Security and defense: Spying in HD

The IAF’s secretive Fire Tower visual intelligence system is used on every reconnaissance and surveillance air force mission and plays a critical role in monitoring enemy activity.

THIS HERON drone is of a type recently featured in Northern Command drills aimed at improving responses to attempted infiltrations by terrorists. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THIS HERON drone is of a type recently featured in Northern Command drills aimed at improving responses to attempted infiltrations by terrorists.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Each time a plane, drone or helicopter takes off from an IAF air base to carry out reconnaissance or surveillance, it carries on board a secretive, advanced visual-intelligence- gathering system called Fire Tower.
The system, made by Elbit, is known internationally as the Advanced Multi-Sensor Payload System (AMPS). It plays a critical role in the Israel Air Force’s core ability to monitor Hezbollah activities in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas’s movements in Gaza, and any other enemy, near or far, that needs continuous monitoring from above.
“This is a long-range system that flies with every air force platform,” a senior air force source, who agreed to provide some details about the system, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “It sends live video feed and operates in all weather conditions, day or night,” he added.
In the past, the air force integrated Fire Tower into its Israel Aerospace Industries-made Heron TP and Beechcraft King Air surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, but now it has expanded the system into every intelligence-gathering aircraft.
First introduced in 2000, the version of Fire Tower that flies today has undergone several upgrades, the most recent of which enables it to gather intelligence on more distant targets than ever and broadcast HD video back to air force operators, who then can share it with Military Intelligence.
“The system developed over the years,” the source said. “It provides a solution to long-range intelligence gathering,” he said.
When on board a platform such as a fighter jet, or the 100th Squadron’s Tzofit Beechcraft plane, IAF personnel in the aircraft operate the system. When placed on board drones in the form of a payload, Fire Tower is remotely operated from a ground-control station.
Recent upgrades to the system’s electro- optic color cameras and infrared heat sensors mean the resolution of images has increased significantly, the source said. “It gives much more ability to our intelligence world.”
Additionally, the extension in range is “significant,” the source said.
The Elbit-produced commercial equivalent is used by foreign customers. Elbit describes AMPS as a “dynamic target, detection and recognition system for extremely long ranges far exceeding those of other systems in its class.” The sensors are facilitated by “autonomous navigation with an inertial system and GPS, as well as highly accurate geo-pointing and geo-location capabilities,” the company said.
It works with the air force to install upgrades periodically, ensuring that Israel is able to stay a step ahead of the guerrilla- terrorist forces along the borders.
The source did not provide details about more distant threats but simply said, “It will carry out any mission required. It accompanies everything.”
Intelligence gathering has become an intrinsic air force activity, and no mission occurs without accompanying intelligence aircraft.
Manned air platforms, like the Tzofit, which is filled with electro-optic surveillance systems, act as airborne observation posts, looking at ground targets from a horizontal angle, while drones look at targets vertically below them. All of them use the Fire Tower visual intelligence sensor system.
Being able to observe targets that are dozens or more kilometers away without needing to fly directly over them helps keep planes out of the range of surfaceto- air missiles.
Similarly, fighter jets such as those in F-15 squadrons often use long-range cameras to keep an eye on enemy targets, without the need to leave Israeli air space. One such squadron, the Double Tail Knights Squadron, which flies out of Tel Nof Air Base south of Rehovot, spends a large portion of its flight time in visual- intelligence-gathering missions.
The intelligence gathered during peacetime can be stored and converted into future targets, or, if a threat deemed imminent is found, requiring a decision whether to take action, the intelligence can be sent to decision-makers.
The upgrade to Fire Tower comes as the IDF works behind the scenes to distribute its visual intelligence to more units, in less time, than ever before.
The military has been developing a system that will concentrate all visual intelligence coming from ground-based, ship-based, and air-based cameras into a single database, from which it can be distributed to any unit that needs it.
A senior source discussing the innovation last year told the Post, “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.”