23 Nov 2021

Accelerated development of autonomous ground vehicles is revolutionizing Israel’s military and defense industries

Yaakov Lappin
23 Nov 2021

Accelerated development of autonomous ground vehicles is revolutionizing Israel’s military and defense industries

Yaakov Lappin

Israel has long been known as a military systems ‘lab’ due to its unique location, conditions of frequent military conflict, and the close working relations that exist between its military and defense industries.

As a result of these characteristics, a number of innovative defense technologies, ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), air defense systems, and the growing use of artificial intelligence has made trailblazing progress in Israel’s operational uses and defense industries. Now, it appears as if autonomous ground platforms are joining this club.

On October 10, the Israel Ministry of Defense made a dramatic announcement [1]. It stated that after more than two years of examination, it had selected Israel Aerospace Industry’s subsidiary, Elta, as the prime contractor of the Carmel future combat vehicle.

The Carmel plan was launched in 2019 by the Ministry of Defense’s  Directorate for Defense Research and Development, Tank and APC [armored personnel carrier] Directorate, and the IDF’s Ground Forces.

The Carmel program’s goal is to significantly improve military ground maneuvering capabilities, with a heavy focus on developing artificial intelligence computer systems that can take growing quantities of tasks away from human operators, and free them up to manage big picture battlefield decisions.

As such, Carmel is designed to enable tanks to have just two crew members on-board, as opposed to four, and to enable them to remain under closed hatches, eliminating the need for them to risk their safety by ascending the hatch in a hostile arena under fire.

“Many of the Carmel’s capabilities will be autonomous, including travel [driving], detection of threats, defense, and acquisition of targets. With the Carmel’s innovative user interface, soldiers in the vehicle will be able to view the battlefield in several dimensions. They will receive intelligence, detect threats and acquire targets automatically, enabling them to effectively assess situations and make optimal decisions,” the Ministry of Defense said in its statement.

During the upcoming pilot stage of the program, components of this technology will already be integrated into the existing Eitan IDF wheeled armored personnel carrier.

“The Carmel concept is groundbreaking on a global scale and has garnered the interest of many international industries and militaries,” said the Ministry of Defense. “The program combines an innovative operational concept with state-of-the-art technologies, which provide solutions for the future battlefield. The concept engages small crews and relies extensively on autonomous capabilities and AI, streamlining battle management while minimizing risk to human lives on both sides.”

One of the key aspects of IAI-Elta’s Carmel concept is to create a ‘see-through’ cockpit vehicle, by placing screens on-board that are linked to sensors on the vehicle’s exterior. This creates new levels of battlefield situation awareness. [2]

The sensors include advanced radars, which can detect the presence of adversaries in built-up areas, cameras, and fire detection sensors that can track down the source of enemy attacks immediately and recommend return fire options.

Instead of having to worry about driving, avoiding obstacles , roadside bombs, and figuring out their locations, the human operators can manage the battle the entire time.

The sensors feed an on-board computer system, the “brain” of Carmel, which is called Athena. [3]

IAI-Elta’s Athena has control of the vehicle’s steering and engine, its sensors, and its weapons systems. It can also receive intelligence from external sensors. It combs through all of this data and generates real-time recommendations on routes, whether to storm ahead or seek cover, and firepower activation against detected targets. Human operators must approve or reject the recommendations.

Athena also uses artificial intelligence deep reasoning capabilities to prioritize threats it detects. [4]

According to Nissim Sasson, Director of System Engineering and Research and Development at Land Systems Division IAI-Elta, Athena is designed to boost three core pillars: Autonomous maneuverability, survivability, and lethality. The latter is achieved by automatically exposing the location of enemy forced embedded in built-up areas – targets known in military circles as ‘low-signature’ and ‘time sensitive.’

“If an enemy is three kilometers away from us, we want to detect it as well,” said Sasson. “If a missile is fired at me, I want to detect it. If a drone is approaching me, I want to discover it.”

“Athena is the brain, fed by all of the sensors. It uses all of the on-board weapons systems, the maneuvering systems, and the engine. Two controllers sit in the vehicle under closed panels, as the vehicle moves from point to point autonomously,” said Sasson.

At the time of this writing, there is no known equivalent capability on land platforms in service elsewhere.

Sasson estimated that the world of ground combat is moving towards man-machine teaming, and that Athena was an accurate representation of that trend.

In the future, he said, technology such as Athena could enable fully autonomous ground combat vehicles. Alternatively, the vehicles could be remotely operated just as aerial military UAVs are today.

Such technology has already left the development stage and entered real-world applications.

Athena capabilities are likely already in operation in the IAI-Elta Jaguar semi-autonomous border patrol platform, which is equipped with a machine gun, a camera, and a speaker. The Israel Ministry of Defense has acquired the Jaguar for the IDF, and it today conducts border patrols along the volatile Gaza Strip.

Another example of the accelerating rate of autonomous ground platform development is the IAI-made Rex MK II autonomous ground vehicle, which was recently placed on display at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) exhibition in October, and first unveiled in September at the DSEI defense exhibition in London. [5]

The Rex MK II is particularly designed for ground offensive (as opposed to border patrols) and it can help keep soldiers out of harm’s ways in the battlefield.

According IAI, the system has already been sold to clients. It is designed to carry 1.3 tons, making it a logistical carrier, but it can also use its on-board sensors to gather intelligence, and its on-board guns (a machine gun and a heavy machine gun) make an important firepower addition, which can be directed precisely by its sensors at enemy targets.

According to Rani Avni, deputy general manager of IAI’s Land Systems Division and the head of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Directorate, the Rex is designed to help ground forces that are maneuvering during combat. [6]

“It has a big underbelly, and it can travel in difficult terrain, maneuvering together with infantry forces,” he said. “We built it with a hybrid electrical engine for quiet maneuvering.”

IAI has spent the past 15 years developing, constructing, and upgrading ground autonomous systems, providing them with self-driving capabilities, the ability to build their own situation awareness, and to work with soldiers to engage targets – though always after human approval.

In August, the UK’s Ministry of Defence granted IAI and a British company called Marlborough Communications Limited a contract for four unmanned ground vehicles, which will be part of a trial program. The vehicles will be based on the Rex model.

According to Avni, the willingness of clients to use such systems in operations will be as decisive as the technology itself in determining how quickly such systems proliferate and become operational in real world operations.

What seems beyond doubt is that the technological development and the contracts are picking up speed.

Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, meanwhile, has also been developing high level systems for ground systems that rely on automatic detection and protection, and which boost situational awareness for ground forces.

In December 2020, Rafael offered South Korea its Next Generation Combat Vehicle Suite (NGCV-S) as a candidate to for Seoul’s Tiger 4.0 modernization program (for both South Korea’s main battle tank and its armored personnel carrier upgrades).[7]

Rafael’s proposals contain important information about cutting edge capabilities that the company offers for armored vehicles to boost their survivability, lethality, and ability to strike multiple enemy targets at the same time. They provide a glimpse into the future of military ground vehicles.

The most well known of these capabilities is the Trophy active protection system, which is in operational use in the IDF’s Merkava 3 and 4 tanks, and Namer armored personnel carriers. Trophy is also installed on the US Army’s Abrahams main battle tank.

Trophy made its first operational debut in 2011, when it successfully defended an IDF tank on the border with Gaza from an incoming anti-tank missile. [8]

 Since then, it has revolutionized the IDF’s ground maneuvering capabilities. Designed to stop anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades in mid-air with interceptors, the system has amassed over a million hours in operations, and saved many lives of personnel.

Trophy relies on advanced radars to detect and intercept incoming targets, but it has also become a key feature of offensive capabilities, – due to its ability to pinpoint the exact location of the fire source, and to share that data with the computer systems of other friendly units in the area.

This creates a new level of sensor to shooter cycles, and can involve the wider friendly force in pinpointing and responding to an anti-tank missile cell – the type of threat that caused havoc to IDF tanks during the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Other aspects of Rafael’s suite include the Samson remote weapon station. This is an unmanned weapons system, which contains a machine gun and a heavy machine gun, and can also be installed with a missile launcher that fires Rafael’s Spike missiles, for mid-range and long-range strikes.

 “Combining the Spike missile system with the Samson Integrated 30 mm RWS [Remote Weapons Station] and its combat management systems transforms the remote-controlled weapon station and the vehicle into a versatile fighting machine – able to simultaneously neutralize targets at multiple ranges, with the pinpoint accuracy required in the urban arena as well as in GPS-denied zones,” said Rafael in a statement. [9]

Another feature of Rafael’s suite is the Spoke Firefly, which is a miniature loitering munition that can operate beyond a unit’s line-of-sight. It employs computer vision technology and algorithms, as well as day and night cameras, to be able to single out targets and detonate into them with its on-board explosives. Although designed for infantry, the Firefly can also be released from tanks and lighter ground vehicles, meaning that they can have highly precise strike options even in built-up areas, thereby reducing the risk of harm to noncombatants.

Israel’s Elbit Systems, for its part, has made an unmanned armored vehicle turret, which can fire on stationary and moving targets. [10]

The system, called UT30MK2, includes a broad range of sub-systems, such as fire control, stabilization, gunner and commander sights, and a battle management and protection system.

Elbit also offers its See-Through Armor (STA) system, describing it as a “revolutionary, panoramic observation system, enabling operators to understand and experience their environment from a single image.”

The system employs “algorithms that electronically join imagery collected by video cameras installed around the vehicle,” according to Elbit, adding that it “provides a seamless 360-degree real-time panoramic view.”

This means that personnel inside closed hatched armored vehicle surroundings can gain access to new levels of situation awareness. The same thinking can be found in Elbit’s IronVision ‘see through’ Head-Mounted Display, which generates an image for the crew inside armored vehicles, and overcomes inbuilt visibility limitations.

Reminiscent of aircraft pilot Head-Mounted Displays, the system sends video feeds to crews offering them 360-degree coverage, enabling them to deal with a range of threats in time without needing to lift their heads from the hatch.

Elbit is also working on a new autonomous battle vehicle, which it has yet to release to the market. [11]

“Our vision is that entire theaters will fight autonomously, without a single human being directly involved in the fighting,” an engineer from Elbit’s C4i division told the Israel Hayom daily.

“In the future, which is no longer in the realm of science fiction, entire areas of the battlefield will be fought with autonomous means, without a single human. The robots will report back that they have completed their mission and we will return to routine,” he added.

Ultimately, Israel’s defense industries and the IDF are together introducing a new level of autonomous ground platforms into operational service.

Driven by the need to reduce risks to human soldiers, and the challenge posed by adversaries who embed themselves in built-up areas and who are armed with high level firepower, the Israeli defense establishment and defense industries have clearly turned to technology in order to reverse the narrowing of Israel’s qualitative military edge.

The technologies that result from these efforts will likely go on to proliferate throughout the world.

Sources:

[1] Ministry of Defense statement. 2021.  Directorate of Defence Research & Development  chooses IAI for developing Carmel technologies (Hebrew statement), https://www.mod.gov.il/Defence-and-Security/articles/Pages/10.10.2021.aspx

[2] Yaakov Lappin, 2019. Israel seeks to change the face of the battlefield with AI-powered autonomous armored Vehicles, JNS, https://www.jns.org/israel-seeks-to-change-the-face-of-the-battlefield-with-ai-powered-autonomous-armored-vehicles/

[3] Globes Correspondent, 2019. IAI ELTA unveils CARMEL ground combat vehicle, Globes, https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-iai-elta-unveils-carmel-ground-combat-vehicle-1001300392

[4] Yaakov Lappin, 2021. IAI launches StarLight AI for big data analysis, Jane’s Defence Weekly, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/update-iai-launches-starlight-ai-for-big-data-analysis

[5] Shephard News Team, 2021. DSEI 2021: IAI reveals its newest UGV, Shephard, https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/landwarfareintl/dsei-2021-iai-reveals-its-newest-ugv/

[6] Yaakov Lappin, 2021. Israel Aerospace Industries puts latest unmanned battle vehicle on display in Washington, JNS, https://www.jns.org/israel-aerospace-industries-puts-latest-unmanned-battle-vehicle-on-display-in-washington/

[7] Yaakov Lappin, 2020. Rafael offers its next-gen combat vehicle suite to South Korea, Jane’s Defence Weekly, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/rafael-offers-its-next-gen-combat-vehicle-suite-to-south-korea

[8] Yaakov Lappin, 2021. ‘We’re supposed to be dead’: Israeli tank protection system has transformed land warfare, JNS, https://www.jns.org/were-supposed-to-be-dead-this-israeli-tank-protection-system-has-transformed-land-warfare/

[9] Rafael, accessed 2021. Samson™ 30 RWS All-in-One Solution, Rafael website, https://www.rafael.co.il/worlds/land/samson-tm-30-rws-all-in-one-advantage/

[10] Elbit, accessed 2021, Combat Vehicles Systems Introduction, Elbit website, https://elbitsystems.com/products/land-systems/vehicles/

[11] Hanan Greenwood, 2021. Sci-Fi-style weapons aim to change future of warfare, Israel Hayom, https://www.israelhayom.com/2021/10/11/sci-fi-style-weapons-aim-to-change-future-of-warfare/

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