Five-dimensional combat: Cyber and electromagnetic spectrum targets gain legitimacy in 'Guardian of the Walls'

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" showed another step in the development of IDF doctrine aimed at tackling five-dimensional combat. A special interview with Brigadier General (Res.) Nati Cohen, former Chief Liaison Officer and Director General of the Ministry of Communications

Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" ended a number of days ago in Gaza, and one of the questions being asked, in the military context, is what was the difference between the operation and its predecessors. Well, in order to understand the C4I aspect of the recent fighting in Gaza, I interviewed Brigadier General (Res.) Nati Cohen. Cohen was previously Chief C4I Officer and later Director General of the Ministry of Communications. He is currently a reservist in the Exercises Division of the C4I Division.

"Let me remind you that Operation Guardian of the Walls began in the first days of the big 'war' exercise that the IDF was preparing for," Cohen explains. "We prepared for a war exercise and in the end we implemented the exercise in the Gaza war. It was a surprising coincidence, having to carry out the exercise for real. We prepared for the kind of scenarios that the IDF encountered during the fighting in Gaza."

The fruits of the Digital Army Program 

The conversation with Cohen was divided into two parts. First, operational effectiveness. Second, cyber warfare. Cohen used the lessons of the Second Lebanon war in 2006 as a starting point for the discussion. "The IDF emerged from the Second Lebanon War with a key lesson - a lack of networking and connectivity. Each branch and corps fought with its own systems. Even among land forces, everyone used different systems which were also used to connect to the outside world," Cohen explains. 

"Prior to that was Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. At the time, the current Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Aviv Kochavi, was a division commander in the occupation of Nablus. He realized even then that there was intelligence wealth that remained at the headquarters of the General Staff and the Division. The intelligence did not reach his intelligence officer. When Kochavi became Head of the Intelligence Corps, he wanted intelligence-based warfare." 

"Kochavi wants every brigade command center and brigade intelligence officer to receive this wealth of information. He brought soldiers from the 8200 unit to headquarters in order to run the event. The main C4I challenge was to provide the information to the tactical level. In this context, we must mention Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yiftach Ron Tal, who pushed for the Digital Army Program (DAP), based on Elbit Systems’ TORCH-X. This brought about a fundamental change to the IDF." 

Command and control as weaponry

The great change that the DAP has brought about is in the fact that the IDF has begun to treat command and control as weaponry. "Prior to that, the IDF attitude was different. Before Ron Tal, it was not the perception of the land forces. Land forces dealt with single-soldier weapons. Tanks, cannons, firearms. The land forces perceived themselves as a supplier of infantry weapons. They did not see the great importance of C4I in future conflicts," says Cohen.

"For the first time, the land forces perceived networking as important as weaponry. The DAP was launched as a richly funded project that dealt with two components: upgrading digital equipment on land and in the workspace. Headquarters and command centers were upgraded. The work environment became more suitable for decisionmakers under pressure."

"After the Second Lebanon War, I became Commander of Communications and Electronics in the Northern Command. We started with a regular division and a reserve division. Eventually, the DAP reached all of the land forces. That was the original vision. Not just high-quality units. After the land forces implemented the DAP, the C4I division entered the picture with the 'IDF Network' program. They wanted to connect several vectors to produce a value chain for processes. The logistics process, the (weapon) firing process, the intelligence process. Each process was broken down into factors and adapted to every system factor." 

“Thus, step by step, the operational Internet was established. The idea is to pour all the intelligence information into one database (pool) and everyone will take what they need if they have the required authorizations. Instead of connecting processes and networks, we wanted to create one Internet for the entire military. Each branch will have access to its own processes, and take the relevant information. This is the IDF network and within it the operational Internet."

Today, C4I and TORCH 750 at its heart builds connectivity to all IDF branches, so that every component that connects to the network is also connected to IDF databases. "This capability helped the IDF in 2014 during Protective Edge," Cohen explains. "When an unmanned aircraft takes off at an Air Force base, its operator is able to talk to the company commander on the ground. He is able to see where he is and how to direct him to a certain point. The company commander can also indicate to the operator where the enemy is in real time. It was the first digital war in the world, thanks to the TORCH 750 system. Back then, it was called 'the buds of the operational internet.'"

"Both Lt. Col. (Res.) Gadi Eisenkot and Kochavi have elaborated on it. IDF has transformed itself into a de facto digital army. Let's go back to the Second Lebanon War. The percentage of hits was about 15 percent. Why? Because they drew a big polygon and everyone fired there. This situation created low operational efficiency. A lot of fire on a small target. Tons of money wasted. The weaponry was very expensive and its effectiveness was low. It wasn't successful, administratively or operationally. The incidental damage was relatively large compared to how it is today."

Hamas is looking for the soft underbelly of the IDF

Operation "Guardian of the Walls" was an upgrade of the digital campaign that began during Protective Edge. Cohen explains that behind any aircraft that takes off for an attack, there are thousands of soldiers, men and women, who make the information accessible to the pilot. "They produce the targets and make the targets accessible. To set a target, it’s a process with lots of factors that need to be approved. The achievement, the collateral damage and the level of accuracy. For that, you have to interconnect intelligence, (weapon) fire, C4I and more," says Cohen.

"Today there is hardly a component or weapon that does not connect to the IDF network, regardless of the (IDF) arm involved. The enemy already understood this during Protective Edge and said 'okay, let's outsmart the IDF. We will set up Hamas electronic warfare units in order to disrupt the accuracy of the IDF.' Hamas wants to infiltrate or disrupt IDF systems. On the spectrum, on the web, using GPS jammers and other capabilities."

"The aim is to lower the level of accuracy of the weapons and to impair connectivity. Hamas understands that this is the strength of the IDF, its soft underbelly. We have seen in recent years that Hamas is a cyberspace force to be reckoned with. It should be kept in mind that the disruption of an accurate missile, even at fifty meters, as a result of electronic warfare, can cause enormous damage to the State of Israel. In addition, such an event also lowers the IDF's self-confidence. The IDF understands this and therefore needs intelligence on the enemy's capabilities in cyberspace and the spectrum."

The news building in Gaza as an example 

In Operation Guardian of the Walls, cyber and electromagnetic spectrum targets became legitimate targets, whether professional manpower or buildings that house those types of activities. "In the newsroom building, there were international media agencies. But in the same building, there were Hamas weaponry and units whose purpose is to disrupt the IDF's systems. If you looked at the roof, there were a lot of antennas, ostensibly for communication. But not all of them were. Some of them belonged to Hamas," Cohen explains.

"As mentioned, this is a significant accumulation of Hamas' power aided by the Axis of Evil countries (led by Iran). Hamas wants to disrupt the IDF's cybernetic superiority. It is a new component in combat, both spectrum and cyber. As mentioned, Hamas has established elite units for that purpose. Some of the people killed were on this power accumulation axis. At least ten targets destroyed during Guardian of the Walls were Hamas C4I and electronic warfare targets."

"As head of C4I's exercise division in the reserves, the big exercise that was being prepared was an exact demonstration of the Guardian of the Walls scenario. In terms of C4I and cyber, we disguised ourselves as the enemy. Everything that was prepared for the exercise was ultimately used during the fighting in Gaza."

According to estimates, some of Hamas' preparations for combat with Israel include means to try and disrupt frequencies at high and low altitudes and also those used for ground operations. If there is entry to Gaza by land, it is likely that Hamas will be prepared with disruptive measures ready for this scenario. The goal is to disrupt the IDF's ability to act effectively.

The challenge: real-time targets

In order to understand the added value of C4I in combat, one must examine its operational end - that is, the IDF's ability to deal with targets that were not set in advance. Ad hoc targets. These are targets that the IDF did not recognize in advance, did not investigate, and are exposed for a very short time - if you do not succeed in striking them, they disappear. It could be a buried launcher, a senior commander or an anti-tank squad.

"There are occasional and pre-determined targets. The regular targets are investigated before the combat, and are ready with the army's target bank. Occasional targets are the ones for which interconnectivity is very important in order to address them," Cohen explains. "You create the target from scratch - producing the target, investigating the target, adjusting the armament to the target and finally give an order to the pilot to do so. There is a complete 'envelope' around the target. All this is done virtually on the basis of C4I systems. Each of the factors is physically located in a different place. And all in a very short period of time, in minutes."

"For the first time in the history of combat, cyber warfare took place in Gaza. It was an IDF digitization in the face of Hamas' counter-warfare. As the head of the C4I department, one needs to produce targets for destruction. It's a new dimension of combat. In the past, an intelligence officer would collect information, and electronic warfare would jam it. That is not the case nowadays. Just think of the (national) alert channel, from the radar that detects the launch of a missile from Gaza, to the alert of the citizen by a mobile application or siren. All this is done in a very accurate polygon."

"The radars are courtesy of the Air Force, the sirens are operated by the Home Front Command, and there are several other factors along the way. This is a value chain to pinpoint the siren to 300 areas in the country. We would like to reach 2,000 areas. It is a process that begins with a launch in Gaza, anticipating the location of the landing, and alerting the citizen in time – all in a few seconds. And it's a process that needs to be 100 percent reliable and operated without downtime."

"It is not inconceivable that Hamas' cyber units will want to disrupt this value chain, take control of it and attack it in real time. The C4I Division not only builds a network and digitization, but is required to protect it. During Protective Edge, we dealt with the IDF network. Now we have also dealt with Hamas' counter-capabilities."

Hamas rebuilds its capabilities

However, Cohen emphasizes that the IDF does not want to harm civilian infrastructure such as cellular networks. “It's a means by which you want to convey a message or gather information. It is a civilian means. It is in our interest not to harm civilian targets or the fabric of civilian life. We do not want to be perceived as a country that blocks internet in Gaza during combat. It is a legitimate measure, but it is a political consideration, not one for the IDF," Cohen says.

And what about the attack on a Hamas server farm? "This is a dilemma between the intelligence officer who wants to collect information, and the C4I officer who wants to disrupt the capability. There is always tension between collecting and attacking. We exhausted the information, and it was decided that the server farm was producing excess power for Hamas. One of their goals is to produce messages. So the farm became a legitimate target. Such is the art of combat, to decide when it is right to do those things," Cohen explains.

“In this operation, the C4I Division set many targets. There is an intelligence department comprised of intelligence officers who produce enemy information technology targets, an innovation in the world of combat. The only ones who have a similar ability are the Russians. They are active in creating false conceptions using messages and are experts at psychological warfare, utilizing the enemy's media for the purpose of disrupting or distorting messages." 

"Our doctrine, to produce digitization and to protect digitization, is unique to the IDF. After identifying a target, the question is when and how to deal with it. There were many targets which we tried to contain. We shift, contain and bring about situations. In some cases, Hamas was sure it was in control of our digital channels. In fact, it was a deliberate deception on our part."

Cohen explains that at the tactical level, jammers can be easily acquired via the internet. "The tactical force is extremely easy to rehabilitate", says Cohen. "At the strategic level, however, Hamas will need to turn to a foreign country. Of course, that country will risk revealing its capabilities to the IDF. Hamas will be able to rehabilitate capabilities within 2-3 years from today. The goal is not necessarily to prevent power building. In terms of intelligence, you want to track, learn and investigate the abilities of the enemy through his power building." 

Ready for Lebanon and Gaza - together

"We were also prepared for war in Lebanon," Cohen replies to the question of what would have happened if fighting broke out in the Lebanese arena as well. "Hezbollah's capabilities are far greater than those of Hamas. Therefore, when the IDF practices, it practices exacerbation and extreme situations. Those are the real tests." 

"In a multi-arena confrontation, all the capabilities are pushed to the extreme – those of the IDF and vice versa. In Guardian of the Walls, we did not even reach 15 percent of the IDF's capabilities. And yet, in all fairness, it must be said that the challenge posed by the northern front is very significant."

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