If the summer war with Hamas in Gaza proved anything, it was the role the Iron Dome anti-missile system played in minimizing civilian deaths in Israel and keeping the war from escalating in response to greater casualties. But while Israel enjoyed the tactical advantage afforded by this technological marvel, Hamas, for its part, wasn’t just sitting idly by. It was learning how to beat it.
The qualitative edge that Israel has developed in the sky – offensively, with advanced jets and well-trained fighters and now UA Vs, and defensively with the Iron Dome and other layers of missile defense – is crucial to its survival, especially given its 20-milewide waist at the center of the country.
But as drone platforms begin to saturate foreign militaries and terror militias (just last week, Hamas once again launched its own drone from Gaza), Israel will have to sharpen that edge if it’s going to maintain an effective defensive shield.
One important part of this process is the development of something called “swarmware.” Marrying UA V technology with advanced software, swarmware allows dozens or even hundreds of drones to work together (much like the name suggests) as a swarm of individual units that coalesce or break away from the main body as needed.
In this, the swarm acts strategically in real time, operating as an effective mass.
No doubt, it will be noted that combining software to not just take the pilot out of the cockpit but out of the control process altogether represents a shift toward algorithmic decision-making and even toward a robotized military strategy. Though this may cause anxiety (not without reason), in truth swarmware offers too many significant benefits to ignore, some of which may prove critical to Israel’s survival.
Foremost among them is the defensive capability offered by swarmware to essentially “black out” a limited airspace like Israel’s. Mapping and intercepting a nearly unlimited number of intruders in real time without time constraints offers the IDF the ability to contain an impending conflict, particularly when the strategic objectives of enemies like Hamas is to escalate. Like with the Iron Dome, which was able to prevent the loss of lives on both sides – on the Israeli side directly, by intercepting rockets, and on the Palestinian side, by facilitating the containment of the war – a matrixed drone network can similarly provide a defensive edge that overwhelms the offensive strategy of the other side.
But another part of this is economic.
Israel is currently looking to buy F-35 fighters from the US at the astronomical per-plane cost of $147 million – a price tag that has already caused Israel to reduce it initial order of 75 plane to a still-barely-affordable 36. With the cost per UA V a fraction of that of a next-generation fighter (modern military UA Vs range from $1 million to $20 million) compounded by the drastically lower maintenance cost, what we see is not that the UA V is emerging as a fighter replacement, but stands to play an even greater role in Israel’s strategic air defense mix.
When you observe a swarm, you immediately look for its hive. Observing Israel, limited in space just like a hive, is perfectly suited for a swarmlike defense. Creating a drone swarm would effectively free up the IDF’s manpower and high-end platforms for missions requiring greater skill and more planning and sophisticated decision- making. And looking at potential Israeli conflicts, from Hamas to Hezbollah to Iran, Israel’s ability to construct a swarm of drones buffered by layers of anti-missile systems on the ground and supporting attack fighters in the air would provide the capability to deliver a sting that can deter.
The path from here to a functioning, massive UA V swarm is long and complex, involving the development of industrial-scale production. But already Israel is ahead of the curve as the world’s largest exporter of drones (by number of units), according to a 2013 study by business consulting firm Frost and Sullivan. Swarmware would also require overly prudent (almost neurotic) safeguards and failsafes against any cyber threats – but here too Israel has an advantage as it has one of the most advance cyber forces in the world today.
The strategic opportunity, considering Israel’s brain power versus its scarcity in resource, for Israel in possession of a perpetually unmanned air-defense shield will return its qualitative edge on the digital battlefield and entirely transform the way IDF will be able to wage war. Not only is Israel one of the best-equipped nations in the world to develop swarmware, but the technology can be a strategic game-changer for the Jewish state, one of those rare opportunities that converts perceived weakness into defined strength.The writer is the director of the Jewish National Initiative, a grassroots advocacy forum that is bringing Zionism into the 21st century, and co-founder of a successful debate society (Whiskey Debates) in Tel Aviv since 2008.