Soldiers from the IDF 401th Armored Brigade in training.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Experts appear to agree that robots, or at least partially autonomous weapons systems, are the future of war.
But there was wide debate about the costs and benefits of this trend at the Maariv National Security Conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
Brig-Gen. (res.) Eli Ben-Meir, former head of IDF intelligence analysis, said that the trend of robots or autonomous systems taking over significant aspects of fighting wars from IDF soldiers was irrevocable.
One positive of this trend according to Ben-Meir was that fewer IDF soldiers would be harmed since fewer would need to go into battle.
The conference viewed a video of a Rafael autonomous weapons system integrated into a half-tank half-personnel carrier which is being developed and which it was suggested could potentially fight a whole neighborhood of Hamas fighters while being manned by only two soldiers.
Ben-Meir said that prosecuting battles with robots and fewer soldiers might also alter decision-makers strategic considerations about when and to what extent an operation could be carried out in Gaza.
His implication was that if currently, war decision-makers might hesitate from ordering troops to go to deep into Gaza for fear of losing 500-1,000 IDF soldiers, they might be able to order such an operation if fewer soldiers would be exposed.
At the same time, he said that “some of our enemies are going low-tech” as a response to Israel’s hi-tech prowess.
He cited Hamas’s use in the last year of balloons and kites as weapons against Israel as examples where it had used the most basic methods to frustrate Israeli technological superiority.
Another danger he flagged was that “technology is very easy to acquire” for terrorists.
If before, only rich and developed Western countries could acquire drones and other sophisticated technologies, “now anyone can get many of them on eBay and Amazon” at a cheap price.
Part of the logic here for how a group like Hamas could compete with Israel was that it was benefiting from huge research and development investments from private companies in the civil sphere, and merely hooking on to their achievements at the end of the development line.
On the same panel at the conference, INSS fellow and former Israel Air Force major Liran Antebi pointed out some of the problems Israel confronted in the autonomous weapon systems era.
She reminded the audience that the State Comptroller already published a report in November 2017 describing how utterly unprepared Israel is to defend against drone attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran.
While to date, Israel has succeeded at shooting down some invading drones, it has also missed some and it has not yet faced a coordinated multidrone attack which many believe would overwhelm the existing defenses.
There are private companies which have developed solutions for jamming or taking control over some drones, but to date the solutions tend to have limits and are not considered a full defense.
Further, she said that even as Israel improved to cope with the issue on defense, its process was slow and highly bureaucratic. This could be problematic facing adversaries like Hamas and Hezbollah which can move fast in producing new threats without bureaucratic niceties.
She asked about how Israel would remain true to its ethical and legal principles if it reached a stage where autonomous systems were deciding when to use lethal force.
Essentially, she said that the IDF still needed a human being in the loop for making the final decision about the use of lethal force, even if that human was controlling an autonomous weapons system operating at the front remotely.
“We are a democratic state” and cannot eliminate the human moral compass from making war, she stated.
Other members of the panel included Rafael Director of the Autonomous Systems Program Col. (res.) Meir Ben-Meir, Channel 13 Military Correspondent Alon Ben-David and Channel 12 Military Correspondent Roni Daniel.
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