PARIS — As maker of the Iron Dome and David’s Sling, Rafael has a strong foothold in Israel, where the country depends heavily on those air defense systems for its national security. The company is the 46th largest defense firm in the world, according to this year’s Top 100 list.
Yoav Har-Even, the company’s president and CEO, told Defense News at this year’s Paris Air Show that Rafael produces such equipment primarily “for the sake of the defense of Israel.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for foreign sales.
Rafael announced ahead of the Paris Air Show that it is incorporating artificial intelligence into its Spice bombs. Could you talk about that?
We integrate the artificial intelligence, as a matter of fact, to all our systems because when you look at the next challenge and the next solution, it should be based on artificial intelligence integrated or embedded. And since we are in this, we are a business of tracking targets, recognizing targets and then impacting the targets. We understand that artificial intelligence is part of it, to define which target is relevant, and then to designate the target, and then to send the right munition to the target.
This happens in an environment or could happen in an environment where there’s no GPS. Is that right?
Yeah. One of the benefits of what we are doing in the last 25 years is that we develop all of systems [as if they are] GPS-denied. I think this gives us an advantage.
I think that today, when you look at the challenges we are facing in traditional electronic warfare, that was only jamming radio networks. It’s now shifting, and you have a lot of GPS jamming, GPS spoofing. And the challenge is to give the ability to our customer to attack the relevant targets [in a GPS-denied environment].
Give me a scenario in terms of how this would function?
Let’s take, for example, what we present here for the Spice 250 - two capabilities that we present here. The first one is attacking a moving target without a GPS, without a man in the loop. So you just need a source that will find or define what is the target — a moving one — and the moment you send the munition, the seeker will find all the moving targets, you will choose the most relevant one; so it will be with a man in the loop or without a man in the loop. The pilot can say, “Now listen, I would like to choose another target,” and select it - although most of the time the computer selects the best one - and then the bomb will glide to the moving target without the man in the loop, autonomously, and detonate on the target. So this is one example.
Another one is the automatic target recognition, or ATR. Basically one of the challenges is that you will have a lot of targets. … The computer will communicate to the bomb what are the most relevant targets, and then it will find the target. The most relevant target will do the ATR, without the man in the loop, and will attack the target.
The company has been developing this technology for some time because you have experience with an environment where GPS is not available. This is something that the U.S. is looking for and is a technology that it’s still learning. I would argue the U.S. has admitted it’s not as advanced as other markets. Do you see potential for global sales, specifically to the United States?
Yeah, I think this is something that we fully understand. We have an advantage, and of course we now sometimes have to convince the customer the GPS is the big advantage but sometimes it can be a disadvantage. And in a sense it’s kind of — I wouldn’t say educating the market, because the market understands it, but to adapt a different way of attacking targets. It’s all a concept. It’s not only the attacking. I think it’s also connected to the targeting process: What are your sensors? Have you integrated your sensor automatically to the shooter? Have you used this or that analysis, [put] big data and artificial intelligence into your sensors?
And now this is already being purchased or ordered by the Israeli military.
Yeah, well, the Israeli Air Force is our customer. In our vision in the company, the vision states that we have to work for the sake of the state of Israel. It’s quite a unique one, quite a unique vision. And then we set about [saying]: “OK, we would like to build the most advanced, working globally, supporting our customer.” But this is how we start.
And maybe because we are 100 percent owned by the government, maybe because we consider ourselves as the national laboratory, so of course all our systems are developed first of all for the sake of the defense of Israel. And then we ask ourselves: Can we do business?
The perfect example of that is Iron Dome, which has seen amazing success in Israel. Now there’s interest from the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. How’s that going?
We are in the process of answering all [their] questions. I think to answer the questions about the technical issues, about what are the capabilities, of course it’s combat-proven. And I think the decision has been made. [The Army decided to] take at least two batteries of the Iron Dome.
Is that a sign of more to come?
I think it’s a very good way of doing business. “First of all, let’s take the system. Let’s see whether it fits our requirements.” Because you know it’s not necessarily the same requirements, although when you look at Iron Dome as an air defense system and you understand the changes of air defense, you understand that the future air defense challenges are not necessarily attacking the aircraft, but they should attack the ammunition, no matter whether the ammunition is going to be an artillery shell or a long-range rocket.
And this is why Iron Dome, I think, is very good for short air defense needs. And the attitude to take two systems, to learn the systems, to learn the capability — not only from the technical point of view but also from the tactics, techniques and operational procedures — I think it’s a good attitude.
In regard to the Iron Dome, what are some of the requirements, the operations that the company or the U.S. would envision?
For example, if it’s going to be a tactical air defense system, maybe it should be with much more maneuverability capabilities, so this is why we start working on the concept of what we called the I-Dome. It’s to integrate a launcher, a radar, maybe a small radar — not as large as we use for Iron Dome for a stationary mission — and the battle management system inside the truck, so it will be able to maneuver with the troops.
You’re in partnership with Raytheon on the Iron Dome, as well as some other projects. How is that relationship, and how has it eased the process of being able to work with the United States?
We have been working in the United States for more than 25 years, and the way that we are doing business — and we are very satisfied — is that we are working with the tier-one companies. We understand that at the end of the day the U.S. customer would like to see a U.S. entity. When you pick up the phone, you would like to have someone from the United States that will be able to give him the added value of, for example, cybersecurity and other classified issues.
So we are working with Northrup Grumman for more than 25 years on the Litening [targeting pod]. We are working with Raytheon on Iron Dome and David’s Sling. We’re working with BAE Systems on the remote control weapon system for the Navy. We are working with Lockheed Martin for our missiles and our Spice. So in a sense we understand that you have to work with those partners.
Speaking of David’s Sling, I know Rafael was asked by Switzerland to participate in a competition for missile defense, David’s Sling being the specific system the country was interested in. Rafael decided not to do that. Can you explain?
I wouldn’t say that Rafael decided not to do this, and I can’t get into all the details. As a matter of fact, the request was sent to the Israeli government.
And there was some contact between the Israeli government and Switzerland. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but I hope we’ll still have an opportunity to do something like this in the future.
Can you elaborate on what happened?
I might have some assumption, but I prefer not to share it with you.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.