- In November 2020, Israel’s secret service assassinated a prominent Iranian scientist.
- The scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was allegedly the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
- Fakhrizadeh was reportedly killed with a remote-controlled machine gun, operated from Israel about a thousand miles away.
The death last fall of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not particularly surprising: since 2007, Israeli intelligence units have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists and injured another. The surprising thing about Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is the manner in which he was reportedly killed—with an artificial intelligence-assisted, remote-controlled FN MAG machine gun aimed from a secret location in Israel.
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“The Israeli AI-powered sniper rifle is not an autonomous weapon, but it illustrates the promise and peril of AI-empowered weapons,” Zachary Kallenborn, an official U.S. Army “Mad Scientist,” and a senior consultant at ABS Group, tells Popular Mechanics. “A nuclear weapons scientist is no obvious soldier. A scientist’s battle garb is a lab coat or just a suit and tie.”
Earlier this month, a New York Times report detailed the robotic technology, along with other particulars about Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, based on interviews with American, Israeli, and Iranian officials. Iran, for its part, denies this account. Here’s everything we know about the robot-assisted weapon and what it means for the future of warfare.
The Iranian Nuclear Threat
Since the 1990s, Israel has considered an Iranian nuclear bomb an existential threat to its existence. Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, funnels aid to terrorist groups that conduct attacks on the country. Iran also has long attempted to develop nuclear weapons, and Israel’s concern is that Iran could attack it outright with nuclear weapons, or give them to terrorists who could conduct their own attacks.
Israel’s secret intelligence service, Mossad, has attempted to slow Iranian nuclear development through a campaign of cyberattacks, sabotage, and assassinations. Nuclear physicist and scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was considered a top man in Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel had tried—and failed—to kill him in the past.
In November 2020, Iranian news reports stated that a remote-controlled machine gun, hidden in the rear of a truck, had killed Fakhrizadeh. The reports quoted members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who freely admitted that Fakhrizadeh (also a member of the IRGC), had been killed right under their noses by a robotic assassin.
Building Remote-Controlled Weapons
Although Israeli intelligence has a reputation for technical wizardry, even this method of killing seemed a bit far-fetched. Yet the components to make a remote-controlled machine gun were already out there, waiting to be assembled in the right order and used in what was a particularly ruthless manner.
The weapon, The New York Times explains:
…was a Belgian-made FN MAG machine gun attached to an advanced robotic apparatus, according to an intelligence official familiar with the plot. The official said the system was not unlike the off-the-rack Sentinel 20 manufactured by the Spanish defense contractor Escribano.
The Sentinel 20 is a remotely controlled weapon system nearly identical to the U.S.-made CROWS system. CROWS, or Common Remotely Operated Weapon System, is an unmanned turret developed during the Iraq War. It was created because U.S. Army and Marine Corps machine gunners—riding in Humvees that escorted supply convoys—were dangerously exposed to enemy fire when they manned their weapons.
CROWS is a drop-in system that allows the machine gunner to sit protected in the Humvee, remotely controlling his or her gun with a joystick. A day/night camera allows the gunner to zoom in on targets of interest, detect heat sources (such as improvised explosive devices and enemy troops), and engage targets at night. CROWS also features an auto-lead system, allowing gunners to fire slightly ahead of a moving target to ensure it is struck. Here’s a video showing the system in action:
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That’s basically the hit weapon in a nutshell, with the caveat that we don’t know which specific remote-controlled weapon system was used (but they all have the same features).
Israel’s Robotic Machine Gun: The Location
One major obstacle was that the entire system had to be remote-controlled—Fakhrizadeh’s security team would quickly fire upon and corner the ambushers, otherwise. And that’s not mere conjecture: at least one spy had already been captured, tortured, and killed. The Israelis, not wanting a repeat of that fiasco, wanted to control the weapon from, as the Times puts it, an “undisclosed location more than 1,000 miles away.” Read: from Israel.
The weapon itself had a lag time of 1.6 seconds; in other words, it took that long for the on-site video camera to beam images of the approaching target to Israel, for the gunner to take action, and for the gunner’s actions to be put in place by the remote-control system. In video game terms, that’s “lag,” but it’s also something that the software already compensates for in the approaching target’s travel time. The software, or artificial intelligence as the article puts it, can estimate where the target will be 1.6 seconds in the future and adjust the weapon’s aim accordingly.
The New York Times article describes the weapon as a “7.62-mm sniper machine gun.” That’s technically incorrect. Machine guns are not built to be sniper-quality accurate—in fact, machine guns are built to display a certain amount of inaccuracy, in order to disperse bullets over a wider area and suppress more enemy troops. The bullet pattern on Fakhrizadeh’s car suggests that the Israelis opened fire at 100 yards or less.
Israel’s Robotic Machine Gun: The Specs
The machine gun, a Belgian-designed FN MAG, is a belt-fed 7.62 caliber medium machine gun. It’s the same machine gun that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps use. This particular gun would have been chosen for its penetrating abilities—the slugs are powerful enough to easily penetrate the car’s safety glass windshield without being redirected or deflected, striking the target.
The U.S. Military and intelligence community have been undertaking targeted killings for more than a decade, but the use of AI and an unmanned ground weapon system is different. In particular, AI could be used not only to ensure the target is killed, but to strike with such accuracy that other nearby civilians and innocent bystanders are spared.
Israeli agents used only 15 machine gun bullets to kill the scientist in a moving vehicle, without harming those around him. The Fakhrizadeh killing shows that we are now firmly in the age of remote-controlled warfare, and that time and distance place few restrictions on killing. The restrictions, if any, will have to be put in place by people.
“An autonomous weapon could not tell whether Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a scientist or a soldier, but it killed him without touching his wife next to him,” says Kallenborn, the U.S. Army “Mad Scientist.” “The event supports the argument of military powers that using AI to guide weapons can help reduce civilian casualties, albeit weakly. Killing with AI and facial recognition is not the future, it’s reality.”
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