The office of Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Danny Gold, head of the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Research and Development (DDR&D, or MAFAT in Hebrew), has a commanding view over Tel Aviv, and on a clear day one can see the Jerusalem Hills.
It’s a sparse office, but on the top floor of the Ministry of Defense (IMOD) and IDF’s Kirya Military Headquarters, it’s where all the major decisions about the country’s future weaponry and technology are made – because as the nation’s enemies continue to develop their military capabilities, Israel needs to stay far ahead, predicting what types of technology will be needed in future wars.
“We work to stay two or three generations ahead of our enemies,” Gold told the Magazine. “People know the problems; we need to find the ideas to solve those problems. We take the vision and make it a national mission.”
MAFAT, a joint Ministry of Defense (IMOD) and IDF body, produces exceptional results in both defense research and development because of the integration and cooperation between the two.
It is responsible for developing innovative concepts for defense technology, managing the IMOD’s short- and long-term projects, overseeing the research and development of defense technology, work with international partners, and training the next generation of Israel’s defense technology professionals.
Gold, who has two PhDs in Electronic Engineering and Business Management, began his role in 2016 after holding several positions in the IMOD and Israel Air Force, including as head of the IMOD/IDF’s Research and Development Unit, head of electronics and electronic warfare and the head of armament and avionics.
State of the art
Sitting in his office, Gold was excited about the work done by MAFAT and the hundreds of service members, civilian employees and Israeli defense and commerial companies.
MAFAT is working on two laser-based systems. One which is being done with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is in advanced stages of research and development of a ground-based high-powered laser that will be integrated with the Iron Dome. In parallel, MAFAT is also working on an airborne-based high-powered laser with Elbit.
“We set the state of the art,” he said. “We are setting the new frontiers of technology innovation and creativity in the world. Sometimes the ideas come from the top, but sometimes from the bottom up. And these are always ideas that no one thought about before.”
MAFAT, which works with the IDF and civilian companies and engages in extensive cooperation with many countries around the world, is critical in providing the technology that makes it possible for the IDF to outflank its enemies in all areas.
It continues to invest significant effort and funds into safeguarding the borders from existing and future threats, be they from missiles or drones, cyberattacks or threats from underwater and underground.
“We need to find ways to deal with anti-tank guided missiles, rockets – the spectrum, as well as make more effective and precision munitions,” Gold noted.
And with Israel’s enemies working around the clock to find ways to kill and maim Israeli citizens and Jews around the world, “we need to be fast and not waste time.”
One of MAFAT’s subdivisions is Israel’s Missile Defense Organization (IMDO), responsible for the R&D of all of the country’s missile defense systems. Gold has worked on Israel’s missile defense systems for years, and in 2012 was awarded the Israel Defense Prize for his initiation and management of the Iron Dome. IMDO, which works alongside the American Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on the development of the various systems, is headed by Moshe Patel.
Israel’s comprehensive protective umbrella that counters the growing missile threats include the Iron Dome designed to shoot down short-range rockets, the Arrow (Arrow-2 and Arrow-3) system that intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the David’s Sling missile defense system designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets, as well as cruise missiles fired at ranges between 40km and 300km.
Updating the next generation
Israel continuously improves the technology behind the country’s anti-missile systems, and Gold told the Magazine that the next generation of the Iron Dome, which is an integral component of Israel’s multi-layered defense array, is currently being updated.
“There’s no system that has been updated like the Iron Dome,” he said, explaining that there’s been over nine significant updates since it was first deployed in April 2011.
MAFAT is also working on a new version of the Arrow weapon system – the Arrow-5 – to replace the Arrow-2, which has been in service for over 20 years.
According to Gold, all these systems are crucial in handling the growing threat posed by enemy rocket salvos as well as Iranian missiles.
Israel considers Iran’s nuclear program the No. 1 concern, and though Iran has consistently denied seeking to build a nuclear bomb, no government in the West believes it, and tensions have risen as the West seeks to resume talks on reviving the deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran is also continuing to develop the capabilities to produce a nuclear weapons arsenal as well as produce ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and according to Gold, “it would take 10-12 minutes for an Iranian missile to reach Israel.”
The Islamic Republic has several rockets that could reach Israeli territory, including the Khoramshahr 2 with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, and the Shahab-3.
The IDF has admitted that Iran’s conventional missile threat is a major worry for Israel, which despite its multi-layered air defenses, may not be able to contend with intensive missile barrages fired by Iran and its proxy groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
The laser system
MAFAT has also been working on developing a laser system that would be able to take down incoming rockets or missiles launched toward Israel.
The IMOD has already successfully carried out a series of interceptions using an airborne laser system installed on a civilian plane, downing several drones.
During the June trials, the laser system that had been installed on a civilian Cessna aircraft destroyed several unmanned aerial vehicles at different ranges and altitudes. According to the Defense Ministry, Israel is among the first countries in the world to succeed in integrating laser technology onto an airplane and intercept targets in an operational scenario.
The trials were the first phase in a multi-year pilot program of MAFAT and Elbit Systems to develop an aerial laser system to counter a number of threats facing Israel, including long-range rocket fire.
The method of airborne interception using a powerful laser has many advantages, including a low cost per interception, the ability to effectively intercept long-range threats at high altitudes regardless of weather conditions, and the ability to defend vast areas.
“From the moment a laser is on the target, it takes a few seconds before they are downed,” Gold said, adding that such a system would be used alongside the Iron Dome.
But it will be another few years before a prototype will be operational, and hopefully in another decade MAFAT will have a system that can down targets..
Another MAFAT subdivision that is instrumental in keeping an eye on the threats posed by Iran is the Space and Satellite Administration, responsible for the development of satellites and their launching systems.
In July, the Ofek-16 satellite was launched into orbit using a Shavit launcher, which according to foreign reports is used to launch Jericho ballistic missiles. It later sent back a number of images, including over the Syrian city of Palmyra close to where Iranian forces are known to operate.
One of 13 countries
That Israel is one of the 13 countries in the world with satellite launching capabilities is not a given. And the launch alone is in itself a great achievement: it is carried out to the west, against the rotation of the Earth, so that its trajectory takes it over the Mediterranean Sea in order to avoid any enemy territory during the launch period.
MAFAT is now working on nano and microsatellites that weigh less than 10 kilos, which can be used for both military and civilian purposes. But MAFAT is not starting from scratch with this project. Instead, they are taking the technology already available on the civilian market and “adding a secret layer,” Gold said.
Taking civilian technology already available and adapting it for Israeli purposes is something MAFAT excels in.
“We don’t want to start from the beginning if it’s already there,” Gold explained. “We are a huge R&D and infrastructure center in Israel,” with thousands who use their creativity and brainstorming to come up with the right solutions.
MAFAT is working on dozens of dual-use projects, including one that will help troops in the field as well as solve the growing issue of traffic in Israel. Another project involves energy sources, to free soldiers from some of the burden of carrying heavy equipment when going into battle.
The Carmel AFV (called Carmel for the Hebrew acronym for Advanced Ground Combat Vehicle) is under development by MAFAT and the Defense Ministry’s Merkava Tank Administration, and will constitute a quantum leap in the field of armored vehicles. It is expected to be at the forefront of the military’s new combat concept, which is based on autonomous and automatic maneuvering capabilities, artificial intelligence, hybrid propulsion and more.
Designed to play a lead role on the future battlefield, the next-generation combat vehicle takes artificial intelligence capabilities that enable full situational awareness and fast responses to enemy threats while drastically reducing the workload of the crew.
With numerous sensors and cameras, the Carmel allows the crew to order autonomous actions such as searching for several enemy targets simultaneously, and then prioritizing the targets and off-road driving.
Artificial intelligence capabilities
The Carmel is just one of several platforms being designed to use artificial intelligence capabilities that enable full situational awareness and fast responses to enemy threats, while drastically reducing the workload of the crew as well as the threats posed to troops on the battlefield.
Since current explosive detection technologies still pose a significant risk to personnel, MAFAT is working on biological engineering projects that would take bacteria or germs and tailor them to generate a signal in the presence of explosives.
The technology is not new. In the mid-1990s, Robert Burlage worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to get bacteria to light up in response to organic waste and land mine chemicals. In Israel, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have also been working for the past decade on developing such sensors using E.coli bacteria.
“If I can take bacteria and bioengineer them or change them so that when they detect explosives they will do something like emit light, and I get the light by drones, [then] it’s a good way to detect buried explosives,” Gold said.
There are tools to bioengineer the germs so that when they come close to explosives they sense them and create light. It’s not science fiction – it’s a technology that’s been demonstrated before.
There are over 1,500 different projects currently being worked on by MAFAT, with billions of shekels being placed on emerging technology. MAFAT is also taking military-grade technology and reversing it for civilian use.
“We want to take huge the medical, commercial and academic knowledge and the investment of billions of dollars and make it dual-use in Israel,” Gold said. “And we can give back – the commercial market can take our technology and use it.”
And all of that, he said, is because “we want to be able to help both civilians and the military.”