An introduction to the future of conflict
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
This is based on a talk given to the Florida Society for Middle East Studies, January 27, 2021.
Key subjects and talking point outline
- Background, ‘After ISIS’ and ‘Drone Wars’
- The Rafael demonstration with robot dog and drone, automatic mapping and target recognition (link)
- We’ve been in the “future” of warfare for decades.
- The Revolution of Military Affairs
- ‘The Future of War’ 1998 book
- From the Gulf War to War on Terror, technology changed the battlefield. Drones, for instance.
- The Middle East matters because this is where many weapons are “tested.” This was the case in the 1960s with the Cold War and in the Gulf War and then Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah. Also with a recent war in Azerbaijan with armed drones and Iran’s recent use of drones and ballistic missiles. US experience in Iraq and Syria.
- Israel: If we go back 20 years Israel had difficulty defeating the Palestinian Intifada
- Today Israel’s technology enables it to AVOID war
- Technology and precision also enable a reduction in casualties
- Israel has gone from a country acquiring advanced western weapons to building advanced weapons
- Drone pioneer (link)
- Israel’s air defense systems
- Israel’s anti-tank missiles, targeting pods, helmets, Smart Shooter, radar
- Today Israel is supplying the best systems to the US, India and Europe
- Big platforms, like tanks, F-35s, Israel’s new Sa’ar ship. What is new? Better sensors, optics, stealth, protection systems, and eventually more unmanned systems, more algorithms and artificial intelligence.
- Israel calls its new war plan ‘Momentum’ which is about bringing more information to front line soldiers. More “networked” army and “digital backbone”…a bit more like Predator, RoboCop, Aliens, and Terminator. A faster war, more precise and lethal, bringing more technology to the field quickly.
- What does artificial intelligence and algorithms do?
- Drones can fly themselves, and operators just point and click
- Rifles can fire when they see the “enemy”
- Rockets can intercept drones and cruise missiles, that maneuver and are slow
- Technology helps a commander know which force to use, which of the many weapons to choose from.
- Target recognition means that machines can sift through a lot of images and data faster
- The question of the “man in the loop” making the right decision.
- The dramatically increasing use of specialized drones which is tailored to today’s realities that military conflicts.
- Big drones, lack of stealth
- Small drones that every unit will pack in.
- Loitering munitions.
- Drones that “sniff” for radar and hunt down types of vehicles.
- Longer flight time, more weapons on them, more optics and sensors.
- Other future warfare considerations: Better air defense
- Lasers, tested in Israel and Pacific
- Are we entering a new age of obsolete platforms? Procurement takes too long in the West, while Turkey, Iran, China are innovating.
- Technology can’t solve everything, weapon systems can be overwhelmed by mass.
- Back to the dog and drone mapping the house: better recognition, knowledge. In the end soldiers still have to raid the house.
- Today’s threats: Precision munitions, drones, ballistic missiles.
The world is undergoing a major revolution in technology and that is increasingly true on the battlefield. While in the past military technology was sometimes at the forefront of innovation, today militaries are sometimes needing to catch up with what exists in the civilian world. For instance, terror groups have access to iPhones and can rig their own drones with grenades.
To respond to threats Israel has been forced to innovate and it has become a world leader in military technology. This warfare of the future is taking shape on numerous levels. At the highest level it means the introduction of artificial technology. On the ground it means new air defense systems such as Iron Dome, a system that shoots a missile interceptor to intercept other missiles, mortars or drones. At the same time Israel is pioneering new surveillance technology, precision missiles that cut down on casualties on the battlefield, and better methods to train soldiers and track enemies.
While Israel is an innovation powerhouse, other countries in the Middle East are showcasing the future of warfare as well. Turkey has developed numerous armed drones. Iran has used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia and Israel. What all this means is that large western countries like the US are no longer the world leader in every type of new military gadget. The US is now acquiring Israeli systems such as Iron Dome and a system called Trophy that protects tanks. This week the US also demonstrated an anti-tank missile called Spike that is from Israel.
These new gadgets and weapons will transform war in different ways. They are already cutting down on casualties and making things like mass bombing of cities ostensibly a thing of the past. That doesn’t mean that poorer regimes like Syria or terror groups don’t practice an old and bloody form of war. It does mean that more powerful states now have better tools to neutralize these threats.
I got into journalism after doing a PhD in Jerusalem. I covered a lot of conflicts, including Israel’s wars against Hamas and the war on ISIS. I have had the privilege of watching these conflicts unfold over the last twenty years. I also got to go to Iraq and meet people who were in Saddam Hussein’s army or Kurds who fought Saddam. I was in touch with the last forty years of warfare.
When I was asked to do this presentation we decided to do something on the future of warfare. Over the last two years I have been increasingly covering defense technology. That has given me the opportunity to be invited into the bowels of giant Israeli defense companies. Israel has three defense giants: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems and IAI. Each has its own expertise. For instance, Rafael makes the Iron Dome which protects against rockets. That has personally impacted me. Back in 2009 I was on the border of Gaza in Sderot and in those days when the ‘red alert’ siren sounded all you could do is run for cover. We had fifteen seconds to get to a concrete bunker or go inside a building or just put our heads on the ground.
Israel was very lucky to invest in a defense system that uses a rocket or missile to intercept a missile. That is complicated technology. The basic challenges are that you have a projectile coming in and you need to detect it and then shoot something to find it. The amazing thing we have seen is that Israeli technology has been rolled out in the last twenty years and needed to keep up with enemy technology that is increasing. When you look at Iron Dome you have a particularly challenge. Not every country is affected by rocket fire. Some countries have different threats. What Israel was facing was a rocket threat from Gaza and their ranges were increasing from dozens of kilometers to more than 100. Many will remember that during the Gulf War Saddam Hussein launched Scuds at Israel. The US at the time had the Patriot system which was supposed to intercept them and at the time it didn’t work very well.
So the lesson is you have a certain threat and then the threat changes. For instance you may have a projectile like a mortar that flies on an arc. You may have dumb bombs. But now you have cruise missiles or drones. Some missiles may maneuver or hug the ground. A drone can hover and move from place to place. So if your system has a sensor looking for a missile on a path, you need to develop a better sensor and seeker to track and impact the threat. So the nature of warfare, just like anything else whether sports or investing in stocks, we can look at warfare as a series of changes and revolutions. In the 1940s the Germans overran France and they had new technology. But warfare is about how you use the technology also. Germany overran France and defeated the Maginot line, even though the Maginot Line was technologically advanced. Germany built the Bismarck and Tirpitz, advanced warships, but they were both sunk. So it’s not just about technology but how the technology is used. Keep that in mind.
Israel is a relatively small country. Israel, because it suffered military threats, has always had to either acquire good technology and weapon systems or develop them internally. So if you look at the history of Israel in the 1950s to 1970s it was acquiring military technology from abroad, such as from the US, France or other countries. Israel was facing conventional wars against peer adversaries armed by the Soviets. So the question is how do you train better, how do you use the technology better. Israel was luckily enough to have won most of those conflicts. Then fast forward to the 1980s and Intifadas. The conflicts in southern Lebanon or the Intifada, the rioters, is different than before. Consider the photos of Israeli tanks facing kids throwing stones. Now, when we get to the Second Intifada, Israel was again facing an insurgency. Israel was sending soldiers with rifles to hunt down enemies with rifles. Israel may have had F-16s but you can’t always use an f-16 against a guy hiding in a building. Israel faced complicated challenges.
What Israel found out in 2006 is that despite an Israeli army with billions of dollars in budgets and tanks, Israel faced a lot of challenges. It faced challenges against Hezbollah, which was armed and backed by Iran. Israeli units had trouble coordinating attacks, and there were problems in communication and coordination. Since then Israel has gone through a training revolution and technological revolution (see link). Israel has gone through new multi-year plans and acquired new systems like the F-35. It has developed new technology internally and today Israel is a supplier of military technology globally, from supplying the US to India and Europe. Israel is at the cutting edge of what conflicts may look like in the future.
What future conflicts may look like
It doesn’t mean what is happening here will happen everywhere else. The conflicts that might appear in Asia, such as the US and China, may involve large navies. Israel, by contrast, is not a major naval power. It does have a new Sa’ar 6 corvette, but Israel and its adversaries are not naval powers. Iran, for instance, has a weak navy. We are not seeing new naval warfare in the Middle East. With all that being said, let’s go through a few issues and topics.
I think about a month and a half ago, before the lockdown, I had an invitation to go see a demonstration in coastal kibbutz. I drove down and I went into a 1970s era building that looked like a cafeteria. I saw a presentation on the future of ground combat. The Rafael experts that were giving the presentation. The presenter noted that for the ground forces soldier the experience of war hasn’t changed that much. They still carry a rifle into battle. Tanks still have a four person crew. They may have better sensors and optics and targeting systems, but it is still a tank. What he said about technology was that the next revolution will relate to what defense companies do in artificial intelligence and more creation of a “digital backbone” for armies. You still have individual soldiers bit officers have access to a lot more information on the battlefield of where the soldiers are and are going.
So think of a scenario where you have several soldiers needing to raid a house. Decades ago you have binoculars but do you have drones? Probably not. Even if you do the drone is talking to someone far away, in the US that would be the Air Force or CIA. So the soldiers on the ground don’t’ get the feed or intelligence or map from the drone. So what do the soldiers know? Do they have an accurate map? There is a fog between them and the house, they may end up shooting women or children, or be killed by IEDs .
Now, in the demonstration I witnessed with Rafael, we were taken to the rear of the building where there was a robot dog and drone. The dog was about knee-high and the drone could hover. The technology is not about the platform, but rather the sensors and the “brain” that has been put on the platform. The robot dog and drone can go into the house and make a 3-D model. The machines can find access to tunnels and also use sensors and algorithms and machine learning to identify weapons and targets. It can identify the difference between a bullet and a pen or a broomstick and an RPG. So this gives the commander a picture of the house and the threats and this gives the soldiers more information. Now they know all the things that are in the house. Now they have all these tools in their hands in terms of information. In Israel’s new Momentum multi-year plan the concept is to put intelligence in the hand of the soldier at the most forward position.
In the old days you may have had drones, as Israel did in the 1980s. But just because the US had drones, such as the Predator, before 9/11, it was more cumbersome. They wanted to get eyes on Bin laden, but if you don’t have a live feed to the guys on the ground then you can’t act quickly. So you need the communications and other technology., You want to make choices fast. Things in war come down to making the right choices quickly and also making sure you don’t slaughter a bunch of civilians. For instance a drone may see what looks like a terrorist meeting but is actually a wedding party. So how do you have an algorithm that helps identify if this is a wedding party or terror network. How does the technology identify a truck that has an RPG in the back compared to the one that has cabbages in the back. So there is better technology and better scanning.
Too much information
In our world we have iPhones everywhere and militaries face another problem today. There is too much information out that. in the earlier example of the soldiers preparing a raid of a house they have a lot of “fog” in front of them. They don’t know much. Now the problem is the opposite. I know what is in the house, I know a lot of information about it. I know every person who went back and forth for six days. I have had a drone overhead for days on end, watching everything. I would know if a mouse went back and forth. So now I have to present the soldiers and commanders the best information. I need algorithms, artificial intelligence and computers to boil this down and present options. So, yes, we know there are terrorists in there but what is the best way to eliminate or neutralize them and take them down. I could use the soldiers, or a hellfire missile from a drone or an armored vehicle. I have different options and the commanding officer, he or she, has options that have come out of a giant sieve. They now have to decide what sensor to use or what ‘effector.’ And all this has to happen quickly.
The euphemism, no plan survives contact with the enemy, means that the second you have soldiers going into a village all your plans go out the window. All of a sudden there is too much information coming in. Now, you have a commander somewhere a few kilometers away in a mobile headquarters full of computers and soldiers. That provides them options of the best move to make. What artificial intelligence and machine learning does is provide better choices.
The controversy we hear about is that this sounds a lot more like RoboCop or Terminator or Predator. What happens when the machine makes a mistake. What about the “man in the loop.” The US drone program was critiqued in places like Pakistan because of civilian casualties. What we see with Israel in terms of being ahead of the curve, since the 2014 war against Hamas, Israel has not been fighting wars anymore the same way. But Israel is still fighting. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria. In January 2019 Israel’s former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot used the 1,000 airstrikes figure. These were against Iranian targets. That sounds like a lot of airstrikes. If the US did a 1,000 airstrikes in Mexico we would call that a war. Is Israel fighting a war in Syria? That comes down to some of the future of warfare issue. Is 1,000 airstrikes a war. Can you fight a war that is not a war. How many civilians have been killed in the more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria? I have yet to see a news story saying how many, but we have not heard about many. I cover this every day and I haven’t heard about many. So there were 1,000 or more airstrikes and just a handful of civilian airstrikes. And how many soldiers have been killed? Thousands of Iranians? No. Thousands of Hezbollah members? No. Thousands of Syrian soldiers? No.
Conflicts without war
So Israel has waged a conflict in which almost no people have been killed. What has been hit is munitions being trafficked through Syria from Iran via Iraq to Lebanon. Israel has been able to carry out an effective campaign in a precise manner against weapon systems and threats. It does this in a clandestine manner and using lethality against munitions but not against people. That is a revolution from what Israel was doing just ten years ago when I was on the border of Gaza. A lot of civilians were killed in those conflicts like 2009 Cast Lead and 2014. Mistakes were made. What Israel has done is drill down to very precise weapons.
How do you get to that level of precision? It has better sensors and optics and it can hover or watch and you have a lot of choices. Commanders have a lot of choices and technology helps them make the right decision of what is the best weapon to use with the least destruction around the target, such as a building, truck or bunker.
Now let’s go back and touch on several other points. We have lived through this ‘future of warfare’ issue ever since the Gulf War. There has been a lot of talk about making war “clean” and pure and asking what the technology will allow us to do. What Israel and western militaries face is that no one wants casualties. Israel wants to have very few soldiers killed in battle. Also you don’t want to kill civilians in an enemy area or even necessarily kill a lot of enemies. We have heard a lot about the Revolution in Military Affairs in the 1990s. So we have some dilemmas. One dilemma is whether war has become a bit of a video game. That was a critique of the US using only air power in the 1990s or the drone war in places like Pakistan where people in Nevada were flying the drones. That means you didn’t have boots on the ground and there were questions of ethics and morals.
So Israel will face these questions as well. If you take soldiers out of the vehicles and you have unmanned vehicles and tanks without soldiers. He future armored fighting vehicles may be unmanned or optionally manned. So a machine that looks like a tank may have no people in it. So that means the vehicle can drive in circles around a hostile village and could be destroyed without having casualties. But does that look more like Terminator and less like a conflict. People get concerned about robots patrolling cities. No one wants robots making decisions about who gets through a checkpoint. There needs to be a human interface. SO we are seeing questions about what this technology really means.
Air defense and drones
Another important issue to touch on is Israel’s advances in air defense. Around Hanukkah 2020 Israel carried out a multi-layered integrated air defense drill with Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow and integrating the systems. This sounds complex but at its base is it is several systems used to confront different types of threats, such as long range ballistic missiles and mortars and drones. So Israel developed several systems with US support. This is a multi-layered approach to stop everything from mortars to ballistic missiles. So the concept is you have a lot of layers, a kind of forest of systems. Israel has a huge number of systems and is the best defended airspace in the world. And Israel is selling these systems around the world (see link). The US has acquired two Iron Dome batteries, for instance.
Other countries are looking to Israel to learn about this concept of air defense. In September 2019 Iran used 25 drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia. In this case the radars and air defense didn’t detect or confront the threat. So you need to have the right radar and missiles to stop these kinds of threats. When we look at where Israel is impacting the world in terms of future air defense, because Israel faces such threats from Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran, it has built the best technology of air defense.
It is also important to look at advances in drone warfare (see link). There has been a lot of prophecies by people like Elon Musk that there won’t be manned warplanes after the F-35. There is a big debate about whether that is accurate or will happen. We’ve seen glossy brochures about how the future will just be drones everywhere. Pilots are saying that it’s not possible to just have no people in planes. Today Israel, Iran. China, Turkey and the US are all players in the military drone market. When we think of drones we think of either the small DJI quadcopters or something larger like the Predator or Reaper.
When we think of these machines the concept originally was to have an airplane and just take the pilot out. So it could be like a model airplane. These were used to go spot enemy installations. You want to have real time information from the drone. You don’t want to lose pilots. Israel did that effectively in 1982 against Syrian air defense in Lebanon. Today we aren’t talking about unmanned aircraft that can shoot missiles, but a whole menagerie of different drones. So in Israel we have seen something called Loitering Munitions or Kamikaze drones. This means a system that hovers and waits for and looks for targets and then slams into the targets. So it is like a missile at the end but its different because when you shoot a missile it can’t hover or come back to base. We see a lot more use of these weapon systems. We also see terrorists use drones more. Small countries like Azerbaijan are also using a lot of drones as a kind of instant air force. They are finding that you can use a lot of drones and be as effective as having an expensive air force. I’ll wrap up here and take questions. It’s worth noting there are a lot of other technologies being rolled out, such as lasers and other weapons. I