The IDF just announced the newest generation of their Merkava 4 main battle tank, which benefits from some impressive upgrades. The armor is improved, the engine got a power boost, and the 120mm main gun has much better thermal characteristics… but some of the biggest new features are computer and software-based.
That main gun’s targeting computer is more accurate now, and can even compute firing solutions for knocking out airborne helicopters – with regular unguided anti-tank ammo – while on the move. But more importantly, the computer is constantly analyzing data from countless radar, video, and thermal sensors to identify, prioritize, and then automatically aim the turret at threats.
The tank’s three crew members can see all this stacked sensor data in the VR displays of their helmets, giving them a 360 degree view around the tank and overlays of target information. This isn’t really brand-new tech; helicopter pilots have had helmet-mounted displays for a long time, and the new F-35 helmet gives pilots a 360 degree view “through” the aircraft.
However, it’s the combination of a bunch these existing technologies in the Merkava that makes it interesting. The AI target identification computer combined with an advanced ballistics computer and auto-aiming turret means incredibly fast firing capability. The combination of a powerful central computer and VR helmets means that every Merkava 4 tank is also a Merkava 4 simulator (and tank mechanic training tool).
More importantly, the combination of many kinds of sensor data into a single view means much better decision-making for the tank commander. As cameras, thermal sensors, radar and radio equipment gets smaller and AI technology gets more advanced, we’re going to see more and more SIGINT work moving from human analysts to computers, and from large intelligence units to individual vehicles like aircraft and tanks. Eventually we will see some of these capabilities coming to individual soldiers.