Ex-government agent discusses using AI to battle Hezbollah rockets

Ex-government agent discusses using AI in battling Hezbollah rockets, targeting terrorists, Russia-China cyber challenges and Iran.

A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him
Amit Meltzer is not only a former chief technology officer for a key Israeli government agency and a top cyber security consultant, he is also a master strategist.
Discussing the applications of Israeli government artificial intelligence (AI) power in combating a range of national security issues on the sidelines of a Basis Technology conference in Tel Aviv, it was apparent that his answers to most questions went several layers deeper than even many others in his field.
Meltzer had unusual insights into using AI operationally against Hezbollah rockets, for targeting terrorists, competing with Russian and Chinese cyber hacking, and going beyond AI regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Noting to Meltzer that The Jerusalem Post reported back in June 2015 that former “Israeli NSA” head Brig.-Gen. (res.) Pinchas Buchris had said that Israel could hack Hezbollah’s advanced computerized rockets, he was asked what was new that AI could bring to the table.
Meltzer said that it was important to understand that it’s possible there were multiple technologies in play, and that Hezbollah is trying to compensate for Israeli hacking abilities by using less hackable technologies.
In many cases, he said, “it is easy” to hack digital systems and that with GPS – “you just need to block the signal.”
However, he said there are inertial navigation systems which use a variety of motion, biometric and other censors to calculate a flight pattern to a target in advance which are much harder to disrupt or hack.
Further, he said, Israeli adversaries have themselves learned how to block GPS signals reportedly causing the IDF to “lose the ability to do exact targeting” using solely that tool.
While Meltzer clarified this jamming and hacking arms race with Hezbollah, where does AI come into the picture?
Here, Meltzer’s insights were penetrating.
Essentially, he said, AI can collect massive amounts of data about the timing and location of Hezbollah rocket crews both before and during their preparations for firing rockets, in order to target those teams before they launch their rockets.
So powerful are the AI indicators, he said, that sometimes they determine where a rocket cell will be going to before it gets there.
Moreover, he said, they can likely have the IDF’s targeting “tool” (aircraft or, according to foreign reports, drones) wait for the cell to arrive or even take the time to strike another target first, knowing that the rocket cell cannot set up and fire for minutes.
AI may be able to rate cells and their weaponry which fire more than once, in terms of their likelihood of hitting an actual Israeli target. This would function much the same way that the Iron Dome can rate the level of danger of rockets once they are launched based on their trajectory.
Both in peace time, but especially if a conflict starts, he said that Israeli intelligence is constantly surveilling Hezbollah rocket crews and known or suspected locations of rockets.
AI can analyze the surveillance data and geography to calculate and compare how long different teams will take from the moment they start to unearth their hidden rockets until the moment they are set up to fire them, said Meltzer.
Some cells may need to move short distances, while some may need to drive a kilometer.
In some cases, he said, AI can also identify an operational window precisely for deploying paratroopers to deal with a Hezbollah threat for which aerial strikes may be insufficient.
He said that before AI, sometimes such windows were missed or there was undo operational hesitation because of imprecise information.
All of this can also be crucial, he noted, in targeting Hezbollah rocket cells at a point relatively far away from the civilian location where the rockets are often hidden so as to reduce collateral civilian casualties.
This last point does not just apply to Hezbollah, but any targeting of terrorists who use human shields.
For example, Meltzer said that, unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others, Israel has a “weakness” that it wants to be ethical. He added that Hamas has exploited this by hiding much of its leadership under Shifa Hospital in Gaza at various times over the last decade.
AI can help calculate when and where an arch-terrorist will be alone with a rate of precision that past intelligence could almost never approach.
Moving to cyber challenges from Russia and China following a range of reports of those cyber powers using their tools on Israel, Melzer said that the issue is, “not a zero-sum game.”
Continuing, he said that there is “a big difference between intelligence collection by the Chinese versus the Russians” when they use cyber tools on Israel.
With Russia, he noted that it is “working strategically with countries in the area” and could pass on intelligence it obtains to the Assad regime in Syria.
“There is a built-in motive for them” which can lead to Russia “hurting us operationally,” but in terms of retaliating, he said “we also do not want a conflict with Russia.”
In contrast, he said that “the Chinese have no interest against Israel. They just collect intelligence on the entire world” as a mode of operation. He said this means that the “chance they will give this intelligence to adversaries” of Israel is “much lower than with the Russians.”
Next, Meltzer discussed reports about the US government banning the use of Chinese cellphones and some other Chinese technologies to address concerns of spying, while Israel dives deeper into importing many of the same Chinese technologies.
Why is the US acting defensively while Israel is not?
According to Meltzer, the US ban was mainly for show since China’s factories have been producing chips and elements of broadband technology for devices all over the world for years.
His point was that these elements of Chinese technology are so deeply ingrained in most of the world’s technological infrastructure, including in the US, that there is essentially no way to be free of it even in the medium term.
Really, he said, the US ban is part of the broader trade war for influence between the US and China which is harming both, and which Israel has no interest in.
He said this also means that China does not need to hack into systems the way that Russia does. Rather, it has a built-in advantage of backdoor access through its technology used worldwide.
In contrast, he said that Russia must employ more classic spying and offensive cyber tactics to collect information on foreign countries.
Meltzer was not particularly optimistic about Israel’s ability to use AI to defend against Chinese or Russian cyber powers, but was not concerned about the impact from China, and even with Russia, he believed that Russia would act conservatively so as not to inflame the Israeli-Syrian conflict.
He said that Russia’s moving its anti-aircraft S-300 system to Syria could serve as a diplomatic statement. But he implied that Russia would want to avoid the embarrassment that could occur if Israel had to target the S-300 systems.
With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, Meltzer was not optimistic about the long-term impact of Israeli cyber or AI despite past success, according to foreign reports of using the Stuxnet virus to delay the program.
“That is a delaying strategy… but you cannot stop them completely with viruses,” he said.
He said that cyber and AI could be interwoven with other technological and human intelligence to locate facilities, including facilities with large uranium footprints.
But mostly, he said, short of using military force, only some form of diplomacy “like Trump is trying to do with North Korea using both carrots and sticks” can solve the issue.
Switching to discussing AI and Basis technology’s products – designed to extract intelligence from multilingual texts – he said that “text analytics… is underutilized for the civilian sector.”
He said that AI and other new technological tools could be used to map out genetic data and tailor treatments and treatment plans to specific patients so that more patients can receive complex treatments and at reduced costs.
Meltzer explained that under the current system, a huge amount of costs comes from regular doctor visits to carry out generic checks, many of which might not be necessary or which a patient could administer at home given AI’s benefits.
Overall, the picture that Meltzer paints is that AI’s largest benefits are not its first level of increased speed at performing tasks, but the way it can be creatively used through second-level higher order and operational planning.