Seemingly world first, IDF deployed drone swarms in Gaza fighting – .

Seemingly world first, IDF deployed drone swarms in Gaza fighting – .

Massive swarms of dozens or hundreds of AI-guided drones are widely regarded as one of the most disturbing weapons making their way onto the modern battlefield, one with the potential to be much cheaper. and therefore more accessible to non-state actors than others. advanced ammunition.

The world got a taste of this emerging, albeit limited, military technology in May during the 11-day conflict between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, when the Israel Defense Forces used flocks of drones overhead. of the tape to spot Hamas rocket fire. and attack these sites in what appears to be one of the first significant and publicly recognized real uses of the concept.

The military’s use of drones in this way was initially kept a secret during the fighting, but has since been allowed to be published in part.

During the fighting, the IDF fought to stop the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups from launching rockets and mortar shells at Israel. At the end of the conflict, more than 4,000 projectiles were fired from the Gaza Strip, killing several people in Israel, injuring dozens more and regularly sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters for nearly two weeks.

In an effort to prevent these attacks, the military worked to develop new methods to locate the launch pads, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad had buried and hidden throughout the Gaza Strip, in schoolyards. , allotment gardens and otherwise deep in civilian areas. For the first time, the IDF’s artificial intelligence capabilities were brought to bear, helping human analysts interpret a large amount of satellite and aerial surveillance imagery to locate launch pads, some of which were designed to be used several times. This led the Israeli military intelligence services to declare the Gaza campaign “the first world war on AI”.

In one use of artificial intelligence, the IDF has deployed small herds of quadcopter drones over the southern Gaza Strip, each device monitoring a specific patch of land, the Times of Israel has learned. time. When rocket or mortar fire was detected, other armed aircraft or ground units attacked the source of the fire.

According to the Walla news site, drone swarms have been used dozens of times during fighting by a hitherto classified company of the Parachute Brigade, based on concepts developed by the IDF Ghost Experimental Unit. , which is responsible for trying and creating new tactics and styles of combat for the military.

Israeli military drones fly in formation in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“After a year of preparation and exercises, the situation has arrived and the aerial detection system is capable of finding the enemy and destroying them and providing the operational feat we seek,” said the commander of company, which for security reasons can only be identified by its rank and first Hebrew initial, Major “Mem”, the outlet said.

“We have carried out more than 30 sorties with the drone swarms, which collected accurate intelligence and helped other drones carry out attacks on the targets,” he said.

During the 11-day campaign, dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls, Mem’s unit worked with defense contractor Elbit, who manufactured the drones, and other IDF units to hone their capabilities over time. real.

According to Mem, while the first use of his unit was in Gaza, it was more of a test for the real threat they are preparing for: Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is seen as a far more powerful enemy. than Hamas.

“We are not resting on our laurels. We are already looking north and preparing for the operations of the next war, ”he said.

The military also reportedly intends to expand the use of this technology to other ground units in the future.

However, Israeli drone expert Tal Inbar said it was not clear whether these were really the first attacks by a drone swarm in the world, as recent media reports have claimed. days, but it was nonetheless a milestone in the use of the technology.

An Israeli drone photograph showing 14 underground rocket launchers in the courtyard of a school in the Gaza Strip that were used by Palestinian terrorist groups during the May conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas . (Israel Defense Forces)

“You can say this is one of the first times that Israel officially recognizes it,” he said.

Swarms of drones are not particularly new technologies and do not exist only in the military field. Indeed, most people have encountered the technology in the form of high-tech light shows, as the Israelis did in 2018, when hundreds of drones flew in formation during the annual Day of the Dead event. Independence on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

According to Inbar, the technical definition of a drone swarm is “a number of planes flying together for a specific mission. It can be something military or it can make a bunch of pretty lights in the sky. “

While the latter seems insignificant, Inbar argued that operating hundreds or thousands of drones at once – with the wind and other atmospheric changes – is no small feat, which is why only the large companies, like Intel in the case of Independence Day, have the necessary technical capabilities.

At the same time, a drone swarm is not just a large number of drones all flying together. To qualify, the aircraft must also communicate and coordinate its actions – at least to some extent – requiring some degree of artificial intelligence.

So, while Israel’s Independence Day light show would be seen as a veritable swarm of drones, the attack on the Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia by several drones and cruise missiles allegedly by the ‘Iran would not be. (Although Inbar notes that the attack revealed sophisticated abilities in their own right.)

“It wouldn’t be a swarm. I would call it a coordinated attack of multiple drones, ”said Inbar.

What sets drone swarms apart is the autonomy of the swarm, the degree to which they fly together – like a school of fish or a flock of birds – and not just all piloted in formation by separate human operators. .

A flock of starlings near the Arab Israeli town of Rahat, in the northern Israeli Negev desert, on February 2, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

According to Inbar, there are a number of different methods of deploying drone swarms, ranging in size from a handful of ships to several thousand. In some cases, all planes operate on an equal footing, while in others, some drones have greater computer processing capabilities and act as commanders for the rest.

While humans still give the plane their mission – currently, anyway – as the swarms get bigger, the decision-making is left to the drones themselves.

“If you have five drones, you can control one, and the others just copy what it does. It’s a level, a lower level of capabilities, ”said Inbar.

“But when you have a bigger swarm, how they accomplish their mission, you or I, as operators, don’t necessarily know or control in real time. Suppose you have 50 planes in the air, one of the smartest ones can decide to send five to a certain street and five to another place or fly in a certain formation, ”he said.


A 2018 U.S. military study found that this AI-enabled swarming ability made weapons much more powerful. In this simulation, 800 drones in a swarm were able to destroy more targets in two hours than 1000 drones acting independently.

“All other capabilities being the same, the introduction of an intelligent swarm algorithm dramatically increased the efficiency, lethality and capacity of the swarm,” wrote study author Major Sean. Williams.

Drones too were once only operated by developed countries, but over time the technology has become cheaper and more available, and today they are widely available to the masses, including terrorist groups, who have used them. for deadly effects in conflicts around the world.

Artificial intelligence is no longer just for superpowers

Countries in turn have developed methods to bring down these individual drones, from gunnets to advanced spectrum warfare technologies. And indeed, the IDF prevented several Hamas drone attacks during the fighting in May, including shooting down an unmanned aerial vehicle with the Iron Dome missile defense system when that system was first used.

But many of these tools and tactics would be quickly outdated if massive swarms of tens or hundreds of autonomous planes were used.

Israel’s use of drone swarms during the May conflict garnered international coverage largely because it indicates the speed at which this technology is developing and being deployed in the real world.

For now, using large swarms requires a high level of artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, which means that it is mainly in the realm of large nation states that have the necessary technical capabilities. But that is starting to change.

“Artificial intelligence is no longer something that is reserved for superpowers,” said Inbar.


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