Perched between Africa and Asia and increasingly surrounded by Islamist terror groups, Israel has erected hundreds of miles of solid metal fences and concrete barriers along its borders.
The 860 kilometers (534 miles) of steel and concrete along the borders with Egypt and Syria, and the security barriers between Israel and Gaza, and Israel and the West Bank — where only 480 kilometers (300 miles) of the intended 760 (472 miles) have been completed — have stanched the flow of refugees and migrant workers and reduced the scale and severity of cross-border terror attacks.
But the patrol roads along those barriers, as a unit commander in the southern brigade of the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division recently noted, are “a sort of destruction zone.”
Surveillance by remote control
In 2009, as part of its altered deployment along the Gaza border after Operation Cast Lead, Israel introduced a unique unmanned ground vehicle that can do the dirty work of patrolling the border. This preprogrammed or remote-controlled car arrives at scheduled times, examines suspicious spots from up close and relays live video, all without putting Israeli lives at risk.
The unit that operates the vehicles is set to receive a highly upgraded platform in early 2015, expanding its role beyond surveillance and its domain beyond the southern brigade of the Gaza Strip where it is currently deployed.
It opened its doors recently to describe its current operations and future goals.
Cpt. Avidav Goldstein, a former soldier in the Golani Brigade and the commander of the unit, stood beside a small TOMCAR — designed by G-NIUS Unmanned Ground Systems and equipped with nine cameras, a microphone and a megaphone — and listed the array of threats facing troops on the border: snipers, tunnels, abductions, anti-tank missiles, mines.
As a result, he said, along the southern part of the Israel-Gaza fence the army does not routinely send flesh-and-blood troops, since their patrols would have to adhere to a schedule that, by definition, would render them vulnerable to ambush.
That “vacuum,” Goldstein added, is filled by cameras, sensors, surveillance posts armed with remote-controlled machine guns, and, filling in the blanks in coverage and performing the daily patrols, unmanned ground vehicles.
The first-generation platform, the Mark I, is operated from a small room in the southern brigade’s surveillance headquarters furnished with two purple orthopedic chairs and four large monitors. The operators, female soldiers, sit in front of a steering wheel, their feet near an accelerator and brake pedal, and send the car off to patrol a preprogrammed route like a plane on autopilot. If they see something suspicious or would like to stop or draw close to a certain spot, they can override the autopilot and drive the car.
During the car’s first week in action, it triggered a mine, sending a section of the border fence flying and damaging the vehicle, but resulting in no loss of life.
“The ultimate goal is to save human lives,” Goldstein said, “so it fulfilled its mission in full.”
During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this summer, the border was swamped with combat troops and the remote-controlled technology was drafted into a new line of service — logistical support.
Noting that American and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq “suffered hundreds of casualties” while driving supplies in and out of the field, Goldstein said that some armored personnel carriers were outfitted with the technology and sent in to Gaza to deliver supplies.
In the coming months, the army is set to deploy the Mark III model of remote-controlled Ford F-350 trucks — there was a Mark II but it saw little use — which will be able to respond to threats with an advanced mounted weapons system and act as logistical vehicles.
The shift changes the unmanned vehicle’s role in two fundamental ways. First, as a supply vehicle operating off the charted path, Goldstein explained, its operators will encounter far more difficulty than drone operators, who are guided by flight controllers. Citing the possibility of fallen wires and trees and varying topography, Goldstein said: “It’s not simple, especially in terms of sending information to the vehicle.”
Second, as the unit’s scope of operations expands to more border areas, the new vehicle, equipped with a remote-controlled machine gun, also puts female soldiers behind the wheel in a role akin to that of a combat sniper.
That added level of responsibility was noted by Pvt. May Krispin, a young vehicle operator who said that in the past male soldiers used to drive the cars but had showed they “weren’t serious,” treating the vehicles “like a PlayStation” and rolling up to gas stations on occasion. But she said she was undeterred.
“That’s why I came here in the first place,” declared Krispin. “They said they were looking for serious female soldiers to serve in a hot region.”
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