Security and Defense: Dashing to connect the dots

The IDF intensifies efforts to introduce full technological integration, cooperation among its branches.

IDF tank 224.88 (photo credit: IDF )
IDF tank 224.88
(photo credit: IDF )
Imagine a battlefield filled with thousands of soldiers wearing vests, and carrying machine guns and handheld computers. Imagine that hundreds of sensors - optical, radar, acoustic, thermal and others - are deployed throughout the battle arena, acquiring a wide-range of targets, from snipers stationed in apartment buildings, to Kassam rocket launchers in nearby fields. Now imagine that the moment one of the sensors acquires an enemy target, a dot appears on the map of the battlefield, which is displayed on small, lightweight computers worn on the arms of platoon and company commanders, fitted inside tanks and artillery batteries, in navy Sa'ar 5-class missile ships, as well as in the cockpits of Cobra and Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters. What happens next is the most complicated stage - choosing the weapon to destroy the target. This is done by an officer sitting in a command-and-control center, either behind enemy lines or back in Israel, from where he can see everything that the sensors are transmitting. This level of interoperability among various forces, military branches and sensors does not currently exist in the IDF, but - according to Brig.-Gen. Shachar Kadishai, commander of the Ground Forces Command's Technology and Logistics Department - the day is not far off. "The vision is to create full integration and interoperability between the ground forces and other branches in the IDF," Kadishai told The Jerusalem Post. "We are currently working on creating the necessary systems and the infrastructure that will then be used to create this level of interoperability." TO BETTER grasp what the IDF is aiming for, it is important to understand what the situation is in the IDF today. Currently, IDF branches, such as the air force and the ground forces, operate independent C4I communication systems. For example, Division 36 of the Northern Command was recently outfitted with the Tzayad (Hunter) Digital Army Program, which links all of the land combat elements into a single C4I network. Outfitting of the rest of the IDF divisions with the DAP system will likely end by 2012. During the recent operation in Gaza, some elements of the DAP were utilized. The DAP can also work with autonomous firepower systems, such as the Rainbow 120-mm. mortar system developed by Soltam, which is designed to deliver its first round on targets up to eight kilometers away within 30 seconds of receiving a target, and with almost perfect accuracy. But this is in the ground forces. The idea, Kadishai explains, is to have all of the different fighting machines seeing the same picture of the battlefield, and working on the same network. "Today there is minimal interface between ground and air forces," said Col. Eyal Zelinger, head of the IDF's C4I Weapons Department. During Operation Cast Lead, if a battalion commander wanted an attack helicopter to bomb a building or provide air support, he needed to talk directly with the pilot and - while both looked at the same map - explain exactly where he and his forces were located, and where the target was. "It takes time to describe the target to the brigade commander, who then explains to the division commander and then explains to the General Staff," Zelinger said. "We are striving to reach a point at which a battalion commander can make a dot on a screen, and that same dot will appear on the screen in the cockpit of the fighter or helicopter flying above." According to Zelinger, no military currently has this ability, which is based on advanced C4I capabilities, including wide streaming and broadband capabilities to transfer information - such as video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles and other sensors - to tactical forces and command-and-control centers. THE IDF is not alone in its attempts to reach a high level of interface among its branches, partly due to the lesson it learned from the Second Lebanon War, during which communication and coordination between ground and air forces was poor, and led to several deadly friendly-fire incidents. The US Army has also been working on creating a joint network under the Future Combat Systems Program. This suffered a setback, however, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently decided to cut funding for it, as part of a shift toward spending more on counterterrorism, and less on preparing for conventional warfare. Israel, Kadishai says, has a need for a network that can operate both in low intensity conflicts, such as Operation Cast Lead, and high intensity conflicts, such as a conventional war with Syria. "The threats vary," he says, "and the idea is for there to be a network system that can function in both types of conflicts." TO ACCOMMODATE the overload expected on the new network, the IDF C4I Directorate plans to start installing a new communications system - called WIMAX - in the Northern Command later this year. WIMAX (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) is a technology that enables wireless transmission of data across multipoint links in a covered area. Later this year, the IDF will deploy antennas along the northern border that will encompass part of Lebanon, so that if command centers are deployed out of its reach, portable antennas can be set up behind enemy lines. This is in contrast to the situation during Operation Cast Lead, when brigade commanders who set up command centers inside Gaza could not see the same visuals that the various sensors deployed both in the field and in the air above were transmitting back to headquarters. The new WIMAX system will change all that. And the IDF will be the first military in the world to work with it. The ultimate goal, Kadishai and Zelinger explain, is to create the technology that the IDF needs to decisively defeat its enemy. "The idea is to create intelligence in real time and translate it into targets," concludes Kadishai. "We will soon reach the stage where everyone in the same small area will see the same targets and be reading the same maps, and this will change the way we operate and fight."