A little less than a month after the end of the Gaza war, Col. Nati Cohen, head of the Planning Department at the C4i Teleprocessing Branch, sat in his office at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, and described Israel’s first full-scale network- based war.
After two months of combat, the C4i Branch is still in recovery mode and is carrying out various checks of its performance during the war. However, one thing has become very clear, Cohen said. The network created by the C4i Branch, linking up the air force, ground forces and navy to each other, and to Military Intelligence, allowing them to share visual intelligence and integrate their command and control systems, passed its test with flying colors.
Prior to the war, the C4i Branch had been busy setting up a project it calls “Network IDF,” linking the three military branches to one another to produce the most advanced combat communications network of its kind in the world.
Not only can various units communicate with one another directly through a common digital map, they can pass along visual intelligence, enabling each unit to see the combat arena from the perspective of other units in the air, sea and in the field.
“The crux of the idea is to unify all visual intelligence systems into one center that knows how to pass on the information to units who require it in real time,” Cohen said.
In the past, the IDF relied on a low number of sensors for images, generated by aircraft or ground-based cameras. This year, the visual information arrived at a single control room from dozens of sources simultaneously.
The result is that during the war, fighter jet pilots received data on a digital map showing location of enemy targets from tank commanders and live images of the target. The same image was available to artillery gunners and navy ship missile station operators.
All of them could coordinate their firepower to hit the same targets.
“This is the first time we have seen digital war fighting, that we have seen full network-based warfare,” said Cohen.
In Gaza, infantry or armored corps brigade commanders receive tools that did not exist a few years ago, he added, enabling them to decrease threats to themselves and increase their situational awareness.
“They knew where to be at all times. Relevant information was always at their disposal,” said Cohen. “In past wars, knowing where to go formed one of the main dilemmas for field commanders.”
In recent years, logistics officials from the C4i Branch sat down with officials from the navy, intelligence, the air force and ground forces, and jointly developed teleprocessing tools to connect them all together.
“This means that during the war, highly useful combat information did not remain locked in the air force’s command and control system or in the navy’s network. Ground forces got that data too, live,” Cohen explained.
He cited Hamas’s attempt to land a commando unit on Zikim beach, near Gaza, in July, as the clearest example of “Network IDF” in action.
During the raid, infantry units on the ground communicated with a combat helicopter, a ground controller and a navy ship, viewing the incident through all of their eyes.
“This reality allowed the company commander in the field to better understand the incident and respond,” Cohen stated.
Prior to the attack on the beach, an IDF controller monitoring cameras and radars had a general intelligence alert. She then identified several suspects, activated a navy ship and dispatched ground forces to the area. All jointly targeted the intruders, while combat engineering and other security forces cordoned off the area.
“This is what a combined battle looks like,” said Cohen.
“Everyone communicates on the network, talking to each other. Visual intelligence is integrated into a joint command and control system, creating a unified platform,” he added. “My goal is to allow information to flow to units in any combat arena. This also allows us to minimize harm to noncombatants.”
During the war, members of the C4i Branch created a simulator to allow military planners to test the impact of a strike on a target before taking the decision to order the attack.
At the same time, Cohen said, “We have to be careful to avoid information overload.”
Looking ahead, he continued, the C4i is preparing for full-scale war, on multiple, simultaneous fronts. It is building a vast IP-based military communication system designed to be able to support a war effort on that scale.
“It’s hard to simulate a war situation. But the Gaza war enabled us to activate our systems for first time with this much intensity,” he said, adding that he is satisfied with results.
“After 50 days of war... our systems have very much proven themselves. We did not evaluate how much the military would come to rely on the interconnected and integrated system we created. Now, commanders want us to expand it.”
“We focused a huge effort in a relatively small area. Now the challenge is to create the same capabilities on a much larger scale,” he added.
The technology allowed the IDF to significantly reduce the incidents of friendly fire, which decreased to a few lone cases during the summer conflict.
“C4i processing costs money. Our information networks have to be secure and able to survive combat,” Cohen said.
“In recent years, despite budget cuts, the army continued to invest in teleprocessing,” he said. “I hope this continues.”
Future targets include setting up the infrastructure for wideband data transfers to military units, Cohen said.
Creating a unified IP-based military radio network is in the works, he said.
“Radio communications still form a central tool. We want to turn this into a unified network, and hear military communications from any location, after a secure log-in,” he added.
“We are also working on new mobile infrastructure for operational needs [that would serve ground forces maneuvering in enemy territory],” he said.
In the future, we want to be able to take visual intelligence and use it to create forecasts, analyses and simulation options for decision makers.
There was limited use of satellite communications during the Gaza war, though satellites would play a bigger role in battlegrounds that are more distant.
“We are ready for a full-scale war. But we’d like to create a faster, more accessible network, and this is what we will work on,” Cohen, who is soon to become the chief officer of the C4i Corps, added.
“We are inventing ourselves. We have no one to learn from. We are the first in the world to be doing this, and it’s a big source of pride.”