Last week the Iron Dome faced off against the largest number of rockets ever fired by Hamas in a single 24-hour period. It performed impressively, stopping more than 100 of the 460 fired, targeting those headed for populated areas and letting others fall harmlessly.
I had a front-row seat next to Kfar Aza. Years ago, due to the threat of Qassam rockets and mortars, we wouldn’t have felt so secure, so close to Gaza and danger. But instead, a theater of war played out around us at night, with dozens of little yellow dots, the rockets from Gaza, reaching skyward, and the white light of the Iron Dome Tamir interceptors searching them out.
Integrated with sirens, the whole system is a marvel of modern war. It’s also a unique defensive system for a particular threat.
Israel is a pioneer in these kinds of systems, especially those that are increasingly filling gaps and niches between the tactical level and larger level. Recently, I visited two companies that are pioneering technologies in this field.
One of them is called CONTROP Precision Technologies, a privately owned company that specializes in what it calls “development and production of electro-optical and precision motion control systems and surveillance, defense and homeland security applications.” The other company, RADA Electronic Industries, specializes in design, development and production of defense electronics, especially tactical land radars.
It’s hard to visualize most of these systems or understand how they are applicable, because of the jargon and technical specifications involved in them. The best way to think of it is to recall all the movies you’ve seen about war recently. Whether it was Eye in the Sky about military personnel bickering about a drone target, or episodes of Homeland, there’s always a scene with people sitting in a room with computers watching some target somewhere. What all of this technology is doing is making it possible to locate targets more easily or defend borders from threats.
In most of history, war was primarily a contest between people with handmade weapons. If they were lucky, they had access to animals, such as war elephants or horses. When societies were organized, they mass-produced weapons and had complex military formations. By the time of the First World War, technology had made killing more deadly, and machines such as tanks were being produced.
That all changed with computers, rocketry, and missiles that could track their targets. By the 1990s another era, sometimes called the Revolution in Military Affairs, emerged, with the use of precision weapons, drones (UAVs), satellite imaging, and a massive shift to technology as an underpinning of war.
This revolution might be exemplified by the Gulf War or the US campaign in Iraq in 2003, where a technologically superior first world country destroyed an army that, on paper, looked to be a formidable enemy. Casualties were low, precision attacks on things like tanks or communications centers made the Iraqi Army largely useless.
But those were still large-scale conflicts; the average soldier benefited from technology only in the wider sense that it destroyed the enemy before he had to face them.
We’ve learned since then that the kinds of wars being fought today are not large conventional wars, but small wars, often fought between a country such as the US or Israel and an enemy that may be a “non-state actor,” such as terrorist groups. This creates what is called “asymmetric” war, one where one side has massive amounts of technology and firepower, against an enemy that may be just a few hundred fighters with rifles and RPGs.
But a person with a rifle, or even groups like Hamas with mortars and sniper rifles and unguided missiles, can still wreak havoc. And what happens when the terrorist group is a kind of hybrid, like Hamas, where they have Kornet antitank missiles, and behave sometimes like an armed militia, and sometimes like a lone-wolf terrorist? How should the modern state and its army confront this? Often the answer is not so simple.
I saw this firsthand on the front line against ISIS in Iraq. Over three years and numerous trips, I saw how the US-led Coalition of almost 70 countries had a massive amount of information and surveillance and drones and access to firepower, but someone still has to clear houses and go into tunnels and man 1,000 kilometers of front lines.
In one frontline position against ISIS, the Kurdish peshmerga had only one MILAN antitank missile. Their weapons were little different from those of ISIS. But somewhere overhead was a drone, and somewhere a commander could call the Coalition to ask for assistance. There was a gap in technology between men on the front line in small tactical units, and the resources that exist to protect them from the enemy. Armies are increasingly filling that gap, to the extent that the soldier or team of soldiers has to become used to interfacing with massive amounts of various technologies.
Where technology, especially systems being designed and pioneered in Israel, is heading is toward smaller and more accurate systems. For instance, there are now drones that can be deployed by a team of soldiers who might even bring the drone in with a backpack. They could launch it and have it fly over a position in front of them. With a miniature camera, such as some of those I saw at CONTROP, it could monitor what is happening. At the same time, the team, driving a vehicle, might need a small radar that can detect the source of an attack. Radars that RADA makes can detect the source of small arms fire, mortars and a whole range of other threats.
Everywhere we look in Israel, we find similar cutting-edge technology at companies such as Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. The defense industry in Israel is expanding, and it is already among the largest and most influential in the world. Exports reached $9.2 billion 2017, and the industry employs some 80,000 workers.
Globes said last year that this makes Israel the world’s seventh-largest defense supplier. Israel is also a big spender, $19.6b. in 2017, and the recipient of $3.8b. in US military aid per year.
Israel’s defense companies have been such pioneers often because what they make is also being used in Israel. Israel also happens to face the kinds of threats that are emerging in the world, including these kinds of hybrid terrorist-militia groups which have access to precision weapons and also carry out lone-wolf attacks.
In a cynical way, the world looks at Israel as the bloody testing ground to see what works. It was always this way. During the Cold War the Soviets sent their equipment to Egypt and Syria, and Western powers exported technology to Israel. Moscow and Washington got to see what worked and what didn’t in 1967, 1973 and other wars. During the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Israeli experience against terrorism during the Second Intifada, including failures, was examined by both the US and forces seeking to challenge the US in Iraq.
In 2018 things have changed again. The recent flare-up in Gaza showed that technology can do many things that were not possible in the past. This also saves lives, not only in Israel but in Gaza. The layers of surveillance equipment and access to other hi-tech measures, whether it is drones or the ability to locate and phone people to warn them, meant there were almost no civilian casualties in Gaza in the recent mid-November conflict.
This was quite a departure from previous wars with Hamas.
One criticism of all this technology is that it makes modern war less personal, it allows too much distance from the operator to the target. Movies have tried to explore this, looking at the effects war has on drone operators, for instance.
But this cliché largely misunderstands what technology is doing for the modern warrior. I recently saw a video of some Coalition special forces a colleague filmed in Hajin in Syria. They were warming up their vehicles in the morning before going out to raid ISIS. Technology hasn’t made them less personally involved. There is still a man in the vehicle, someone has to operate the tablet computer and use the technology. It has simply transformed the soldiers’ roles and their need to work with the equipment and see it as an asset.
The challenge of future war is not that everything becomes less personal, but how to get the soldiers to want to use all the gadgets at their disposal effectively
. Just a short look at all the websites of Israeli defense companies gives one a view of the wide range of “solutions” that soldiers have. A vehicle can be festooned with cameras, antennas and different systems so it can see in the dark, detect laser range finders that might be targeting it, fly a drone, fly another drone to do surveillance, operate a machine gun outside, while the operator sits inside. It can do everything. But will the soldier use all the equipment properly, or will all these fancy systems end up only with elite groups of special forces, while the average soldier still relies on his rifle?
In the end, the last question is whether technology can win wars. Technology enables the protection of forces and finding targets and precision guidance of munitions to neutralize the target. But does it win?
Hamas isn’t defeated. Technology only sort of defeated ISIS. ISIS is still around. Turkey’s NATO army has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party for decades. The US has been fighting in Afghanistan for 17 years. Often, what happens with technology is that it provides solutions for pieces of the war, but it can’t always win. In Benghazi or in Niger, Americans were killed by jihadists, not for lack of technology, but because it just wasn’t enough to stop the onslaught.
Israel is pioneering more and more defense solutions that are helping to fill these tactical “gaps” between the soldier on the front and the drone or tank or larger force in the rear. This should reduce casualties and ensure that only enemies, not civilians, are killed. But in the long run it may not win every war; it may just make them less deadly.
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