A Robotic Forward Guard

A Robotic Forward Guard.

( Truly breathtaking… – JW )

Col. Nir Halamish, Head of the IDF Ground Forces Command’s Weapons Development Division, speaks about the programs the IDF is developing for cutting-edge robotics and new developments on the verge of significant technological breakthroughs
The "Guardium" (Photo: Ziv Koren
The “Guardium” (Photo: Ziv Koren

“I believe that 2013 will be the year in which a decade’s worth of processes will come to a conclusion,” declares Col. Nir Halamish in a special interview for IsraelDefense. As Head of the Weapons Department for the IDF’s Ground Forces, Halamish describes the direction in which the branch’s force buildup will focus, and notes the areas where major breakthroughs are expected to occur – including more efficient energy utilization by infantry and special forces and operating in distant locations across the battlefield.

Col. Halamish grew up in the Armored Corps, and has manned several positions in the Weapons Department for more than a decade. The interview with him took place near the time when the IDF General Staff approved a new multi-year plan (“Oz” – to be initiated in 2013-2017). The plan, which defines the strengthening directions of all the branches (including the Ground Forces), will be replacing the Tefen Multi-Year Plan which began in 2007 after the Second Lebanon War and was completed by the end of 2011.

The year 2012 was defined by the IDF as a “singular year”, The new plan was postponed by a year due to the dramatic changes in the Middle East, and after arguments between the Defense and Treasury Ministries concerning the parameters of the defense budget.

“The Tefen Multi-Year Plan is unique in two regards,” says Col. Halamish. “Firstly, it is one of the few plans in the history of the IDF that used all of its five years, and it was a very good and healthy process for the military. Secondly, it came immediately after the Second Lebanon War, and its planning stemmed from the lessons of that war. It essentially implemented all of the things that were understood from the war and was intended to allow for significant increases in crucial capabilities, as we understood were necessary in 2007.

“The plan itself brought some very significant capabilities, such as connectivity between all of the force elements on the ground, via the Digital Army Program (DAP), which has already become operational in half of the layout. In the coming years, we will expand it to the entire military, including reserves, and we will advance the ground connectivity to entities such as the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the IAF, and branches in the General Staff.”

Maneuver and Regional Defense

“One of the most significant lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War was the decision to renew the campaign’s maneuvering capabilities – in other words, carrying out a ‘quick and lethal maneuver’ as defined by the Commander of the Ground Forces, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman. The IDF decided to acquire hundreds of Merkava Mark IV tanks and Merkava Namer APCs produced on U.S. soil for the sake of improving maneuvering capabilities, as well as acquiring active defense systems against antitank missiles.”

Will the IDF continue to invest in tanks, APCs and active defense systems during the years of the Oz plan? The IDF General Staff recently discussed its intent to reduce the number of tanks and APCs.

“There were many discussions, but there’s already the Merkava Mark IV, which we are continuing to develop and to manufacture, as well as the Namer APC. The Namer started out as a heavy APC in 2007, with the global direction being that of less protected vehicles, as dictated by the US – speed at the expense of survivability. We decided towards a heavy maneuvering vehicle which prioritizes the team’s survivability at the expense of less weight. It has good maneuverability, yet it will not reach high speeds such as a light AFV. We presently have an entire operational Golani brigade with Merkava APCs, and we have transferred production to General Dynamics in the US to fund the rest of the acquisition with aid funds. We are advancing at full speed. The fact is, there are debates in the multi-year plan whether or not to continue producing Namers and how it has no effect on the things transpiring in the coming two to three years. Eventually there’s General Dynamics, which has a contract for the production of a considerable amount of Namers, and it is about to transfer several models of the new APC for testing.

“Upon the arrival of the APCs from the US, we will also renew the production line of the Namers in Israel (Israeli systems will be assembled onboard the hulls arriving from the US). There are thoughts about a second regular Namer brigade afterwards. We are examining the matter. On the one hand, it is important that the regular ORBAT be with the most advanced systems. On the other hand, these platforms have significant maintenance costs, and now there is the need to find the balance between the desire to be strong at the sharp tip and between the capability of carrying out this endeavor. This has not yet been decided – there are important considerations on how to expand the capabilities of the Namer, and also of the Merkava Mark IV, for a regular brigade. The issue will reach the branch commander within a few months, and it will then be brought up for General Staff approval.”
What about the active defense systems? Thus far, Trophy systems (by Rafael) were installed onboard only some Merkava Mark IV tanks. Will you continue installing Trophy on tanks, and will you equip the new Namers with this system?

“In general, we think we have reached a situation where this vehicle provides an excellent response to the existing challenges – both traditional challenges such as tanks that are operating in the environment, as well as the developing ones of antitank squadrons, of a small and low-signature enemy who is very difficult to locate.
“Today, the Merkava IV tank has a comprehensive capability for defending against antitank threats, as well as dealing with the enemy and closing the fire cycle at an impressive speed of a few seconds, on the same vehicle. I believe that in the next confrontation that takes place, we will have to test these capabilities in war, or in a more significant conflict than the one taking place today in Gaza. The more we succeed in operating these systems in a better manner, we will reach a situation where an antitank squad firing an RPG-29 or other antitank weapons will find itself in clear, immediate danger in a matter of seconds. We’ve done a very thorough effort with the tanks – the result of considerable development, but testing these capabilities was carried out after the Second Lebanon War.”

You mean that there are also soft-kill systems?

“What I can say is that other technologies are being examined beyond Trophy. Additional systems are being developed, and I think that in the operational field of dealing with the antitank threat, we have set a goal for ourselves under a program called ‘Green Page’, to improve the capabilities of the combat battalion team. We are not discussing more about the single instrument level or how any tank or Namer deals with the antitank threat. Rather it is about the integrated battalion – with infantry, tanks, engineering and collection – and how its fire handles a threat that we understand from the Second Lebanon War, which the enemy views as an endeavor he should invest in from his perspective. On our side, we invest in order to prepare the forces – force buildup for improved confrontation. I am discussing the field of weapons and strengthening, but there are, of course, other directions, such as training and doctrines. “

Does this mean that it is possible for one instrument to defend another?

“It means that I’ve said all that I can say. One of the significant things that we’ve tasked ourselves with is the issue of dealing with the capability of a force’s critical mass to handle the antitank threat. No more “boutique capabilities” of lone forces, but rather significant capabilities for a significant ORBAT, so that we will have the ability to deal with a significant challenge in times of war or large conflict, and defeat it. Regarding the tank itself, besides having the Trophy System, which greatly increases survivability, we also provided it with an antitank shell named Kalanit, which is unique and the first of its kind in the world, produced by Israel Military Industries (IMI).

Tactical UAV
Col. Halamish explains, “Six to seven years ago, we made a strategic decision – in IDF terms – to develop autonomous tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) layouts to work alongside the maneuvering force, battalion or brigade. All the decisions regarding them are accepted at the regiment or brigade commander level. Their availability is very high, their conditions are very low – take off and land in the field. Most importantly, they maintain performance, in day and night in a manner that approaches the IDF’s largest micro-remotely powered vehicles (MRPVs).

“The first is called Skylark 1 (according to the commercial name of the manufacturer, Elbit Systems). This is a layout which we are more or less in the middle of implementing, and there are already several dozens of teams using it. The system works in an intensive manner, deepening across all the current security sectors – Gaza, Egypt, the Lebanon border, Judea and Samaria, as well as in all the unit trainings. Every regiment commander who received the system and the team said that the first thing they want is to keep it.”

According to Halamish, the Ground Forces branch recently decided on a new UAV project for the brigade echelon, termed Sky Galloper. This UAV will be 1.5 times larger than the Skylark and will also be manufactured by Elbit Systems.

Precision Mortars
According to Col. Halamish, another significant and developing field within the ground forces in the coming five years involves mortars. After the IDF acquired the Soltam-produced “Keshet” (a rapid mortar fired from an APC), a decision was made to begin a new project for developing mortar shells with a precision of up to a few meters. The shells will be directed towards the target via a laser marker or other guidance measures. The IDF is presently considering a revolutionary step: providing precision shell fire capabilities to armored battalions as well, to offer them another means of quickly and efficiently dealing with antitank squads ambushing them in the maneuver areas. “This is something that is being examined,” says Halamish.

“My assessment is that we will introduce the mortars to the armored battalions at one stage, out of an understanding that the Keshet is truly a force multiplier, and we wish to add everything we define as a precision shell upon it. The Keshet does things automatically, reducing human error to a minimum. All that is left for us today is to take the mortar shell and make it precise.

“Today, the mortar is still ‘dumb’, statistically one that falls within a range of 100 meters. We want to take this range and make it more precise, at least to ten meters. The precision will turn this instrument into an ultimate asset – quick, precise, with a minimal amount of errors. This is the central step that we are working on.”

Precision Rockets

Beyond mortars, the Ground Forces also intend to establish battalions that world fire precise rockets to ranges of nearly 40 kilometers (as revealed by the head of the Ground Forces during the International Fire Conference organized by IsraelDefense and the Artillery Corps Association in May 2012). The precise rockets will be based on the Accular developed by IMI, which took old rockets and added guidance and navigation systems to them.

Have you already started to establish the first precision rocket battalion?

“Yes, we are working on it now. The layout has not yet been constructed, but is undergoing advanced approvals. The Ground Forces commander is outlining the direction for us. Today, the air force is needed in order to precisely hit a structure or another target. We want to reach a situation where the rocket or mortar will reach all targets in every scenario, during the day or at night, and in all weather conditions. This is a significant challenge in that we see ourselves fighting 24/7, in the winter and summer.”

Halamish adds that in addition to the rocket battalion, the IDF will start the conversion of its mobile gun layout to a new gun in the coming five-year period – an effort that will take nearly three decades, meaning four multi-year plans.

Easier, More Concealed

Regarding infantry forces, Halamish says, “If you take an infantry battalion from 2006 and compare it to today, you’ll see that we have made at least one, sometimes two jumps in every parameter – command and control, collection, lethality, ability to hit soft/hard targets, camouflage and personal gear. Since this is a very large layout, this was one of the most significant efforts in the Tefen Plan, and it provided improved, upgraded capabilities to every infantry battalion, in terms of both quality and quantity, compared to five years ago.

What is happening with the project that was referred to in the past decade as the “Future Infantry Soldier”?

“In the framework of the project, some of the things that made its way to the ground force battalions are the result of initiatives that were in the previous incarnation of the future infantry project (in 2003-2004). The mechanism says that you try numerous ideas – several of them will mature, while several of them slowly die. The best of them progress to the full development and acquisition stage, from which the gathering systems came. We were using systems such as Yuval – an expensive and heavy system weighing 11-12 kilograms.

“One of the things that came about during 2003 to 2005 was the capability to take the thermal world and pack it in two and a half kilograms while maintaining the same ranges. This was something that we thought about before then, but we did not see how we could turn it into a project. Now it’s a standard.

“In general, we took everything that the infantry soldiers were carrying, which was in the area of 40-50 kilograms, and reduced it to less than ten kilograms. Let’s say that an artillery cooperation officer had to carry observation systems and batteries for 48 hours. This is a weight that he could not carry on his own, alongside two soldiers who were carrying it as well. This was the operation – three persons walking with heavy gear. We took all of the artillery cooperation officer’s gear, and specified the equipment used to produce even better operational outputs (i.e. allows for seeing during day and night, and produces coordinates) – all of this in only ten kilograms. Today, an infantry artillery cooperation officer does not need a hauler.”

What breakthroughs are there in the energy field?

“I believe that the next head of the Weapons Development Division, in about five years, will have several issues that he will turn into projects, and one of them will be the energy issue. Looking ahead, you see there is more equipment that requires energy, including for command and control and gathering measures. We are approaching a situation where the different types and amount of energy requires many soldiers. We are presently examining several significant directions with MAFAT for more energy at less weight. The aspiration is to reach a ratio of 1:2 with portable infantry forces systems, meaning twice the energy for the same weight. There are several directions, starting with solar panels and up to composite materials whose energy is twice as high.

“MAFAT operates projects in several universities, as well as with the US. We are investing many resources in this field in order to reach a situation where a battery’s activation time will be 16 hours instead of eight. The goal is 1:3 with combat collection units, which collect materials and don’t have to be in motion all the time, and there are other directions, such as a small generator that could operate for days, while allowing for operating systems. We are working in this field with Ricor from Ein Harod. Sizable budgets need to be invested in this.”

So we are discussing energy generators in the field?

“For example, a liter of a certain type of benzene can allow for the production of 72 hours of energy. There is, of course, a trade-off – the generator weighs ten kilograms, not including the extra liter, but it’s worth it if it provides you with energy for a week.”

What about liquid energy?

“There is the whole world of fuel cells. We are also examining this in UAVs, which are electric and have an endurance of two to three hours. We want this to stand at six hours – the longer the UAV can stay in the air, the better. This is a field that has great potential. Breakthroughs will happen in some of the things and not in others.

What other things are on the verge of breakthroughs?

“The cellular field. Our cellphones consume energy so much that they can’t finish a day’s work without being recharged several times. Considerable amounts of money are being invested in this – whoever comes up with a solution will be a millionaire. We are riding on the backs of the civilian sector, and it is from there that things will be reached.

“Another issue is “friend-or-foe” identification, a subject that that comes up in every war or operation. The IDF enters built-up areas where everything is crowded and improvised, with tanks and infantry inside – everyone is mixed up with everything. We are now investing towards finding a solution to prevent friendly-fire. The attacker is less interested, so far as knowing if I am in a tank and signaling to an infantry force, whether it is one of our own, without requiring the infantry soldier’s cooperation. A breakthrough will happen here and while it will not provide 100% of what we need, it could improve decision-making. I am not assuming that a decision may or may not happen according to this, but it may allow for decisions to be made. You want to reach a situation where batteries are not needed for such a form of identification.

“Last year, we called on several companies to work on this. I believe that we will ultimately reach our goal. Today, you have systems that require cooperation with the force, such as a thermal flag. However, many times, someone could shoot you from behind because he can’t see the flag.

“There are all sorts of areas being developed regarding the future infantry soldier, such as better uniforms. Some of the officers examine potential uniforms that might aid the infantry fighter during combat.

“Another issue is to take what the infantry soldier carries, including uniform, measures, and protection – and turn it into a single system. For example, having energy be part of the protection layer. Energy is central, and it will provide you with the command and control. I presume that the combat configuration of the infantry – such as traversing on foot and reaching certain destinations – will be preserved, even in one or two decades from now. It will need assistance and organization for it to carry out such missions in a good manner.

“One of the other things is to transfer the world of autonomous vehicles from the air to the ground – this is the world we call UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles). There are two main directions in this field, one of which is to take this capability and integrate it in ongoing security settings, as is done in Gaza. The only missionoperational UGV system in the world that is the one we operate in Gaza – the G-NIUS Guardium UGV. It still carries out missions today. There were initially problems with it, primarily in communications and the capability of operating near the fence. It has been carrying out activities nicely in the past year.

“One example is that there are complex situations near the fences, where instead of operating manned forces and becoming entangled in a dangerous situation, the forces can be allowed to close a wider circle and introduce the UGV, which transmits the image back. If there’s a charge, it will explode, and if there is an incursion, then it transmits the information and allows us to get organized accordingly.

There is also a plan known as “Forward Guard” – what does it refer to?

“Forward guard refers to an unmanned force that will operate ahead of the main force, one which will track the enemy and another to encounter it in place of the main force.

Thus far, we have yet to solve the communication problem. I want to give this instrument commands, not just data, and this is where there is still a problem. Furthermore, you want to reach a situation where this instrument can make decisions independently in the field – what is called artificial intelligence (AI). This might be pretentious, but this is the appropriate word. If it reaches a place where there is an obstacle, and it needs to be overcome, then the robot will know how to figure it out, just like any sixyear old child. For the time being, this is something that they cannot do. If we solve this, we could provide unmanned forward guard capabilities with a manned force. This is something that we are advancing along with MAFAT.

Is there a goal to see to it that the robots could talk amongst themselves?

“Yes, but our current ambition is primarily that they will be able to operated on their own. The dream of taking a robotic force and having it fight behind enemy lines instead of soldiers exists in the movies, but we are not yet close to that. In any case, I say that we are the most advanced military in this field, and quite a few militaries come here to see what we are developing. Afghanistan, for example, presented very significant challenges to the various allied forces, similar to what he had in the security strip, such as the logistic convoys and movement to outposts. They eventually reached the same solutions that we did, such as supplies from the air and more, and then they also examined the UGV trucks.

I am a big believer in the notion that technological breakthroughs are accomplished step by step: isolate a problem, focus on what is desired, and thus reach a solution. It is very difficult to take a large step. Many times you do not have 10-15 years for a project to yield results. It is always easy is to say that the operational need is extensive and does not allow for compromise, and that the system is not needed without all of it. One of my challenges is to quantify the operational need so that it may be accomplished within a range of three to five years, and not to develop systems over many lengthy years that will not be needed by the time it is completed.”

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