A little over a year after the end of the third Gaza war, the IDF’s Southern Command continues to study what many military sources are describing as the first network- centric war.
As Hamas and Islamic Jihad rearm, preparing their next attacks on Israel’s South, Southern Command is moving toward a hi-tech vision that some officers describe as one giant “military iPhone.”
The Gaza conflict last summer was “really the first time the IDF held a network-based war. It was the first time the IDF experienced using a digital network in combat,” Col. Ronen Schneider, commander of the Southern Command’s Communications and Computers Branch, told The Jerusalem Post last week.
“When you look at the Digital Ground Army command and control system, which we used in combat, we received this in a fairly ripe state before the operation. It was tested to the full during the [two-week] ground operations stage of the conflict.
Until then, it was used only in drills but not on this scale,” he added.
DGA was just one component in a wider revolution, dubbed Network IDF by the military.
Breaking down old barriers, Network IDF allows Military Intelligence (MI) to work with the Israel Air Force, the Ground Forces and the Israel Navy in a fully integrated network.
“Operation Protective Edge was 51 days long.
Throughout, we used firepower,” Schneider said.
The C4I (Command and Control, Computers, Communications and intelligence) was behind each day that we used firepower. It was essential to all of our attacks” on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Schneider added.
“When you look at our operational efforts – not a single one occurred that was not based on C4I,” he said.
Battalions, brigades and divisions operating under the Southern Command suddenly had their own mobile digital networks, irrespective of their location during the combat.
To achieve this, two communication battalions (one in the standing army and the second in the reserves) and a communications officer worked around the clock to serve the Southern Command’s needs.
Schneider’s soldiers carry out work that may seem less glamorous than the combat roles but is every bit as essential to modern Israeli war-fighting.
“We provide the labs, the technicians and high maintenance for the systems,” he said.
“We had to adapt our C4I systems and make them operational in the Southern Command’s fire control center,” Schneider added, referring to a stateof- the-art structure that concentrates all real-time intelligence on Gaza and coordinates the firepower capabilities possessed by the Southern Command.
A new fire control center became operational in May this year.
“We created the fire control center from a sketch… designed by professionals,” Schneider said.
Schneider is responsible for every C4I system in the Southern Command, from an office computer to a radio device used by a unit patrolling the border.
“My role is to make sure that the C4I systems remain available to all commanders, because the whole of the Southern Command’s operational efforts depend on this.
We will maintain the systems and adapt them to operations,” the officer said.
Today, the headquarters of units serving under the Southern Command “have turned lethal,” Schneider said.
“Unit headquarters have a central role to play in the destruction of the enemy’s capabilities in the depth of enemy territory,” he said.
In the past, unit headquarters had to move around battlefields all the time and face constraints due to fuel, ammunition and their security environments. Today, those restrictions have been cast aside by military technology.
Looking ahead to future conflicts with Hamas, Schneider said C4I infrastructure will undergo further upgrades, pointing to systems like the Southern Command’s Radio Over IP (ROIP ) network, which allows a commander to communicate with any unit on the ground, irrespective of location.
In the past, every army division had its own radio network, and could not use another’s radio. The Gaza Division created a ROIP network that allows multiple divisions to use the same radio network.
“Now, an officer can sit in Tel Aviv and use an antenna in Eilat to broadcast to a unit in the South. This is not based on local connection, and the officer does not need an armored personnel carrier nearby to transmit from the field,” Schneider said.
Following ROIP ’s initial use last year, the Southern Command tested a larger version in July 2015, during an exercise. The newer version will be operational within six months.
Schneider said that the personnel behind these systems are “very dedicated,” adding: “Without them, we could not have launched Operation Protective Edge or drawn the right lessons from it and moved forward in the past year.”
A senior military source familiar with these developments said Operation Protective Edge might have been the first digital war in the world, not just in Israel and Gaza.
“All of the forces operating in Gaza cooperated, using one digital network,” he said.
“The military branches and MI are working increasingly as a single force. This enables them to connect to one another, to speak directly, transfer data, know the positions of friendly and hostile forces, and share video.”
The Southern Command’s digital systems, the source added, became operational just three weeks before Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
“One of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War was the need to link up the intelligence- gathering bodies, which are focused in greater Tel Aviv, to the company and battalion commanders on the front lines.
In Gaza last year, we managed to do this in real time,” the source said.
“The commanders, before entering an alleyway in Gaza, knew which home had a tunnel under it, or was booby-trapped, or had terrorists inside. This significantly affected operations. The commanders received this information through their systems, and it saved many lives. It allowed them to carry out their operations.”
The next stage is to create a single, IDFwide radio over IP network that will serve the Ground Forces, the Israel Navy and the IAF.
Additionally, the IDF will soon launch a system that will concentrate all visual intelligence, coming from cameras on the ground, on ships, or on board aircraft.
“The more we distribute visual intelligence, the more the military will see the operational effectiveness. All of the visual intelligence will pour into one center, though only authorized end users will have access to the visual intelligence they need.”
Ultimately, the source said, the IDF is going in the direction of an iPhone.
“There is no isolated air force computer, or Military Intelligence computer, or Ground Forces computer. Today, like the iPhone, which has all of the applications running from one device, we can have one computer access the entire common infrastructure to make services available, in accordance with authorizations. Users can download the operational applications they need.”
Col. Haim Abudraham, a communications battalion commander in the Gaza Division, traced some of the changes revolutionizing the Southern Command to a particular exercise held in November 2013.
The exercise occurred two months after Abudraham had taken up his position. The Southern Command used Ashkelon as the setting for simulated urban combat in Gaza and realized that it had been lacking the ability to monitor incidents within Israel.
“We turned our attention, after the drill, to the need to set up defenses [in southern Israel] and not just focus on attacks,” Abudraham said.
That insight proved vital in dealing with Hamas’s cross-border tunnel infiltrations during the 2014 conflict, which could have resulted in a mass slaughter of civilians, had the military not been able to intercept Hamas’s murder squads.
“We realized, after the drill, that we needed to enhance our ability to see our own territory, not just Gaza. This led to an increase in combat intelligence collection capabilities, so that we can see our [southern] regions. During Operation Protective Edge, we detected five to six infiltration attempts because we had eyes in our back,” the battalion commander said.
Those “eyes in the back” required new C4I systems to work.
Prior to the clash, the Gaza Division spent months in intensive preparations for an operation that it suspected “was apparently on the way,” Abudraham said.
“According to our assessment, in July 2014 something would happen. This caused us to overhaul C4I infrastructure. We installed and upgraded Digital Ground Army networks in the months leading up to the conflict and focused on our ability as a C4I body to create command and control.”
The new capabilities were then deployed throughout the border with Gaza. When hostilities with Hamas erupted soon afterward, army unit headquarters did not have to move constantly with the fighting. They could remain in a single spot for five days, monitor and control the fighting, relying on the Digital Ground Army and its central component, ROIP .
“When we talk about tactical operations, radio connection is still the most important thing,” Abudraham said. “You can’t go to war without a radio. You cannot do anything.
If command and control problems malfunction, it is unpleasant, but it does not stop the war. But if I can’t talk to people over the radio, we can’t do a thing, and it’s better to pull them out of the battle.”
In the course of the fighting, all of the ground units were linked in to the Torch 655 digital map system, which shows the location and activities of friendly and hostile forces in real time.
“We developed this in the year leading up to the operation,” Abudraham said. The system links up all ground forces, while also allowing ground forces to connect to the air force, navy, and Military Intelligence command systems.
Since the end of hostilities, Torch has been upgraded again, and the army is now using a new version called Torch 680.
Looking ahead, Abudraham said these changes are “just a stage in a longer plan.
What’s happening here is the start of Network IDF.”
The plan calls for improving coordination between the Ground Forces and the IAF, though details of this remain classified.
The next stage, Abudraham said, is to let an operator call up a number of operational applications on a single screen.
“In the future, it will all run in one system.
An operator will access the intelligence and the combat collection data he needs on one computer. We are going in this direction. A centralized command and control system that will feed into one database.”