Guarding the coastal gate

Israel Navy’s Arena Command Post female controllers monitor all sea traffic and watch for hostile ships.

May 16, 2013 23:20
THE MAIN mission of the controllers is to single out hostile boats.

Woman Navy control 370. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)

The IDF’s female controllers sat in the large, darkened Arena Command Post at Ashdod Naval Base, their eyes glued to their screens.

To the left of each controller was a screen showing a feed from a heat-sensitive camera. To the right was a high-quality color image. On the other side of their panel, a radar screen.

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These soldiers represent the front line of Israeli’s coastal defenses. For the duration of their eight-hour shift, they cannot remove their stare from the screens, for fear of missing a hostile vessel – a mistake that can cost lives.

Up above them, a large map is projected on the wall showing dots of various colors. It provides real time information on all vessels sailing on the Mediterranean and the locations of Israel Navy vessels, as well as the movements of the air force and ground forces.

“We call this our tactical map. It is available to the whole of the navy network, from submarines and missile ships, and to navy headquarters in Tel Aviv and senior command level,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Gal Mor, commander of the Ashdod Command Post.

The controllers do not have an easy job, but what they do have, explained Sgt. Hanna Plotkin, a shift manager, is each other’s company and support.

“We talk to each other, and sometimes sing. It helps us bond as a crew,” she said. “These girls are incredible.”

In 1979, a band of Palestine Liberation Front terrorists departed Lebanon by boat and landed on a northern Israeli beach. Led by Samir Kuntar, they snuck into Nahariya and murdered a policeman, as well as three Israeli family members in their home, including a young man and his four-year-old daughter. Today, the navy has set up a complex system in an effort to ensure that such an attack cannot repeat itself.

Sitting behind the first row of controllers is a second layer of soldiers, responsible for communicating with the navy’s boats and directing them to suspicious vessels. These young women are tasked with making a decision to intervene and send out patrols to unusual ships if necessary. They sit at panels with headphones and a microphone for communications.

In the third row are more senior officers overseeing the entire operation.

“It’s amazing, the level of responsibility they put on these girls’ young shoulders,” a senior navy source said. “A charming girl, aged 18, can tell a navy boat commander where to go.”

Israel’s Navy has divided the country’s coastlines into three arenas. A southern arena is located around Eilat, and covers the Red Sea. Each arena is also subdivided into regions. One example is the Erez Regional Post, which monitors the Gaza Strip coast.

The bottom line is that the navy keeps a close eye on the entire coastline, 24 hours a day.

“All of the navy’s vessels are available for response, like pieces on a chessboard,” said Mor. “We move them around on the board. Every vessel needs to know its function, and is moved by the controllers.”

The main mission is to single out the hostile boats hiding in the midst of all of the commercial ships heading into Israeli ports.

The fear is that a boat carrying terrorists stops short of the coastline, and from it, rubber dingies carrying gunmen and explosives emerge, who in turn speed onward to an Israeli community to carry out an atrocity.

“We’re at the battle information center. Here, the whole naval defense picture is put together, and sent on to higher command levels,” Plotkin explains, as the colored dots on the wall map shift.

The cameras and radars are planted along the Israeli coastline. The cameras are remotely controlled, and can zoom in on any ship approaching the coast. The radars can detect ships far past the camera’s range of sight.

Every commercial vessel that enters Israeli waters must send over its details 48 hours ahead of its arrival, to a boat unit center, which is operated by the Transportation Ministry. A shipping agency in Israel must also approve the ship’s arrival and provide guarantees to the ministry.

The navy is then given access to the details, and when the ship appears on radar, it is contacted via the international shipping radio frequency to ensure that the details are correct.

“This is about cross-referencing data,” Mor explained. Whenever a boat requires extra inspection, heat-sensitive cameras allow the controllers to spot unusual activity in the underbelly of the vessel.

The navy gets suspicious if a ship does not respond to radio calls, and begins to assume it is a hostile vessel.

Operators dispatch a Dabur-class patrol boat to inspect it, Plotkin added.

The navy can also dispatch planes carrying naval patrol officers to examine the suspicious vessel from above. It is believed to also have drones that can carry out the same function.

“We’re also on the lookout for small, hostile vessels from Gaza heading north. They could seek to strike at the natural gas drilling site off the southern coast. That’s a major soft spot,” Mor said.

“In the past, we’ve been hit with naval terror attacks. Boats carrying bombs pretended to be fishing vessels. Swimmers came from Gaza carrying weapons, trying to reach Israeli communities,” he added.

Farther to the south of the Ashdod Arena Command Post is the Erez Regional Post, which is fed with many censors and keeps a close eye on Gaza. “It’s a frontline post, working in tandem with us,” Mor said.

Asked how the navy got the controllers to be so focused on their task, Mor said, “We explained to them the importance of the mission, to protect the large population centers on the coast. Just one look away can result in a controller missing a target, and that can lead to a terror attack. We’ve studied past attacks.”

Although the navy’s monitoring system is increasingly automated, there’s still no replacement for the human eye and judgement, Mor argued. “Computers are not yet able to separate a commercial vessel from a terrorist boat pretending to be one,” he said.

Under the bright sun outside, at Ashdod Port, a battalion of Dabur patrol boats dotted the base’s decks. Crews were busy cleaning them and arranging equipment to the tune of Mizrahi songs from a speaker.

The Dabur is one of the newest vessels in the navy. Traveling at 48 knots, “it’s an experience to ride in it,” a senior navy source said.

The boat is equipped with a Typhoon cannon in the front and MAG machine guns at its sides. At its rear, the Dabur has a .05 machine gun capable of piercing armor.

“This is very accurate firepower. We struck targets in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012,” the source said.

Before that, he said, “we destroyed terrorists in Gaza in a very significant incident.

We supported ground forces. Three terrorists on the coast were killed.” The boats have also stopped pro-Palestinian naval flotillas. “Not all of them hit the headlines,” the source said.

“We know there are surface-to-sea missiles in Gaza. We must stay alert to this threat at all times... But we have to strive to engage at sea, so we are overt. We’re not hiding.”

Speaking about the controllers who direct the boats, the source said, “I totally trust them. What they are doing there is securing the Israeli people.”

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