From Iron Dome to Unmanned Drones: The IDF's Vision for the Future Battlefield

How will Israel's wars be fought in 10 years' time? The person best qualified to answer that question is Ophir Shoham, head of the Defense Ministry's R&D division, who rarely speaks to the media.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Unmanned weapons systems will be integrated into the Israel Defense Forces’ future land battles, says the defense establishment’s chief technological officer, Ophir Shoham: “Within a few years there will be a number of operational missions of a known character that we will be able to carry out with a small number of unmanned devices,” he says. “That is the direction we are taking. Robots are not about to replace combat soldiers − that’s a bit far-off − but yes, we will operate unmanned vehicles on the ground against highly dangerous targets. I refer to targets in enemy territory against which we can send such vehicles remotely, as a kind of forward guard − vehicles that both observe and shoot. We will witness this in the foreseeable future.”

Following a rich army career, Brig. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Shoham, 50, moved to the Defense Ministry and, for the past three years, has headed Mafat ‏(the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure‏). “We are talking about 2020, approximately,” he reveals. “Ground robotics presents a greater challenge than aerial robotics. In the air we reached that level years ago, with an extensive array of drones [unmanned aerial vehicles] available to the air force and the ground forces. It is more difficult to communicate with unmanned ground vehicles because of the terrain conditions and because it’s harder to establish a direct line of vision. At the moment, we have an unmanned vehicle that we use to conduct patrols along the Gaza Strip border, but it has only limited ability and its route has to be plotted in advance. By 2020, the IDF will have remotely operated logistical vehicles: vehicles to breach obstacles, and others for patrols. We won’t have an unmanned tank company, but we will be able to handle specific missions, such as breaching a threatened area, collecting intelligence or providing logistical assistance. We are among the world leaders in this sphere, thanks to the experience we gained in the development of drones.”

Shoham rarely speaks to the media, but in an interview ahead of Independence Day, he spoke about a large number of technological projects under Mafat’s supervision. Most of them are financed from a not especially large annual budget ‏(about NIS 760 million, according to data published by a governmental committee headed by Prof. Asher Tishler‏) − the main R&D budget of the defense establishment. ‏(Some systems, such as the Iron Dome antimissile batteries, were developed via an external R&D budget.‏) The new defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has declared that R&D will retain the highest level of priority, but Shoham has been around long enough to know that until the state budget is finalized, nothing is certain.

The high point of the defense establishment’s technological activity in recent years − in media eyes, at least − relates to intercept systems. “This field developed beyond what we could have imagined,” Shoham notes. “At the start, Iron Dome had fewer supporters. There are now quite a few senior figures in the defense establishment who admit that they have changed their minds about intercept systems. But I want to be careful not to make them the be-all and end-all. They do create room for maneuver for the leadership, and make it possible for the state to cope with the rocket terror being perpetrated by enemies, who have despaired of the possibility of besting us in a campaign in which one army clashes with another. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that interception capability will replace the need to take the offensive, suppress the rocket threat and vanquish the enemy in a conventional confrontation. Still, the decision makers have a very high level of confidence in the interception capability developed by the defense industry.”

Last month, Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published an article claiming that the statistics issued by Israel about the high success rate of Iron Dome are incorrect. Drawing on clips filmed by civilians in the south of Israel during last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Postol hinted that the data had been deliberately fabricated and had misled the American administration.

Postol estimated that Iron Dome had successfully intercepted no more than five or ten percent of the rockets it had attempted to bring down. Even though the allegations − which are not based on an actual study − recall the conspiracy theory holding that NASA faked the Apollo moon landing of 1969, they resonated powerfully on the Internet, particularly on Israeli sites.

The Guardium unmanned ground vehicle on duty in the Golan Heights, June 2010. UGVs present a greater technological challenge than their aerial equivalents.Credit: Roman Poretsky
The Eitan, Israel's largest UAV. The air force does not forgo its services in any operation.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ophir Shoham, outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, in 2011. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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