Security and Defense: Revolutionizing rocket warnings

Using ever-more accurate, hi-tech alerts that can provide warnings to specific neighborhoods, the IDF aspires to take some of the sting out of the massive rocket arsenals aimed at Israel.

Residents take cover in the stairwell of their building during a rocket attack on Tel Aviv (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Residents take cover in the stairwell of their building during a rocket attack on Tel Aviv
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
In the very near future, should rockets once again rain down on Israel, specific neighborhoods – and even individual neighborhood blocks – will receive targeted alerts of an imminent threat, while the surrounding areas will be left to continue as normal.
Air raid sirens with IP addresses will automatically go into action, and local residents under threat will see their television receivers automatically switch to a channel warning them of rockets approaching their area. At the same time, cellphones in the targeted area might buzz with text messages and Home Front Command application alerts, while street screens will issue warnings to drivers to seek cover.
By mid-2016, technology being developed by Home Front Command will have advanced far enough to become operational, revolutionizing the way Israelis are alerted to impending rocket threats.
A senior source from the Home Front Command told The Jerusalem Post in recent days about intensive efforts under way to upgrade the alerts. When the changes are done, he said, every siren will act as a separate geographic unit, and the old system of alerting whole cities, and disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands or millions of people, will become outdated.
The IDF is investing large resources in these changes, the source said, because they can help take the sting out of the rocket arsenals in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.
“If we can get to a situation where, for every 10,000 rockets there is no more than a single casualty, and no more than NIS 12 million worth of damage per day to the home front [due in part to disruptions to the economy], than we have created an antithesis to the rocket threat,” the high-ranking source said.
“The alert is a central aspect. If you can give civilians an effective warning, on time, and they take action in high percentages, you save lives. There is much evidence for this,” he added.
During last summer’s clash with Hamas, Israel suffered a casualty for every 700 rockets launched, and in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a casualty occurred for every 100 rockets.
The Iron Dome air defense revolution has a significant role in that, the source acknowledged, but the improvement in alerts, giving people enough time to seek effective shelter, is also key to understanding the figures, he argued.
“Of the 200,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel [by all of its foes combined], 80 percent are short-range. The large projectiles need active air defense responses. If we can create an effective alert, we create a situation where the threat [by those rockets that cannot be shot down by air defenses] is mitigated,” said the source.
Currently, the Home Front Command has divided Israel into 248 alert areas, pushing its system to the edge of its operational limits. Two years ago, the number of alert areas was fewer than half of that number.
But by 2016, the Home Front Command will do away with the whole regional siren system, and replace it with one that treats every siren as its own alert unit. Additionally, some sirens will send back data from cameras and other sensors that will be installed on them, to give the IDF initial damage assessment data from areas under fire.
With improved air force radars, better algorithms to calculate the trajectories of rockets, and improvements in electro-optic detection systems, future rocket alerts will be more area specific and effective than ever before, the source said.
“Today, the alerts are 98 percent accurate. They are based on an ellipse projected by our computers around targeted areas. The ellipses become smaller as the rocket approaches,” the source said.
Placing all of the air raid sirens on one IP network, instead of the current, Motorola-based radio command system that activates them, will bring down the time it takes to sound the alarm from between three to five seconds to just one second, he added.
“The new network will need robust cyber defenses,” he acknowledged.
The breakthrough for these advances came in 2012, when the Home Front Command and the IDF’s C4i Branch jointly developed a new alert system that automatically creates rocket alerts from a range of sensors.
The signals travel through powerful computers that project the path of the incoming threat to ever-more specific areas. New radars and algorithms are making the alerts more area specific with time.
Until 2012, sirens had to be set off manually, and in 2010, the warning systems were so far behind today’s technology that Home Front Command operators had to set off sirens in every area that rockets flew over before they hit.
Today, even the radars that serve Iron Dome interception batteries take part in the system to warn civilians.
A computerized command and control center gets the rocket data from sensors, crunches it in microseconds, and decides which air raid sirens to ‘awaken.’ “Today, our system will draw an ellipse around, say Ashdod, and warn that a rocket is going to hit the area in 60 seconds. It will wait another 10 seconds and get an update on the rocket’s route, updating and miniaturizing the target area. When it can no longer wait, it will issue the alert to residents,” the source explained. “All of this happens in one second.”
Human operators can intervene, though today, this is optional, he added. The future system will make automatic decisions on which additional alert platforms it will activate – phones, television receivers, or radios.
“The enemy is trying to overcome the IDF’s military superiority by targeting the home front. Rocket ranges, accuracy, and warhead sizes are growing with time,” the source warned.
“Active air defenses can’t intercept everything that is launched at us. It’s not feasible economically,” he stated. “That leaves alerts and civilians moving into safe areas. Our mission is to allow civilians to take action on time, and receive a targeted, credible warning.”
The same system can also deliver earthquake alerts, the source said. “Anyone can connect to it. We have created a common alert protocol. We can install sensors on the Afro-Syrian fault line that can detect P waves [a type of seismic wave that is the first arrive at seismographs], and this can give us a 15 second alert before an earthquake strikes,” he added.
The system has attracted the attention of NASA ’s Near Earth Object program, which tracks threats to the planet from space. An Israeli representative of the program visited the Home Front Command to discuss how information on dangerous asteroids might be relayed in the future.
Returning to more immediate concerns, the officer said that this year, the Home Front Command’s text message alert system will be fully operational, and that an IT infrastructure for managing content for smart phones and Internet sites will be up and running.
The Home Front Command is also developing a “mobile alert box” it calls “Nofar,” which, using an IP address and a radio receiver will use strong speakers to warn of rockets in places like schools, hospitals, and shopping centers.
“What all of this means for civilians is more freedom of movement. They will be able to get their alerts from anywhere, and make a smooth transition from the alert to receiving safety instructions, with no disruption to unaffected areas. It will affect a very small number of people at any given time. This is a revolution that has national significance,” the source said.