In 2007 Israel began deploying remote-operated sentry guns along the border fence separating it from the Gaza Strip. That same year South Korea announced it had plans to install sentry guns along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the no-man’s-land dividing it from North Korea. Those plans were delayed for a few years, but North Korea did begin using sentry guns along the DMZ in 2010. The use of these remote-operated weapons systems has stirred some controversy, and it’s also proved to be lethally effective.From Remote Weapon System to Sentry
Most sentry guns currently on the market are basically adaptations of remote weapon stations (RWSs) like Kongsberg’s Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) and Rafael’s Samson. CROWS and Samsons can be outfitted with an array of machine guns, such as the M249, M240, M2, MK-19, MK-47, M134 and the M230LF, as well as automatic grenade launchers and hard- or soft-launch missiles like the Griffin, Javelin, Stinger and TOW. They can also be equipped with non-lethal weapons like smoke grenade launchers and laser warning systems.
RWSs are highly versatile and can be used on naval ships or fixed platforms on land, such as pillboxes or towers. They’re also mounted to Humvees, Strikers, Pandurs and numerous other vehicles. RWS are currently in common use, in one form or another, by the U.S. military and those of dozens of other countries.
The primary benefit of an RWS is that it allows operators to survey the terrain around them, recognize potential threats, and target and engage verified enemies while remaining within the relative security of a pillbox or armored vehicle rather than being exposed in an turret.
Visual information is fed to the operator via cameras, infrared sensors, thermal imagers, laser range finders or other sensors mounted with the system. The operator monitors the information on a screen and reacts, if necessary, using a control panel. Such systems have been referred to, sometimes derogatorily, as “a video game with real guns“.
As a report from Defense Industry Daily noted, the success of localized RWS raised an obvious question: “Why does the operator have to be so close?” For Israel and South Korea at least, the answer was “no reason at all.” The main difference between RWS and the sentries deployed by Israel and South Korea is simply a matter of distance. With most RWS, the operator is only a few feet away from the weapon system they control and within firing range of the enemy. The people operating the robotic guns like those guarding the Gaza fence and the DMZ are sometimes several hundred yards away. They’re basically using RWS with extension cords.
Israel Led the Way in Deploying Automated Sentry Guns Along Borders
Israel began constructing a security fence around Gaza in 1994, soon after the signing of the Oslo I Accord in September of 1993. The fence itself greatly reduced the number of attacks in Israel by members of Hamas and other militant organizations. However, attempts to infiltrate the border, by militants and civilians, continued—with periods of great frequency.
When Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it gave Palestinian militants greater mobility within the territory. The fence became the only physical line of defense between Gaza and Israel. It was susceptible to breaches and militants could easily fire rockets over it and send sniper rounds through it. Instead of sending its soldiers out on patrol in a hostile territory, Israel chose to keep them in reserve on their side of the fence and turn to new technology to help deter attacks.
The new technology included the automated Sentry Tech weapons system, a modified version of the Samson RWS manufactured by the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mounted Sentry Techs armed with .50 cal/12.7mm machine guns to hardened towers every few kilometers along the length of 60-meter Gaza fence. Retractable domes on top of the towers conceal and protect the sentries when they are not in use.
The sentry towers are linked together and connected to a command center by fiber optics. From there, operators — who are exclusively female IDF soldiers aged 19 to 20 — can draw information from cameras, long range electro-optical sensors, ground sensors, manned aircraft, and overhead drones, as well as radar. Women operate the sentry guns in order to avoid the cultural “taboo” of risking their lives in combat (see also the video below).
Though operating the systems has been compared to playing a video game, it is no easy task. It presents considerable intellectual, psychological, and ethical challenges. “From the advanced surveillance equipment in the operations room, each woman gains up-close knowledge of a certain block of land along the fence,” Anshel Pfeffer reports for Haaretz . “She also learns to recognize the Palestinians who live and visit there, and she must be able to distinguish between who is an innocent civilian and who, by their gait and what they are carrying, might be a terrorist.” That’s a lot to expect from a 19 year old.
“It’s very alluring to be the one to do this. But not everyone wants this job,” said one operator stationed at the Kissufim base on the Gaza border. “It’s no simple matter to take up a joystick like that of a Sony PlayStation and kill, but ultimately it’s for defense.”
To help avoid hasty decisions that could be a matter of life and death, a second person is required to authorize a kill. A battalion commander determines whether or not to authorize to fire on a suspected militant. The procedure to authorize a kill is supposedly “complex,” but nevertheless takes less than two minutes to carry out.
There are other options for the operators. Sometimes an order is given to fire warning shots or merely open the tower dome to expose the sentry gun in order to scare off anyone in the area who might pose a threat. As one operator explained, “The Palestinians have already learned what to expect afterward.”
For better or worse, the sentries effectively establish a nearly 1,500-meter-deep no-go zone around Gaza. And that distance might expand soon. In the past the IDF Southern Command has considered adding Gill or Spike anti-tank missiles to extend the no-go zones to several kilometers, which would substantially increase the range and lethality of its Sentry Tech system.
South Korea Has Deployed at Least Two Automated Sentry Guns Along the DMZ
The DMZ separating North Korea from South Korea is a sprawling, 2.5-mile wide no-man’s-land of barbed wire and minefields that stretches coast to coast across the peninsula, running roughly along the 38th parallel. Manned guard posts speckle both sides of the DMZ.
Despite the facts that the DMZ is intimidating to cross and that the two Koreas have not fought since the armistice of 1953, tensions often still run high for those tasked with securing the area. North Korea may be impoverished and its weaponry antiquated, but it still commands a formidable military headed by an impulsive dictator.
Patrolling a border as long as the DMZ is an expensive and labor intensive proposition. Perhaps taking a cue from Israel, South Korea announced plans to deploy sentry guns along the DMZ back in 2007. Those plans were delayed and Seoul didn’t actually do so until 2010, when the military installed two Samsung Techwin SGR-1s at a “central sector” of the DMZ on a “trial basis.” Samsung Techwin, formerly the security branch of Samsung Electronics, has since become part of the South Korean Hanwha conglomerate.
The SGR-1s cost $200,000 each and are remote-operated sentries equipped with cameras, radar systems, and heat and motion sensors. They can issue verbal warnings and commands via audio and video. If they must engage a perceived threat, they do so with 5.5-millimeter machine guns and 40-millimeter automatic grenade launchers (see also the video below).
If introduced more broadly, the weapons could reduce the number of soldiers needed to patrol the DMZ and cut down on human error. “Human soldiers can easily fall asleep or allow for the depreciation of their concentration over time,” Huh Kwang-hak, a Techwin spokesman, told Stars and Stripes in 2010. “But these robots have automatic surveillance, which doesn’t leave room for anything resembling human laziness. They also won’t have any fear (of) enemy attackers on the front lines.”
If Seoul does opt to expand its robot sentry force, the SGR-1 has some competition. Last year South Korean defense firm DoDaam Systems started pushing harder for its Super aEgis II to be introduced to the DMZ as well. The BBC described the Super aEgis II, first introduced in 2010, as “one of a new breed of automated weapon, able to identify, track and destroy a moving target from a great distance, theoretically without human intervention.”
DoDaam refers to the Super aEgis II as a “Total Security Solution.” The automated system can target and fire on a threat at a distance of 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). It uses a 35x CCD color camera, a dual field of view FLIR camera, and a laser range finder as sensors. It is capable of operating in low light and and can even identify a human target at distances up to 2.2km in complete darkness.
As with many traditional RWS, the Super aEgis II is highly versatile in terms of the weapons it can be fitted with. A 12.7mm machine-gun is standard, but the system is compatible with most weapons in the South Korean arsenal, including grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles. It offers both a fully automatic mode, in which it can target and fire on humans without being commanded by an operator, or in “slave mode,” which requires a human operator to fire the weapon.
Despite all its features, the Super aEgis II it might be a tough sale. There are restrictions on the amount and types of weaponry that can be deployed along the DMZ, so it remains to be seen whether or not South Korea will deploy more robot sentries there. The Super eAgis II is also expensive, with each integrated defense system costing more than $40m apiece. That probably won’t help DoDaam’s case.
If the North decided to launch a full-scale assault, it’s doubtful whether or not the automated sentries would be much help anyway. “Stationary light-machinegun posts would be easily taken out by company or battalion-level weapons–let alone tanks, artillery, or air support,” one writer noted when South Korea first acquired the SGR-1s. “The SGR-1 would be useful principally as a sacrificial tripwire in the context of full-on combat, rather than as a warfighting system.”
Things Could Get Scary In The Not So Distant Future
The sentry guns being used by Israel and South Korea employ only machine guns as lethal weapons and are operated by humans, for now. As previously mentioned, however, they are capable of incorporating additional weaponry and being switched to a fully-automated mode.
In fact, when Israel first introduced Sentry Tech weapons to the Gaza fence, the idea was to ultimately have a “closed-loop” system that required no human intervention. In this scenario, the weapons themselves would spot a potential threat, assess it, and then determine whether or not to engage. The IDF appears to be waiting until commanders are satisfied the system can effectively and consistently distinguish between civilians and combatants before making the move to fully-automated.
The SGR-1 also has an automated mode that allows it to fire on perceived threats without an operator. It is even capable of verbally commanding a potential enemy to surrender and recognizing a person raising his arms as a sign of surrender. The Super aEgis II can theoretically act without human command as well.
This raises some serious concerns. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, delegates met for a panel hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR) to discuss the future of automated weapons systems and their potential risks.
Sir Roger Carr, chair of BAE Systems, a global leader of security and aerospace development, warned that fully automated weapons systems would be “devoid of responsibility” and have “no emotion or sense of mercy. […] If you remove ethics and judgement and morality from human endeavour whether it is in peace or war, you will take humanity to another level which is beyond our comprehension,” Carr said.
The discussion in Davos came in response to a recent open letter authored by CSKR calling for a ban on “killer robots.” Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and more than 3,000 other leaders in the fields of science and robotics signed the letter.
If history is any indicator, their concern may be justified. The Sentry Techs guarding the Gaza fence have already proven lethal, even with their human operators controlling them. In December of 2009 two Palestinians were killed and a third was wounded. In March of 2010 another Palestinian was killed and four more wounded.
Israel claims that only militants are targeted by the weapons, but Humans Rights Watch and other organizations have criticized the program, questioning whether or not some of those killed or wounded were innocent civilians attempting to harvest crops from farmlands in the area.
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reports that “at least 284 Palestinians near the Gaza Strip perimeter fence. At least 117 of the fatalities were civilians (including twenty-three minors) who were not taking part in the hostilities.”
It’s difficult to determine how many Palestinians have been shot or killed by the sentry guns. Accounts vary by source. On the high end, it’s estimated that “dozens” of Palestinians have been “hit” by the weapons.
These shootings have occurred while procedures have been in place to require not one but two humans—an operator and a battalion-level commander—to confirm that a target is a threat. These individuals have the options of firing warning shots or simply leveling the guns at potential threats to scare them away. Without human operators, these options, which could potentially save lives, might not be in play. Considering that humans will program any automated systems to determine when to shoot and when not to, a good deal of the ethical weight of engagement would fall back on human shoulders anyway. That’s where the true problem may lie.
“For use on the DMZ, the sentry bot doesn’t need to distinguish friend from foe,” reads a report on the SGR-1 from Global Security. “When someone crosses the line, they are automatically an enemy.”
Some in the IDF command share a similar sentiment regarding the area around the Gaza fence. “Nobody has any business approaching our border fence,” said one unnamed Israeli official when questions were first raised about Sentry Tech. “It’s well-understood that this area is off-limits, and this new technology will make it easier for us to prevent the next kidnapping or terror event.”
If these perspectives prevail, and certain areas are considered “kill zones” by the humans who program the automated weapons systems guarding them, then the future of robotic weaponry could truly be frightening.
In the meantime, one thing is certain: Robotic warfare is going to play an increasing role in conflict. DoDAAM claims to have sold more than 30 Super aEgis II units, primarily to countries throughout the Middle East. The system is being used at three air bases in the United Arab Emirates, the Royal Palace in Abu Dhabi, an armory in Qatar, and “numerous other unspecified airports, power plants, pipelines and military airbases elsewhere in the world.”
There are also over 30 countries currently using human-supervised autonomous weapons, such as the Phalanx Close in Weapon System (CIWS), as a last line of defense against missiles and rockets. The US, UK, China, Israel, South Korea and Russia, currently developing automated weapons systems like Sentry Tech capable of identifying firing on targets without a human operator.