LATRUN, Israel — As part of a major, multi-phased upgrade of its armored forces, Israel will soon demonstrate a smart helmet-mounted system — almost identical to that used for the F-35 fighter and other aircraft worldwide — that allows commanders to essentially see through the walls of tanks for safe and effective ground-maneuvering combat.
Developed by Elbit Systems, the vehicle-adapted Iron Vision aims to usher Israel into the era of so-called closed hatch operations, where crews operating in urban environments can locate, identify, track and engage enemy forces without the commander having to stick his or her head out of the turret and expose himself or herself to sniper fire.
"The advanced tanks of today and those that will arrive in future allow the commander to do many more things. One of the things we're working on is how, by way of technology, to bring all our advanced systems to bear so that the tank commander knows what he's fighting against in the environment he's operating in while his head is inside," said Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, chief armored officer for the Israel Defense Forces.
In a recent interview, Hasson said the Israeli defense establishment is evaluating Iron Vision and a second alternative, which uses the same sensor-fused, externally placed cameras, but instead of displaying images directly into the helmet, a situational picture is presented on screens inside the tank.
"We're checking two possibilities. … The important thing is to know what is happening at all times outside of the tank, while operating efficiently and safely from inside," he said.
An artist's rendering of a new technology demonstrator being developed by Israel's MoD.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Israeli Defense Ministry
Boaz Cohen, Elbit vice president for land systems in the firm's Land and C4I Division, acknowledged that it may take time for prospective users outside of Israel to adapt to the concept of closed-hatch operations, especially when forces have been trained to believe that leadership and full-situational awareness demand a commander's head outside of the tank. Nevertheless, he said, the IDF's embrace of the concept is likely to influence users worldwide.
"I understand the contradiction and the problems with this concept. It's part of our ethos to fight with our heads out of the hatches. But the issue now, when you are fighting in built-up and urban areas, is if you stick your head outside, you will be hit by a sniper. It's as simple as that," Cohen said.
According to Cohen, leadership no longer means commanding with your head outside, but rather knowing how to command, control and operate effectively. "Leading means you are able to take the right decisions and give the correct orders; to be aware of what is happening at all times and to act accordingly. We allow commanders to see what's happening through the walls of the vehicle. If he's just stuck in his turret, with closed hatches, not able to see anything, then he really can't lead the platoon, the company or the formation."
Closed-hatch capabilities is just one of the major upgrades planned for Israel's improved Merkava Mark IV tank, which Hasson estimates will be fielded in the next three or four years. Other capabilities destined for the improved tank — known here as Barak, or Lightning — include a second-generation version of the Trophy active protection system, by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, precision-rounds and an upgraded C4I system that integrates armor, infantry, artillery and other ground-force elements on the same, cyber-secure digital network, produced by Elbit Systems.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Israeli Defense Ministry
Hasson said Israel's Armored Corps is leading the effort to integrate all ground-force elements on a single net. "We'll have the ability to work in a fully integrated ground network: to transfer information, to receive information and to be much quicker and better than we are today by way of this improved network that makes us more efficient in complicated scenarios and in much broader [geographic] areas than we're dealing in today."
Beyond the planned Mk IV Barak, Israel's Defense Ministry and all of its major defense and aerospace firms are working on Project Carmel, a future technology demonstrator for the Armored Corps. The project's objective, according to reserve Brig. Gen. Didi Ben-Yoash, a former chief armored officer, is to develop the technological infrastructure that will assist in designing Israel's future armored force beyond the Merkava, and for retrofitting some of those technologies in existing platforms.
Ben-Yoash presented a simulation of the Carmel concept at an international conference here last May. According to the simulation, the new vehicle will be much lighter than the Merkava, will have a two- or three-man crew, and will be logistically self-sustainable over long periods.
According to Ben-Yoash's presentation, the vehicle will have a "revolutionary decision-support system" and "self-driving and navigational capabilities" so that the small crew can execute operations that are not autonomously performed by the vehicle itself. Additionally, the future tank is expected to include an entirely new generation of active protection and the ability to operate in "closed hatches" in collectively protected formations.
"The Carmel Program is intended to develop the technological infrastructure for the future armored platform. In this context, an infrastructure will be developed to enable the employment of all munition types, including missiles. The future active protection program, which is to include highly developed collective protection in the future, is being developed in the context of the Carmel Project," Ben-Yoash told conference participants.
Hasson, the IDF chief armored officer, said Carmel is a vision focused on the long-term, more than a decade from now. "It will be a different vehicle. A special vehicle. And it will be a vehicle where the best of technological advances will be featured. But this is a vision now. It will take a long time to realize."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.