Security and Defense: Israel’s eyes and ears

The IDF's chief combat intelligence officer talks to the 'Post' about watching the enemy in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria.

A combat intelligence soldier surveying the field. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
A combat intelligence soldier surveying the field.
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
As Israel prepares to encounter increasingly unstable borders and a chaotic region, the IDF’s Combat Intelligence Collection Corps is about to receive a set of hi-tech surveillance capabilities that should, according to army brass, make it far more difficult for terrorists to infiltrate Israel.
Speaking from his office at Corps Headquarters at the Tzrifin base, near Rishon Lezion, Col. Tal Braun, chief officer of the unit, told The Jerusalem Post in recent days that the new tools will significantly boost the ability of his forces to spot terrorists preparing to attack.
“Who are we looking for today? Not rows of tanks, but rather, small cells of terrorists going through hills, forests, built-up area, or deserts. They have to be discovered in time, before they do what they want to do. We have to be at technological forefront, and surprise them every time,” he said.
Established in 2000, the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps is the youngest of the five IDF corps. In 2009, its role in border security became more prominent, when the IDF General Staff turned it into a visual intelligence field unit, as part of the defense establishment’s lessons from the Second Lebanon War.
Today, Combat Intelligence Collection units, some in deep camouflage in the field, monitor the activities of enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas. In control rooms, controllers use electronic border surveillance tools to direct military forces to suspicious activity.
Every day, the Corps’ units send their array of visual intelligence to Military Intelligence for analysis.
Some of this information is used to construct lists of enemy targets, which will be struck in a future clash.
“We are tasked with two missions. The first is defending the border 24/7, without resting. We are the eyes of the state, at the forefront all of the time. We can’t blink. As the scout ahead of the camp, we influence everything,” said Braun.
“When you see the enemy with your eyes, it takes on a new significance,” he added.
“Our second mission is to assist in a ground maneuver. Small squads will gather information in the field,” Braun continued. “We guide the missile directly to its location.”
A new multi-sensory system, named Mars, already in operation on the border with Syria, is set to upgrade Combat Intelligence Collection control rooms, which are in charge of monitoring feeds from border fences.
“Mars can activate a range of sensors, including cameras and radars, that are deployed across a sector,” Braun explained.
Like air force controllers that scramble fighter jets after seeing unusual radar readouts, a control room containing Combat Collection supervisors scans areas looking for trouble. Thanks to Mars, the range of surveillance has grown, without needing to increase the numbers of personnel.
Mars employs several detection devices, most of which remain classified.
“There are a growing a number of terrorists. We need to beat them all, not just with cameras and radars. We want other sensors to expose the threats too. As soon as we see they’re there, terrorists can be tracked. The sensors work automatically, helping controllers to distinguish innocent civilians and farmers from real threats. It identifies lone attackers, a cell planting explosives, or snipers set on attacking soldiers or civilians,” Braun added.
Mars’s computer systems help controllers prioritize incidents, and label images from the border based on threat urgency, thereby preventing an information overload.
“We’ll find out faster, scan the places we want, and respond faster. It makes us more deadly, multiplying our power. It triples our power,” Braun said. The year-old system will soon be expanded to all of Israel’s borders.
Already, Mars has enabled Combat Intelligence Collection units to thwart more attacks. The system was developed by Israeli defense corporations Elbit and Rafael, together with the Ground Forces’ Technological Division.
“It’s a breakthrough in every way,” said Braun. An additional tool that will soon make an entrance to the world of border security is the Granite vehicle, which can deploy quickly to an area, and raise a robotic arm out of its roof carrying a variety of electro- optical sensors, including radars and high resolution cameras for day and nighttime surveillance.
Braun said the Granite is currently completing a pilot program on the Golan Heights, and will be deployed to all borders by the end of 2014.
“It will broadcast directly to the Mars control centers,” he explained.
Data from Mars, and from Granite vehicles, will in turn be inputted into the IDF’s Digital Ground Army – an interactive digital map, showing the location of enemy and friendly forces.
Digital Ground Army is expected to become the Ground Forces’ chief command and control system in the coming years.
“The more you see, the further you want to see. And in full color,” Braun said with a smile.
“Can terrorists still infiltrate? [From their perspective], there’s no such thing as an impossible goal. My job is to make their lives super difficult. To the extent that it depends on us, we expose them before they can open fire. We are hunters, not fishermen. We’re not waiting for terrorists to show up. We’re going out and looking for them. We learn they’re heading out from a certain position, and we wait for them. They don’t wait for us,” he added.
A third new “gadget” scheduled to enter service shortly is the Tamnun (“Octopus”), a mobile command and control system that is carried by a soldier in a backpack. The Tamnun has led to the creation of a new combat field role.
“It’s a kind of tablet, giving you a worldview, and showing all the locations of our forces and the enemy. Field units can use it to send out messages and commands,” Braun explained. “It lets me know where I am in a better way, and tells me who is with me, and what I’m dealing with. We no longer need a radio to broadcast all of our movements.”
This allows for firepower to be directed at targets quicker, from the moment a target is marked out. A pilot program for the Tamnun has ended, and the system will formally enter service in the coming months.
“It’s very user friendly. We expect it to be in service within a year-and-a-half. It’ll be adopted in a massive way by our units. Then, a second, upgraded version is expected,” Braun said.
Braun also paid tribute to what he described as “our flagship electro-optic long-range sensor, the ‘Matan.’”
The device, a large viewing device, acquires targets far from borders, and broadcasts their precise coordinates to other military forces. The broadcasts flow through the Tamnun system.
During peacetime, GPS coordinates of enemy targets are analyzed and stored by Military Intelligence.
During combat, the targets can be passed on to tanks, artillery units, or the air force in real time.
Braun was keen to stress that despite the technological breakthroughs, “the human advantage is the most important. Everyone loves toys, but the human advantage will ultimately determine the outcome. We want the best of the youth in Israel to utilize this technology.”
“Seeing the enemy with your eyes, whether in Gaza, Nablus, Lebanon, or the Golan Heights, helps you realize that you’re saving lives. You realize that you’re responsible, it’s on your shoulders,” Braun said.