Establishing military communication networks in mountainous desert terrain is always a big challenge, Lt.-Col. Idan Almoznino, commander of the 681st battalion of the C4i Corps, told The Jerusalem Post last month.
The challenge, however, has been overcome, Almoznino said. Driving an army jeep down the road straddling the border, he gestured to the numerous communication masts that have become commonplace along the 240-kilometer Egyptian border.
The towers serve a dual use.
On the one hand, they serve the 727 Combat Intelligence Collection Battalion, which has pinned radars, thermo cameras and optical cameras to them.
The sensors peer deep into Sinai, and feed control centers with streaming data on all movement near the border, enabling the Southern Command to scramble forces in response to alerts.
But in order to get the sensors to talk to the control center, and for controllers to deploy units to potential trouble spots, a variety of communication networks have to be up and running at all times, and this forms the army’s second use of the towers.
Thanks to these towers, Almoznino said, security forces traveling along the border on patrols and surveillance missions are never alone. They enjoy access to the Mesua (Torch) tactical command and control system, the Mountain Rose encrypted military cellphone network and standard, encrypted army radio.
In the future, the IDF plans to use this infrastructure to set up cloud computing for combat and field intelligence units.
“Our job is to ensure that messages get between security forces in no time, whether it is sensor data or radio messages,” Almoznino said.
“Any patrol on this border must never be alone. Look at how many of these masts we’ve got up,” he added.
After four years of work, the battalion now feels confident that a unit traveling along the frontier carries with it the full might of the IDF’s Southern Command, which can be called upon for assistance via the communication networks at any time.
“We facilitate the process of getting this military might to any point along here,” Almoznino said. “The aim is to get the messages out, and back-up forces mobilized, as quickly as possible – whether a unit gets stranded along the border, or engages hostile forces.”
The communication networks serve not only the army, but also the air force, police and paramedics.
The battalion commander stressed what he said was the crucial integration of technology, human resources and dedication that established these networks and keep them running on a day-to-day basis, whatever the weather conditions or security risks.
“My people’s job is to turn 50 km. into 50 meters,” he said, referring to the large distance of the Southern Command’s area of operations and the role of communications in bridging the distances.
“We cover the whole area. This provides a sense of personal security to the unit members on patrol,” he said.
When it comes to maintaining the masts, company commanders from the battalion travel from one site to the next.
“These are people who know how to combine technology with operations,” he said.
The mast’s computer systems automatically report errors, and technician crews that arrive for repairs must be secured by additional soldiers from the company.
A C4i company commander is responsible for maintaining around 30 masts, making sure they broadcast and receive electronic signals without errors.
“We call this entire concept ‘Google in the desert,’” said Almoznino. “It’s about taking creative people and providing technological solutions to operational needs.”
With the C4i companies serving three territorial divisions, the functionality of the Southern Command, and its ability to detect and respond to emerging security threats, are wholly dependent on this battalion.
The unit trains responses to terrorist attacks on the masts, as well as extreme weather conditions that have been known to beset this remote region.
In recent months, heavy flooding afflicted the desert steeps, but the companies set out to repair errors in the masts nonetheless. “We can’t delay maintenance,” Almoznino said.
“There’s no one who will do it instead of us. I want the squads to be as independent as possible, and to have the mental fortitude to deal with whatever challenges come their way.”
As shadows grew and the sun began to set behind the barren mountains, Almoznino scanned the view before him. “The desert attracts special people – people with strength,” he said.
Staring at the adjacent Sinai Peninsula, where jihadi cells are formed and occasionally launch attacks on Israel, the commander said his unit is preparing for further instability. Securing the masts from terrorist attacks, as well as electronic attacks, is part of the job, he said.