Defense Ministry unveils 3 prototypes for Israel’s tanks of the future

Carmel program yields first fruits as defense contractors offer proof of concept for a two-person tank, loaded with AI and improved visibility

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Defense Ministry on Sunday completed initial testing on a number of systems that it plans to install in both current and future models of the military’s armored vehicles, as part of its Carmel tank program.

Some of the systems will be implemented in the short term — including a high-tech helmet known as Iron Vision, which will be rolled out shortly — while others may be used further down the line, a Defense Ministry spokesperson said.

The ministry launched the Carmel armored fighting vehicle (AFV) project three years ago under its Weapons Development Administration, known in Hebrew by its acronym Mafat. It was initially aimed at creating a new model of tank for the Israel Defense Forces. However, its scope has broadened and changed in the intervening years and now looks instead to develop new technologies for current and future armored vehicles, while still retaining the possibility of producing an entirely new variety of tank, the spokesperson said.

The goal is to make Israel’s tanks more “agile, effective, innovative, compact, easy-to-maneuver… with relatively low costs,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“The purpose of the program was to develop the technology necessary for the ‘combat field of the future,’ maintaining operational superiority via technological superiority,” the ministry said.

As part of the program, the Defense Ministry gave three defense contractors — Elbit, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries — the task of testing the feasibility of a closed tank that is operated by only two soldiers, instead of the current four, and encouraged them to integrate as many “automatic and autonomous systems as possible” in order to function as a “third soldier” of sorts, the ministry spokesperson said.

The three contractors’ prototypes have undergone testing over the past month, which ended Sunday with a demonstration attended by a number of Defense Ministry and IDF officials, as well as some representatives from the United States military.

A tank prototype developed by Elbit Systems as part of the Defense Ministry’s Carmel project, which was tested on August 4, 2019. (Defense Ministry)

Each of the companies completed the challenge in a slightly different way, using proprietary systems that give the soldiers inside the tank better situational awareness, as well as assistance from artificial intelligence.

Elbit’s model used its Iron Vision helmets, which works with cameras and sensors on the outside of the tank to give the soldiers inside a 360-degree field of vision. It is a variation on a similar helmet that the company created for the F-35 fighter jet.

A number of other autonomous and AI systems assist the soldiers inside in identifying targets and general decision-making, the ministry said.

The Elbit tank was also used as a base for operating additional, unmanned systems.

A tank prototype developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems as part of the Defense Ministry’s Carmel project, which was tested on August 4, 2019. (Defense Ministry)

Rafael’s AFV used a transparent cockpit design that also gave the two soldiers inside a 360-degree field of view. Its augmented reality systems allowed the crew members to quickly see targets, friendly forces and important locations.

The Rafael tank also had “an autonomous mission support system, for autonomous mission planning, driving, and simultaneous operation of all vehicle weapon systems, all based on combat artificial intelligence capabilities,” the Defense Ministry said.

The IAI model was based on the company’s existing unmanned, autonomous drone platforms.

Operated by a controller from the Xbox video game system, the tank had a large panoramic display, was able to assist the crew members in identifying targets and selecting weapons, and could drive itself in some terrains, the Defense Ministry said.

A tank prototype developed by Israel Aerospace Industries as part of the Defense Ministry’s Carmel project, which was tested on August 4, 2019. (Defense Ministry)

In its statement, the ministry said it was also working to develop “hybrid propulsion, cyber defense, active camouflage, multi-task radar, a system to identify troops, and more” as part of the program.

“The results of the Carmel program will serve as the technological and engineering infrastructure of both the manned and autonomous defense and combat tools of the future,” the Defense Ministry said.

Ministry officials said foreign countries have already expressed interest in purchasing some of the technologies developed under the program.

Inside of new ‘dual use’ Merkava 4 Barak tank. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The army’s current Merkava tank has been in use for some 40 years. In July 2018, the military announced the creation of its latest model, known as the Barak, which is due to be put into service in two years.

In addition to its role as the military’s main battle tank, the Merkava is the basis for the Namer armored personnel carrier and various combat engineering vehicles.

Last year, the Defense Ministry also unveiled a new eight-wheeled armored personnel carrier, which is due to replace the IDF’s current M113 full-track APCs.

The upgrade is partially in response to lessons learned from the 2014 Gaza war, and is intended to give troops greater speed and mobility, as well as better security, the statement said.

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