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Israel’s military a 51-year growth story

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As Israel celebrated Yom Yerushalayim last week, it was so evident how the army has developed from rag-tag beginnings 51 years ago to its current form as a world military leader.
by GABRIELLE INHOFE | May 17, 2018

This was evident just a week ago. On May 9, the Quds Force – a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – fired 20 rockets from Syria into the Golan Heights. Sixteen rockets fell short of their targets, and four others were destroyed by Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defence system.

Soon after, Israel launched its heaviest strikes against Syria in decades. The attack, in which fighter jets targeted Iranian munitions warehouses and intelligence centres within Syria, killed five Syrian soldiers and 18 militia fighters.

Iran, which uses Syria as a base and a proxy in its attempt to achieve regional dominance, has never had a direct confrontation with Israel. Heightening tensions – which began with an Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace in February – has seen Israel preparing for war, though.

Indeed, Israel has all the resources it needs to do so.

Israel’s defence spending is robust, and the Knesset – Israel’s Parliament – increases it steadily. In 2016, the Knesset passed the 2017-2018 budget, which allocated $18.2 billion (R225 billion) per year for the defence budget. On average, defence spending increases by just over $1 billion (R12 billion) per year, and makes up the biggest portion of Israel’s entire budget. In 2014, Israel’s military budget was 5.2% of the GDP, a percentage second only to Saudi Arabia.

The Iron Dome system, active since 2011, intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells fired up to 70km away. Each interceptor costs between $20 000 and $50 000 (R248 000 and R620 000), a small price in securing Israelis’ peace of mind.

Iron Dome is just the tip of the iceberg. Guardium – the Israeli unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which are essentially border-patrolling robots – have been deployed along the Gaza Strip and the border with Syria. The robot, which looks like a dune buggy, can be manned remotely or follow a pre-designated route. It is equipped with cameras, sensors and weapons. One of the main goals of the new class of robot is to minimise security risks to soldiers.

Similarly, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) maintains a fleet of Protector ships. These are unmanned ships which patrol Israel’s coastal waters and are equipped with cameras and water cannons. In 2017, an upgraded version of the Protector successfully fired several test missiles. Besides helping to secure Israeli shores, the ships can also defend natural gas rigs.

Beyond remote operation capabilities, artificial intelligence (AI) takes Israeli technology even further by giving systems more responsibility in decision-making and analysis. AI could open up a new cyber front between Israel and its enemies, as AI makes it easier for attackers to install malware and penetrate networks.

Israel has responded to gains in such AI-driven cyber warfare with AI cyber defence techniques of its own. One of the major advantages of AI cyber defence is that it can sift through huge amounts of data and recognise inconsistencies much more efficiently than a human can. The software unit of the IDF Directorate’s Lotem Unit uses AI in a multitude of projects, including a system for predicting rocket launches from Gaza.

This superpower of innovation and a budget of billions was not always the case, though. Despite territorial gains and victory on multiple fronts during the Six-Day War, the Israeli army was vastly outnumbered by the Arab armies, and did not benefit from elite training, a huge budget and a retinue of robots and AI.

One of the primary differences between present-day Israel and its Six-Day War version is the relationship between the economy and military infrastructure.

In the 1960s, Israel’s economy was still idling. It was not yet the globalised, entrepreneurial powerhouse it is today.

Nowadays, there’s a start-up company for every 1 200 citizens, and hundreds of multinational companies have set up offices in Israel. Ever-increasing innovation from Israel’s citizens has earned the country the title of Start-up Nation. Technology and training from elite IDF units has fed successful Israeli and multinational companies, which in turn share new products, ideas and systems with the government and military. The military and the private sector thus share a special relationship that was not present in 1967.

For example, the start-up company, Percepto, has created a drone called “Sparrow I”, which relies on AI capabilities to conduct autonomous missions. Although the drone is intended for commercial purposes, such as the monitoring of industrial centres, there’s no doubt that its technology can benefit the Israeli military.

And Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, has partnered up with TAU Ventures – Tel Aviv University’s investment arm – to grant money to six start-ups working in AI and not already in security.

Thus, if missiles had rained upon Israel in 1967, the country would not have stood a chance, lacking its current technological and financial edge. (The Iron Dome system still does not cover multiple fronts even today, but that technology is in the works.) Israel was lucky in the Six-Day War in that the Arab armies were badly co-ordinated and its surprise approach was so successful.

In the future, especially in the event of confrontation with Iran, Israel will be able to rely on much more than just chance. Indeed, with AI and unmanned robots working on its side, Israel can both predict attacks and minimise risks to soldiers.

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