in a pilot project.
In a statement, the army said "dozens of tanks should be outfitted with the new system" by the end of the year, adding that Trophy contributes to "maintaining a strategic advantage over enemy forces."
More than three years later, the 2006 war continues to shake Israel's defense establishment. Upward of 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the fighting, according to tallies by the Lebanese government, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press. In all, 159 Israelis were killed. The war ended in a stalemate and is largely viewed in Israel as a defeat.
The Trophy is the latest in a series of new systems. State-owned Israel Military Industries is producing "Iron Fist," an anti-missile defense that is expected to be installed on Israeli armored personnel carriers next year.
That system takes a different approach from Trophy, first using jamming technology that can make the missile veer off course, and if that fails, creating a "shock wave" to blow it up, said Eyal Ben-Haim, vice president of the company's land-system division.
State-run Rafael is also developing "Iron Dome," which can shoot down the short-range Katyusha rockets that rained down on Israel in 2006, as well as Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Iron Dome is expected to be deployed by this summer near Gaza.
The Israeli air force recently unveiled a squadron of unmanned airplanes capable of reaching Iran, the key backer of Hezbollah and Hamas militants.
Rafael has also developed an unmanned naval boat called the Protector, which it says is already prowling the waters off the Gaza coast. The Israeli navy confirmed the Protector is being tested, but gave no further details.