World

A Pilotless Pilot Program

A drone flown by Israeli soldiers trying to intercept Palestinian kites and balloons loaded with flammable materials near Kissufim, Israel, June 5, 2018. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Israel–U.S. drone cooperation could revolutionize what soldiers carry into battle

The U.S. and Israel reached a new milestone in defense cooperation this month as Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced that an Israeli start-up named Xtend would be part of a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Defense to use its Skylord drones. The program will initially include several dozen of the small drone systems, which are designed for air defense against drone or other threats.

If this all sounds a bit futuristic and confusing, using drones to confront other drones, it is because the current threats that we face from drones and other types of enemy innovations are increasing daily. Xtend’s innovation is in using augmented reality, basically wearable goggles like the ones hi-tech gamers use, to guide the drones to find and destroy threats. Imagine soldiers guarding the perimeter of a base and being alerted to a terrorist drone threat, like the kind ISIS used in the battle for Mosul. Now, instead of taking cover or plinking away with rifles at a hard-to-hit small drone, the soldier can put on virtual-reality glasses and guide their own drone in for the kill.

The Combating Terrorist Technical Support Office at the Department of Defense is supporting this project. It is part of a much wider ecosystem of defense and research-and-development cooperation between Israel and the U.S. For instance, the military is evaluating Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which can be used against rockets and other threats. Americans have been killed this year in Iraq by pro-Iranian groups firing rockets at bases where soldiers are housed. An Iron Dome–style system could help protect them. Similarly, American tanks use the Trophy defense system developed by Israel. The technology goes both ways: Israel is among the most active users of the American-made F-35.

It is against small tactical drones that U.S. and Israeli soldiers, as well as allies ranging from NATO countries to Japan, are still trying to find a weapon system that actually works and can be widely deployed. On the surface it seems obvious that militaries should already have small drones in the palm of every soldier’s hand. Small drones, like the quadcopters used to photograph weddings, are cheap and easy to use. But they tend not to be very rugged: They overheat and don’t fly for very long. Think of a special-forces unit sent into the field for days in a jungle or desert. How do you equip them with small drones to use and what do you want those drones to do? Drones, like the Predator, can help with surveillance, something we are familiar with from watching movies about the global war on terror. But what if you want to take out a target hiding in a building that threatens your ground troops? What if there isn’t a Reaper drone that can assist? Soldiers need numerous small drones they can deploy and fly.

However, if you look at the smaller drones that were deployed over the years, they are either too big to carry in a backpack into a battlefield or they aren’t rugged and armed. The U.S. military likes acronyms for various programs for smaller drones, like “short-range reconnaissance (SRR).” But when it comes to acquisitions, there is still a long way to go. Here Israel’s innovative and more nimble defense industry is helping to fill a gap. The Xtend concept puts virtual reality in the hands of the soldier to help fly drones. Meanwhile Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems makes a small drone called the Spike Firefly. They view it as similar to a precision guided missile because it is not just a drone but has an explosive on it. Its origins actually lie in Israel’s 1967 war, when a paratrooper assaulting Jordanian trenches sketched an idea for a hovering grenade. Firefly is packed into a tube so it can be easily carried in a pack. It weighs only around 6 lb. and has a range of around half a mile, depending on the terrain.

For a more rugged quadcopter-style drone, Elbit Systems recently put its THOR drone through tests that included subjecting it to freezing temperatures and heat (minus 40 degrees Celsius to 65 degrees Celsius). A small start-up called SpearUAV, located in Tel Aviv, has also built a drone called Ninox that can be shot out of a canister, similar to a grenade launcher, which makes it easy to attach to vehicles or carry into battle.

Israel’s innovation in small drones comes from the necessity of confronting Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terror armies. Small drones are suitable for the kinds of operations the U.S. has carried out during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in clandestine operations that take place in Somalia and across the Sahel. They are also a good fit for militaries like that of the Philippines that are fighting an insurgency and need new tools for soldiers to fight with. The question is when these systems will not be just an exotic rarity on the frontline, but every infantry platoon will have a drone operator with a pack full of different drones to use against different threats. As the Pentagon prepares to confront larger, more technologically sophisticated enemies such as Russia, China, and Iran, the need to equip soldiers with the latest technology is clear. What is less clear is what will happen when a platoon using small killer drones comes into contact with an enemy that has jamming equipment and drone swarms of its own. The army that fields the most sophisticated multi-layered drone systems will have an advantage over those that are slow to adapt. The developing U.S.–Israel relationship on these kinds of capabilities is sure to impact the future and give the Pentagon the advantage it needs.

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