Think about any future-war movie you’ve seen lately. They likely featured things like augmented reality binoculars, armed drones and autonomous vehicles. A lot of the things you might have seen are no longer science fiction, and are already in the hands of militaries around the world—with the Israel Defense Forces leading the field.

“Our vision is that entire theaters will fight autonomously, without a single human being directly involved in the fighting,” say engineers from Elbit’s C4I division (C4I stands for Computers, Communications, Command and Control, and Intelligence). Israel’s Elbit Systems is where a lot of the most classified Israeli military technologies are being developed; some of them are already changing the battlefield.

My visit is the first-ever by a journalist to Elbit’s classified labs in the heart of Netanya. Around 50 percent of what we saw is classified. What can be said is that some of the technologies being developed here will significantly change the battlefield, and will save soldiers’ lives, in coming conflicts. They’re straight out of a movie.

One needn’t look to the distant future, though, to see the IDF quickly absorbing advanced technologies. The IDF has already brought into service autonomous and robotic vehicles, drone fleets and sophisticated battlefield communication networks. The jewel in the crown of all these advanced systems, however, is the MK 77 and 624 radio transceivers, with which anyone who has served in a combat role in the IDF will be familiar. But more on these later.

Soldiers will soon encounter one of the most significant technological innovations shortly after being conscripted. Col. (res.) Arik Avivi, the outgoing head of the weapons department at the IDF Ground Forces Command, reveals that the military will soon bring into service simulators for weapons training. This, he says, will save the army a fortune and better prepare soldiers for combat, as from the outset they will be able to train in challenging terrain instead of shooting at cardboard cut-outs on a firing range.

IDF Col. (res.) Arik Avivi. Photo: Oren Cohen.

“We have already started constructing a combat training facility at the Nahal Brigade training base [in the Negev] that will be entirely based on the use of the simulator.  It’s a revolution. We will save 100 percent on ammunition, we’ll shorten training time and we’ll improve the professional level of the soldiers,” said Avivi.

Reservists are already using a simulator at the Sorek Base in central Israel to prepare for combat in complex urban environments. In the near future, all combatants will train like this.

Personal equipment has also been significantly upgraded. In the past, only special forces units received night vision goggles for each soldier, while in the infantry battalions only commanders, snipers and a few individual soldiers would be allocated such equipment. Today, the battalions are fully equipped with night vision. Other projects in the works are enabling combatants to identify enemy fighters using digital means, and “smart glasses” that operate without needing to be touched. The U.S. Army is currently conducting a large pilot program to introduce smart glasses for its soldiers, and we can expect to see such technologies reach the IDF as well.

The Elbit Systems SmartEye, ballistic eyewear providing commanders with a geo-oriented head-mounted C2 display. Projecting a see-through Augmented Reality (AR) symbology on the visor and enabling real-time image detection, SmartEye provides users with instant situational awareness. Credit: Elbit Systems.

About two years ago, a special tech unit was set up within the elite IDF Paratrooper Brigade Reconnaissance Battalion. The soldiers of this unit specialize in the use of specialist equipment on the battlefield. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the introduction of special capabilities to the infantry brigades—in the very near future, soldiers from the Golani, Nahal, Givati and Kfir brigades will have capabilities their predecessors could only have dreamed of.

“The trend in the coming years will be to provide tactical forces with more specialist equipment. In the past, when we brought new weapons to the division, commanders would decide where to allocate it. Today that is no longer the case. I haven’t given new weapons to the divisions for four years, because I know they are taken care of—I want to give them to the battalions and companies,” says Avivi. “All new weapons are given first to the reconnaissance units, because the personnel [there] are of higher quality. We learn from them and if everything works out, we send it down to the battalions.”

One technology already in the final stages of testing is advanced ammunition for grenade launchers, a weapon in use with many infantry battalions.

“We plan to give the combatants a more precise and deadly grenade, based on 40-millimeter munitions. Imagine a weapon like the LAW anti-tank missile, only it is fired using a grenade launcher that a lot of combatants in the field currently use,” said Avivi.

Elbit Systems’ THOR vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Mini-Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Credit: Elbit Systems.

Bring on the drones

But all of that is just a promo for what Israeli soldiers will receive in the near future. During “Operation Guardian of the Walls” earlier this year, the Paratroopers tech unit deployed a new drone, called the Firefly Tactical Miniature Loitering Weapon (called the “Maoz” in Hebrew). Produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Firefly can locate and attack targets at a range of 1,000 meters in open territory or 500 meters in urban environments. It carries a 12.3 ounce warhead and can hit 44 miles per hour as it dives at targets.

Avivi reveals that 15 IDF operational battalions are about to receive the Firefly, which he says will constitute a significant force multiplier in any future conflict. Company commanders already have observation and intelligence drones, and now they will receive a weapon that will enable them to operate without exposing themselves.

During “Guardian of the Walls,” the Paratroopers tech unit also employed drone swarms, a tactic that is expected to see increasing use in the near future.

Members of IDF Unite 8200’s operational arm training in the field. Sep 11 2012. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90.

Intelligence

With all due respect to physical combat, modern battles are becoming more and more about intelligence. Every battalion and company commander today has intelligence drones at their disposal. Indeed, they have become so ubiquitous and cheap that they are no longer fixed if they break, as it is more cost-effective to just replace them. These drones provide short-term intelligence to tactical forces and provide commanders with up-to-date situational intelligence.

One of the most advanced tools in IDF use today—and one that is being revealed here for the first time— is something the IDF has dubbed “seismic pearls”; small, circular sensors just an inch or so wide. During the next war, thousands of these devices will be dropped from planes and drones, enabling the IDF to detect movement on the ground.

“The seismic sensors were envisioned by the late Shimon Peres, who set up an NGO called Pearls of Wisdom,” said Avivi. “He said following the Second Lebanon War that there was no need for planes to fly back and forth [to search for enemies] and that we would create advanced appliances capable of tracking terrorists,” he added.

In the future, the plan is for the sensors to be reduced to the size of a droplet. The “pearls” are already so small that they’re practically impossible to locate.

“As an officer in the Second Lebanon War, I remember incidents of friendly fire that occurred because I couldn’t understand who was on the other side of the hill, just [a mile] away,” recalled a senior official who accompanied us on the tour of the Elbit campus.

Israeli soldiers returning from southern Lebanon, Aug. 14, 2006. Photo by Haim Azulay/Flash90.

Elbit is currently developing a [6-inch] drone to help soldiers identify the enemy without endangering themselves. “Our vision is that these miniature drones will enter buildings and fly between trees, and at the same time the sensors that we have dropped … will provide intelligence. The seismic pearls work for a few days and can do the work deep in enemy territory without us being there,” the official said.

The networked battlefield

The jewel in Elbit’s crown, however, is its Digital Army Program, a “system of systems” that pulls together all the disparate digital capabilities of the ground forces. An encrypted system is installed in every armored vehicle and tank, and even on special smartphones, providing real-time information about the location of friendly and enemy forces. This system received a major update just a few months ago.

Elbit Systems’ Smart WristView, a compact, low-power, rugged wrist-strapped C2 display, Credit: Elbit Systems.

The impact of this system on the battlefield is difficult to overstate. It provides a real-time overview of the entire battlefield, integrating input from Unit 8200 and the intelligence branch in Tel Aviv through to planes and unmanned aerial vehicles, the Armored Corps, the navy, and all the way down to individual infantry soldiers crouching behind a wall, meters away from the enemy.

“The system has input from the chiefs of staff at ‘the pit’ [the operations center of IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv] down to infantrymen in the field. We can analyze what the soldiers in the field can see and from that construct an ambush on a target and destroy it,” said the engineers from Elbit’s C4I division.

“The system allows threat location and enables us to prioritize. If in the Second Lebanon War, intelligence from Unit 8200 took half an hour to reach a battalion commander and only then made its way down to troops on the ground, now all of that will happen in seconds,” they explained.

“We will be able to transmit to a soldier’s smartphone where the enemy is, to a great degree of certainty, and enable him to view the battlefield through the cameras of a ship or plane and other means. Every platoon commander will know how to create targets, to open a live chat with all the relevant elements, and to request an immediate strike if needed. Our vision is that already during the next campaign we will see a lot of video-based combat—they [soldiers] will be able to see from a plane or UAV in real time. These processes will help us keep our soldiers safe and on the other hand conduct strikes that are far more accurate,” they added.

According to Col. Avivi, “The ‘digital ground army’ gives us intelligence that we have never had before. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. It’s in another league. We let Elbit know everything we need and they supply us with the capabilities.”

Thanks to this tech, IDF ground forces “have the ability to close circles of fire, to connect to the air force, whatever we want,” he said, adding, “If we had these capabilities in previous operations, such as ‘Defensive Shield,’ we would have lost far fewer soldiers.”

Avivi emphasized, however, that the military has not lost sight of the fact that despite its impressive capabilities, such technology is merely another tool.

“It’s like the Waze navigation app—it’s a backup,” he said. “Training will still teach soldiers to be able to cope without technology—but why should I want to prevent a soldier from getting stuck in a traffic jam? We save lives via [these tools].”

IDF forces during a training exercise near Katzrin in the Golan Heights, Aug. 31, 2021. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

In the future, the IDF will be able to monitor each and every soldier on the battlefield and thus to know precisely how ground forces are disposed. A few weeks ago, soldiers from the Refaim (Ghost) Multidimensional Unit conducted an experiment at the Smart-Tech facility with a gadget the size of a packet of cigarettes. The idea is that from next year, if everything works out, thousands of soldiers will already be equipped with these devices.

Staying connected

The lynchpin of all of these advances is communication, which must be maintained even in areas without appropriate infrastructure. And this is where radio transceivers—those burdensome boxes soldiers carry on their backs—come in. Infantry soldiers might see them as a burden, but for the IDF they are the most significant factor in future conflicts.

“We are in the midst of creating a revolution that will enable a quantum leap in the battlefield,” said the folks at Elbit, who emphasized that they are not in any way exaggerating. “We are bringing the radio of the future to the IDF. Currently, you can only be a champion gamer if you have a powerful computer, and here the goal is to make our soldiers the most lethal and efficient in the world. Today we have a cellular device that is connected to radio and can generate operational internet in the battlefield.”

Over the past few years, the IDF has been working to dramatically improve coordination among its various branches so as to enable real-time data transfer and create efficient mutual strike capabilities, among other things through the use of advanced digital appliances. About two months ago, an advanced pilot exercise was held in the Golan Heights with the aim of integrating Air Force and Military Intelligence personnel into ground force units. Pilots and intelligence officers joined the exercise, too.

An Israeli tank near the Syrian border in the northern Golan Heights. Aug. 18, 2021. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

“These officers are doing holy work, but they do it from offices in the Kirya [IDF HQ in Tel Aviv]. Now, however, they have been inside a tank and fired shells, and they understand how the intelligence they generate from the rear serves the last mile of the maneuvering force,” explains Artillery Corps commander Brig.-Gen. Neri Horowitz. “The officers slept in the field, ate battle rations and gained a better understanding of operational processes. We are conducting a lot of digitization processes, but there is no replacement to knowing how to work together. After we drop those officers off in the field, then the guys from military intelligence understand better how things work on the ground and how to better operate the digital ground army.”

Israeli soldiers participate in a training exercise in the Golan Heights, Aug. 31, 2021. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.

The exercise comes alongside another project that is currently taking shape in the IDF, the Sufa (assistance and assault) teams. For the first time, alongside artillery support officers, whose role is to coordinate between artillery batteries and fighting forces on the ground, battalions will also have aerial support officers and soldiers who have been trained as assault NCOs, whose role will be to locate and map targets and coordinate artillery fire, missile fire and aerial assault vehicles – that will be operated via technological means and command and control systems, including the digital ground army.

“Robotic technology is being developed around the world at a dizzying pace. Technologically we are there. There is no alternative to a ground maneuver to win a war, it cannot be done without it, but we can provide the ground forces with tools that will prevent unnecessary loss of life and change the battlefield,” says Colonel Avivi, summing up the revolution that is currently taking place in the IDF.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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