TEL AVIV — On July 8, the first day of Operation Protective Edge, five Hamas frogmen attempted an amphibious assault on an Israeli military base bordering northern Gaza.
They didn’t get far.
First, they were spotted by a Navy coastal sensor, which streamed targeting data through the Army’s new command-and-control network to air, sea and ground shooters. Almost instantly, the Nahal infantry battalion commander in the sector had multiple options for these moving targets of opportunity.
A Merkava Mk4 tank poised at the border had them painted in its sights, as did Israeli Air Force unmanned aircraft. At the same time, a Navy offshore patrol vessel was following the frogmen, eager for orders to launch electro-optically guided Tammuz missiles.
Brig. Gen. Eyal Zelinger, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief signals officer, and C4I Directorate chief of staff, recounts what happened next.
“In the end, everyone shot at the same time,” Zelinger said. “As the event was unfolding, they all shared a common picture that allowed the ground commander in charge to choreograph the strike.”
In an Aug. 13 interview, Zelinger ticked off examples in which fully networked joint force capabilities, demonstrated for the first time in Protective Edge, prevented potentially game-changing setbacks at the hands of Hamas.
One was the underground infiltration attempt near Kibbutz Sufa on July 17, the first day of the ground war. Young female IDF observers at the border detected at least eight dark-dressed commandos emerging from a tunnel and starting their advance toward the kibbutz.
As initial visuals streamed through the IDF network, they were fortified and fused with other land and air sensors. Within a few minutes, the commander on the ground understood the enemy squad had aborted its mission and was heading back to the tunnel.
“In that event, several shooters were available to the ground commander,” Zelinger said. “The decision was made to attack from the air directly into the access point from which they emerged.”
Zelinger credited the Tzayad digital command-and-control network, which links Israel’s highest command echelons with all sensors and shooters down to battalion and often company levels.
Protective Edge marked the moment of truth for the network, known in English as Digital Army Program (DAP). Consuming billions of dollars over more than a decade, the high-priority program was managed by the C4I division of the IDF General Staff, developed by Haifa-based Elbit Systems and produced in large part at the firm’s Elbit USA subsidiary with annual funding from Washington.
Officers here said Tzayad was not yet available in 2008, when Israel last waged maneuvering ground war in Gaza as part of its 23-day Cast Lead campaign.
By November 2012, when Israel launched its last anti-rocket operation in Gaza, IDF brigades and most battalions were fully equipped and trained to work on the net. But after eight days of standoff attack, that operation, called Pillar of Defense, ended without a ground war.
“In Pillar of Defense, we had the force structure, but we didn’t go in. The network didn’t have the chance to prove itself,” Zelinger said.
“But this time around, maneuvering ground forces were the dominant and significant player in truly joint, net-centric warfare,” he said. “Our entire active-duty ground force capabilities were involved in Gaza maneuvers, all of them linked with Air Force, Navy, intelligence and special units.”
“I can say this was the first time in history that a modern army went to war with a fully networked maneuvering force,” said Zelinger. “What we demonstrated here was the world’s first writ-large use of networked warfare.”
In private conversations last week, several US warriors called that a bit of hyperbole. Still, no one — as one retired US Army general put it — wanted “to get into a public pissing match” with the IDF.
“It might be the first time the IDF did it, but not the first time it was done in the world,” the retired officer said. “Operations by US joint forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been taking advantage of fully networked, digitized architectures of which the US military has invested so heavily in over the last 20 years.”
Preventing Friendly Fire
Brig. Gen. Roy Riftin, IDF chief artillery officer, credited connectivity and situational awareness provided by Tzayad not only for improved combat effectiveness, but for saving lives that could have been lost to friendly fire.
He cited a July 19 battle in Shuja’iya, a suburb of Gaza City described by a military intelligence officer as “the underground military garrison of Hamas.” From underneath that built up area, the IDF claims Hamas launched hundreds of rockets, anti-tank and mortar attacks against the Israeli homefront and advancing forces.
After repeated calls to evacuate civilians, an IDF combined arms force of paratroopers, infantry, armor, combat engineering and special operations forces converged in multiple directions, maneuvering house-to-house in search of tunnel access routes.
At one point in the battle, Riftin’s gunners were called in to suppress enemy fire with anti-personnel rounds. The problem, he recounts, was that enemy fire was suspected to be firing from an area well within the safety zone predetermined by IDF rules of engagement.
“We didn’t manage to detect the precise source of fire, but we knew it was too close to our forces. But since the network gave us precise information of where our forces were, we told them 20 minutes in advance to get deep inside their Namers [heavy troop carriers] and put their heads down,” he said.
“We fired about 100-120 meters from our forces with … weapons, some of which obviously leaked inside [the safety zone].”
Israel lost 13 soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade in that high-intensity battle, but none fell victim to friendly fire.
While Riftin credited Tzayad for safeguarding Israeli soldiers in that particular case, he cautioned against counting on network-enabled situational awareness to reduce friendly fire.
“Maneuvering forces are so vulnerable to so many threats that it’s too dangerous to depend on it. But in this particular case, it helped save lives.
The IDF has not yet released the number of friendly-fire deaths during Protective Edge, but an officer here said at least three cases are under investigation.
Riftin said improved target acquisition and range correction provided by Hot Transmission — the dedicated system integrating his artillery corps into the rest of the network — allowed his gunners to operate in concert with Air Force aircraft, without fear of confliction.
“In most cases, coordination between attack helicopters and ground forces was amazing,” Riftin said.
He cited two urban battles involving multiple Air Force assets overhead and hundreds of forces on the ground, where Tzayad allowed his forces to use saturation fire in support of ground forces. Both battles — in Shuja’iya and Beit Hanoun — required heavy shelling with anti-personnel and smoke rounds to secure the area enough for ground troops to extract those under enemy fire.
A third case was in Rafiah in southern Gaza on Aug. 1, where two Givati infantrymen died while fighting an underground assault squad and another was initially suspected of falling captive. He was later determined to have been killed in action.
“My preliminary impression is that without Tzayad, we couldn’t have reached the extent of the fire we were able to employ… not even close to it,” he said.
In addition to “a few hundred” Tammuz precision missiles launched in the campaign, Riftin estimated the IDF Artillery Corps fired some 34,000 rounds, half of them smokers for screening maneuvering forces.
The other half, he said, were standard 155mm anti-personnel and illumination rounds.
Riftin adamantly disputed widespread perceptions that the IDF used disproportionate force in Gaza. On the contrary, he said improved Tzayad-enabled target acquisition capabilities allowed individual batteries to fire more selectively at assigned targets.
“Remember, Shuja’iya was supposed to be evacuated. Ditto Beit Hanoun. A normal army would firstly prepare the area well with saturation fire before allowing its forces to enter.
“But we first entered our forces, determined which areas were threatening them, and then implemented our fire,” Riftin said.
“It’s a different approach that comes at a cost of tremendous work and added risk to our people, but that’s what we did. No one can be more righteous than that.”
For all the added value that officers here attribute to the IDF’s networked war debut, Israel suffered several embarrassing tactical upsets at the hands of an inordinately outnumbered and technologically inferior enemy.
Five soldiers were overtaken in a firefight adjacent to their base by commandos who penetrated the area by tunnel. Hamas gunmen made away with the infantry’s latest Micro-Tavor personal assault weapon, pictures of which flooded social media sites. It was not the only battle where situational awareness proved lacking.
So far, Israel has lost 65 soldiers in Protective Edge, more than six times the 10 killed in Cast Lead, four of them to friendly fire.
When queried about the surge in fatalities, Zelinger said the IDF faces a different enemy this time around, much better schooled in the art of asymmetrical war.
“All losses are painful, but it’s a war. Mistakes get made. Soldiers get killed…. Just imagine in this reality against this complex threat what would have happened here if we didn’t have this network.” ■