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Israel's military avatar: Robots on the battlefield

Published: December 30, 2009
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Source: Haaretz

With self-detonating grenades, thinking bullets and robot warriors, humans on the frontline could soon be a thing of the past.

When armies clash in the not-too-distant future, remotely-operated robotic weapons will fight the enemy on land, in the air and at sea, without a human soldier anywhere on the battlefield.

The first robotic systems are already being used by the Israel Defense Forces and other armies across the world, and only budgetary constraints seem to be keeping science fiction from becoming reality.

In places where there is no choice but to send in troops, constantly improving broadband technologies, developed from the civilian communications industry, will serve as an essential part of the infrastructure for all modern military forces.

A helicopter that spots suspicious movement on the ground will, for instance, be able to relay a command to a drone aircraft to photograph the site and transmit the picture in real time to troops on the ground and to the command posts in the rear.

Soldiers will be able to mark their target by its coordinates and with lasers, allowing missiles launched from dozens of kilometers away to be guided by global positioning systems, ensuring accuracy and destruction of the target.

The systems will be coded to prevent enemy interception of the operation. Spy satellites that today weigh several tons will be shrunk down to anything between one and 100 kilograms or less, with engines the size of postage stamps. Infantry rifles will be computerized and fire "smart" rounds telling them when and where to explode. New rockets will also be able to think by themselves to enhance their accuracy.

Israel's military industries, already world leaders in arms technology, are hard at work developing weaponry for the 2020s. Development of new weapons for the IDF is generally carried out with assistance and in cooordination with the Defense Ministry?s research and development arm.

The Israeli military's demands are the cornerstone of the local weapons industry, and they can be summed up in two words: miniaturization and accuracy. The former will enable the troops in the field to carry their weapons or communications equipment more easily, and the latter will help avoid civilian casualties.

Military censorship prevents disclosure of the Israeli arms industries? most exciting and futuristic devices, but a good picture of what can be expected can be compiled using what is already in the public domain.

Pin-point accuracy

"The Protector, which we are already marketing, is a vessel that sails all over in all kinds of places without a living soul on board," says Roni Postman, vice president for R&D at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. "It can get close up to a terrorists' boat, address it through a loudspeaker, and open fire at it. In the past, a thing like this required a boat with seven or eight crewmen who were in constant danger. This type of remote control is one of the clearest characteristics of the future battlefield. It will be a battlefield devoid of troops, with vehicles doing what soldiers have done until now."

Unmanned boats, land vehicles and aircraft will be either controlled remotely or will function autonomously, pre-programmed to carry out a mission from start to finish, such as reaching an enemy bunker, transmitting a photograph back to a command post, launching a projectile at it, and returning, or blowing itself up to destroy the target and the people inside it.

Another characteristic of weapons now undergoing development is pin-point accuracy for urban warfare, especially in a world that has become less accepting of "collateral damage."

"Whereas up to a decade ago, planes would drop bombs that destroy everything within a 20 or 30-meter radius without any restraints in order to hit a certain target, that's all over today," Postman says. "We are working on capabilities that will make it possible to place a missile launched 70 kilometers away through a specific window of a certain house. It is also a question of costs. Armies will pay a lot for a missile only if they are sure that it will hit the target head-on."

On top of these requirements, the weapons of the future will also be more efficient in terms of the ordnance delivered to the target. No longer will the same bomb or missile be used to deal with a man on a bike and a three-story building.

Forces will be equipped with what they need to deal with certain objectives and not simply with "the lowest common denominator," says Postman.

On the other hand, Rafael is also developing cross-platform systems for armies looking to cut down on costs. For example, one goal is a missile that can be fired from a helicopter, a fixed-wing plane, a boat, or a land vehicle and that can destroy tanks and above-ground structures and bunkers.

"The miniaturization trend that has taken hold of the civilian market enables the introduction into military systems of things we couldn't even dream of before, because of their size, weight and volume," says Postman. "This is a worldwide tendency and future battlefields will be full of weapons and other items that are much smaller than they have been until now. For example, something that is today a square meter will be reduced to five square centimeters. This is especially useful in unmanned air vehicles, whose weight-carrying capacity is limited by the size of their engines, the amount of fuel they must carry and the altitudes they have to attain. Every gram counts. If they are loaded down with heavy systems, they won't be able to carry out their missions."

Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, has developed the Mosquito, a UAV with a 40-centimeter wingspan and a silent engine, that can be launched from the shoulder of a single soldier. Even this device may be shrunken down, if the military so requires.

Micro-satellites and nanotechnology

The future battlefield will also include outer space. GPS-based technology fed by satellites are already becoming a fundamental element in future military systems. Moreover, the ability to equip satellites with IAI-produced radar that sees through clouds will enable every field commander to obtain, in daylight and at night and in any weather conditions, a picture of his target.

Moreover, space-based weapons, or satellites, will also serve as a component in projects for the destruction of long-range missiles from distant enemies facing Israel, such as Iran. And when satellites become a critical means in military operations, defending them becomes just as critical, making space wars a realistic development.

Israel is one of seven members of the club of countries that have proved their independent ability to put satellites into orbit, alongside the United States, Russia, India, China, Japan and Western Europe - which has a unified space program based on French capabilities. Iran has recently also demonstrated a preliminary capability to launch satellites.

Israel's satellites are all manufactured by IAI, and include optical observation and radar platforms as well as communications satellites. IAI engineers are working on technologies for future satellites, ranging from construction materials to advanced designs that will enable, for example, the deployment of antennae with a radius of dozens of meters in space.

Such antennae could lead to a revolution in advanced satellite communications.

At the same time, IAI is working on developing integrated systems of up to 10 smaller satellites that will upgrade inter-satellite communications and the data picked up by land stations.

"Within this group, technology-wise, we are second only to the United States, and in certain niches we are even number one, especially in mini-observation satellites," says Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, referring to an observation satellite developed by IAI and Rafael, which also serves espionage purposes and weighs 300 kilograms. The American counterpart weighs three or four tons.

The need to reduce the size of the satellite sprang from the fact that unlike other countries which launch their orbiters eastward and can therefore take advantage of the speed of the earth's spin, Israel launches westward for regional security reasons, against the direction of the earth's rotation. As a result, the Israeli launches lose a great deal of energy.

The solution was to reduce the size of the satellite and all of its component parts, its engine and photographic instruments.

"Our miniaturization capability comes from the security requirements," says Ben-Israel. "It was strengthened after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, because ironically it was then that we found ourselves unable to send planes on aerial photography missions into Sinai to check out the deployment of forces there."

Launching a 250-kilogram satellite costs an estimated $75 million, while the satellite itself costs $100-200 million, depending on its payload.

They last for six or seven years in space. The evolving threats require ongoing technological upgrades.

"We want to go down to satellites that weigh less than 100 kilograms," says Ben-Israel. "That way, the launch obstacle will be removed. Today, to launch a satellite at the appropriate speed an expensive rocket is required. If it were possible to launch it from a jet fighter aircraft, for example, it would be a much easier proposition. It would be possible to put satellites in orbit for much less money and at any time. It is beginning to become feasible in these very days."

The next generation of satellites, now being developed, will weigh ten kilograms (micro-satellites) or one kilogram (nano-satellites) and some speak of even lighter ones. They will orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers above the surface of the earth. Ben-Israel says one way of sending up a 100-kilogram orbiter without losing any of its operational capability is to break it into 10 units each weighing 10 kilograms.

But technology must be developed that will be enable each part to migrate to the correct place after launch, after which they will continue to orbit together as a cluster.

"That's the direction being taken," says Ben-Israel. "That way, each part can be shot from a plane separately and even at different times, and in this manner build the satellite in space over a week."

Rafael's Postman believes that a satellite weighing less than 100 kilograms will cost eight to 10 times less than a large orbiter. "Because it will cost less, it will be possible to put a formation of 10 satellites into space, and to time their orbits in such a way that it will be possible to maintain an unbroken 24-hour watch over the enemy," he says.

The main problem with micro-satellites is that their shelf life in space is shorter than larger ones, by approximately one or two years. However, because of the relatively lower costs, he believes, this will be the direction taken by many states seeking to avail themselves of observation satellites.

"I believe that Israel will bring these good tidings to the world, because it requires miniaturization of communications and electrical propulsion that not every country is capable of."

Small wonders from a small country

Even without any miniaturization, Israel possesses unique technologies that can upgrade future satellites. Elbit Systems is working on an advanced optical system that will be able to transmit multicolored pictures and that will be able to function at night. In addition, IAI radar will improve the resolution of the pictures. Today, satellite pictures can be found on the open market with a resolution of 70 centimeters.

Israel already has technologies for satellite photography at higher resolutions, and they are expected to yet improve. The achievements of Israeli space technologies are reflected in both the MSAR (mini-synthetic aperture radar) project of the U.S. space agency NASA and the French Venus project.

"MSAR is a mission undertaken by NASA in order to map the surface of the planet Venus, to see if it will be possible to land there in the future," explains Ben-Israel.

Venus is surrounded by clouds of toxic gases and the project requires synthetic aperture radar which can take photographs through fog, dust and darkness. There are seven countries capable of developing synthetic aperture radar systems and one of them is Israel, through ELTA, a subsidiary of IAI. Israel's miniaturization capabilities were also helpful in this project.

American satellite radar weighs four tons, and the Venus satellite has to be relatively light, so NASA put out a tender for bids that was won by IAI over aeronautical giants like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

NASA is now weighing whether to launch satellites to Venus or Mars or other planets, as it can?t afford to do them all simultaneously.

"If the mission to Venus is the one that is budgeted, in five years we'll be seeing the first photographs of that planet from a satellite which will apparently be constructed entirely in Israel, because of our unique miniaturization abilities," says Ben-Israel, adding that the Northrop Grumman will be the marketer of the project.

The soldier of the future

What will the next war look like? Will it be waged on land, tank against tank, like previous wars? Will it be waged against terrorist organizations? Or against the threat of long, medium and short-range missiles?

"From the point of view of Elbit Systems, life is complex and a response must be found for Iran, for terrorists in Gaza and also for Syria," says Haim Rousso, vice president for technological and engineering excellence at Elbit. "Intelligence will always be necessary, in both peace and wartime, so we at Elbit are constantly working on developments in the sphere, from satellites to tactical systems on the ground."

He says that the systems are evolving in the direction of giving real time information, with analysis and application capability, making it possible to respond immediately.

To cope with the challenges emanating from Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Elbit is working on perfecting its multispectral camera, Rousso says.

"In the security world what they look for is camouflaged targets; they want to be able to distinguish between what is real and what only looks like a target, to find things that are buried under the ground," he says. "So we do not ask what the eye can see, but rather what is the color or the combination of colors that is being sought. The great challenge is to build a camera with a reasonable size and price tag that can be carried on an uncomplicated platform and which we can tell precisely which colors to find - first color A, then color B. Another challenge is to build a bank of targets, to understand what we are interested in, and what is the spectral signature of the target. This involves research, collection and construction of databases, because colors change in different weather conditions, for instance. This camera will be able to see things that no other instrument today can see. We expect this to be a key element of the future battlefield."

The defense establishment's demand for products that are light, small and not too expensive is a function of the nature of land warfare, which will continue to keep military forces occupied for years. It will require miniaturization in optics, electronics and power supply.

"We want to give every soldier the capability to identify targets and other objects, and to communicate with the whole world, and when such large quantities of equipment are involved, the price becomes a significant element," says Rousso. "Everyone in the world - the United States, Europe, Australia - is busy working on the soldier of the future. In the war on terror, a low-intensity conflict, the individual soldier is given a great deal of weight. He needs the means of talking to the system, to get a picture and to transmit data. Technologically speaking, each soldier is a sensor and a platform."

Rousso says nanotechnology is on its way.

"It was not developed for the military but the anticipated evolution of the next decade could cause a revolution. That's why we are studying the technology and its military applications. Also of interest to us are the mini-robots that can get into tunnels or buildings and move around mapping the interior and transmitting pictures. It already exists, but in the long term it will be honed and use of it will increase. Elbit has developed the Viper robot, and we are already speaking of a family of smaller robots. In the sphere of unmanned aircraft we are also talking about ongoing upgrades in the construction materials, the aerodynamics, the ability to stay longer in the air at higher altitudes and better maneuverability."

In addition to their UAVs, both Elbit and Rafael have developed sea-faring drones, and Elbit and IAI have developed unmanned land vehicles that carry out pre-programmed missions, as distinct from remotely-controlled robots.

The goal is to give the vehicles a degree of artificial intelligence that will enable them to react like human drivers in cases where they encounter unanticipated obstacles on the way, such as large puddles of water. These vehicles will also possess an attack capability.

"It will apparently take many years before these things are actually built," says Rousso. "But today we already have intelligent systems that know how to identify dangers and to think what has to be done to cope with them. An investment in the technology of artificial intelligence, in computerized vision and accurate navigation is required."

The threat from afar

IAI is currently aiming to give soldiers on the ground capabilities that are today available only to the air force, says the company's vice president for R&D, Dan Peretz, adding that IAI has moved over from producing traditional weaponry to advanced comprehensive systems.

GPS is being used for the first time, through miniaturization, for the next generation of smart rockets, making them more accurate.

"Accuracy is no longer a function of range. The same degree of accuracy can be had at 250 kilometers as at 10 kilometers." says Peretz. "And when I have an accurate system, I don't need a large warhead anymore, because I hit the target right on the nail. There are already some accurate missiles, but they are expensive. The introduction of GPS into warfare has already begun in the United States in the sphere known as Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. It enables forces under fire to return fire without calling in air support, as the Americans did in Iraq."

The Tzayad (Hebrew for "hunter") system in use in the Israeli army, developed by Elbit, enables a commander in the field today equipped with a handheld computer to get a picture from a UAV and to call in helicopter fire. The new IAI system will be able to mark the target's coordinates, making it possible to hit it from the rear with smart rockets.

The system included GPS-guided or laser-homing rockets.

"I put a laser dot on a target, and a laser sensor in the rocket head can home in on it," says Peretz. "There are systems today that work on laser detectors - the smart, accurate missiles. Now there will also be laser-guided rockets."

Lev Tahor ("pure heart") is a smart mortar shell. It carries a GPS computer and can do what until now only missiles could do, but it is 10 times smaller.

"We are the first in the world who have taken a laser detector system to rockets, the first in the world to fire mortar shells that are guided by GPS," says Peretz. "We are developing the ability to hit targets with the first shell, without hitting the wrong target."

Peretz says IAI is collaborating with the American company Raytheon to sell the systems to the U.S. military, with the first demonstrations due in 2010.

"In five years' time, this technology will be taken for granted," he says.

Another development that miniaturization has made possible is Refaim ("ghost") which involves fitting a tank's fire-control system onto a rifle, enabling it to gauge the range of a target and to order the projectile that it fires to explode where it will do the most damage.

For example, a grenade could be told to explode at a point above enemy personnel hiding behind a wall.

"The Refaim system will include a 40mm round that contains a computer and I can command to explode in the air at a certain range, to explode on contact, or to explode after contact. If I want to shoot into a room, I would tell it to explode three meters after going through the window, in order to kill the people inside. It can also self-destruct, so as not to leave dangerous explosives on the ground if it doesn?t hit its target."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often mentions the threat facing Israel from afar, or the "third circle" of enemies not inside or bordering Israel, like Iran.

The IAI is continuing to develop unmanned aircraft and is going on to new tasks defined for it by the defense establishment, including handling the third circle.

Moreover, the unique radar that penetrates fog and dust will be miniaturized in the future so that it will have more applications and be more accurate and able to identify the sources of fire within the first and second circles, in all weather conditions.

Sources in the defense establishment say that the IAI is directing much of its resources to address the threats of the third circle, first and foremost an advanced Arrow system for the accurate interception of long-range missiles. The Arrow will leave the Earth's atmosphere and enter outer space, employing innovative technologies to locate its target and destroy it.

In facing far-reaching enemies, the defense establishment must develop lightweight and accurate ordnance that can be carried by small aircraft or on the American F-35 jets now under development, which has outstanding stealth properties but is relatively small.

The Israel Navy is not being left out of planning for the future, and its vessels are to be equipped with a new anti-aircraft missile system that IAI is developing in collaboration with India, integrated with advanced radar and fire control systems. Submarines will also have a key role in future wars, and they will be equipped with technology enabling them to stay underwater for longer periods and with new attack capabilities.

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