Hidden eyes of Israeli army home in on targets

08:01, December 17, 2010      

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During the Israeli army's 2009 Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip, a senior officer questioned the necessity of continuing to use Lt.-Col. Roi's 80th field intelligence battalion, casting doubts on its effectiveness.

The battalion, comprised of reservists trained in providing real-time intelligence on enemy positions, was already deployed for several days in a sector along the Gaza border after being issued an emergency call-up order.

Shivering in January cold beneath camouflage netting on shifts that lasted from 12 to 60 hours, Lt.-Col. Roi's men homed in on Palestinian militants' rocket launchers, guiding helicopter gunships, artillery and infantry forces to their locations in densely-populated towns and hidden within olive orchards.

"It took that officer who doubted our effectiveness no more than an hour or two to understand that we are very relevant," said Roi, the battalion's second-in-command during the Gaza war.

LIVING INSIDE A BUSH

Somewhere in his late thirties, Roi, a soft-spoken man with a baby face, is reluctant to share details of his battalion's operations during the three-week Gaza campaign and 2006's Lebanon war, during which it was also deployed along the border with the southern Palestinian enclave.

While most details about the battalion are classified, it is one of a handful of reserve-based battalions officially known as Yahmam (the Hebrew abbreviation for Target Field Intelligence Unit, or TFIU) appended to the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps ( CICC) which, upon its creation in 2000, became the fifth corps of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) Ground Warfare Command.

A typical TFIU is broken down into 18-member teams. A team is further divided into three cells tasked with specific roles.

"These guys are the ones who are sent in first, ahead of all the fighting forces, to scout an area and relay initial intelligence," Lt.-Col. Oren, who heads the Intelligence Collection Training Wing at the IDF's Ground Forces Training Center, told Xinhua.

After that, a team remains positioned until the battle is over, providing the "intelligence picture" while "closing circles of fire" - identifying enemy assets at distances upwards of 30 kilometers, and then directing the gamut of assaulting forces to their exact locations.

Almost two years had passed since Roi's battalion saw real combat. However, the IDF considers it vital enough to invest a small fortune on periodic training to preserve and hone their skills for the day when they will be in need again.

The battalion has only recently concluded a two-week maneuver in Israel's southern Negev desert, in which soldiers walking an average of 12 kilometers every night with backpacks weighing 45 kg.

"A TFIU soldier is required to be versatile and master different skills," Lt.-Col. Oren said as he eyed a team engaged in constructing an observation post atop a barren cliff.

The bulk of those skills include sophisticated camouflaging techniques, assimilating in the natural environment, land navigation, patrol and infantry tactics and various insertion and extraction methods. At the heart of it all is the Israeli-made hi- tech optical gear that enables the identification of enemy locales.

The latest maneuver was also designated to field test MATAN, an electro-optic observation system slated to enter service in 2011. Its forte lies in its weight, about 30 kg. lighter than the "Atlas " system currently in use.

The new system integrates several components into a single unit, including a laser rangefinder, compass, and day/night observation optics. Additional features include high durability in extreme terrain, low energy consumption and simplicity.

IRREPLACEABLE OR NOT

Over the past decade, the IDF has increasingly relied on sophisticated technology for collecting battlefield intelligence. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), satellites, balloons fitted with optics, and ground-based centers with cameras that can spot enemy positions at great distances, provide troops - from platoon lieutenants to generals - with real-time imagery.

While no IDF officer will openly admit it, there are those who doubt the value of investing considerable funds in foot soldiers who traverse hills under the cloak of darkness to set up a camera. That's something that sets Lt.-Col. Roi's teeth on edge: the notion that perhaps his battalion, established in 2002, is obsolete.

"We are the division's reconnaissance unit, its 'eyes' on the ground," he said decisively. "In the first Gulf war in 1991, the Iraqis camouflaged their Scud launchers. The satellites and aircraft flying high above could not see anything. In the end, those who are close to the ground, who actually 'smell' it, provide the additional, critical layer."

"Technological means are also hampered by other factors: electronic jamming is always a possibility, weather conditions are a constant as is deception by the enemy. There is no substitute ( for ground soldiers). It's a synergy between ground and air forces, the ability to discern who has the relative advantage and where, and combining the two."

Roi claimed that the top brass of the IDF also deems battalions of his kind as important. "The high command shows interest in what we do and is involved in our operational preparedness," he said. " In the last 48 hours we were visited by two brigadier generals and three colonels. Some of the senior officers even know the junior officers by their private names."

ESPRIT DE CORPS

Deep reconnaissance and intelligence gathering close to and behind enemy lines is a grueling and dangerous vocation. A TFIU team is required to be completely self-sufficient in the field for up to 72 hours, more often than not detached from supply lines and friendly forces that can come to the rescue.

"The job of long duration in the field entails risks," Roi said. "A small team that is compromised can be killed or fall into enemy hands."

He cites an example from the 2006 war, when the battalion was assigned to the Gaza region. Its missions focused on identifying rocket launchers and underground activity, mainly tunnels used to smuggle weapons and munitions into Gaza.

"Our aim is to maintain a low profile and not actively confront the enemy," Roi said. "But my soldiers had a close contact with a squad of militants which tried to infiltrate through the border fence," he recalls, saying that a team "has to be good enough" in order to cope with an unexpected situation.

Atop a hill, with the Israeli desert city of Arad 15 km in the distance, he receives a text message on his cellular phone from one of his officers, notifying that his wife had just given birth to "a beautiful baby girl."

"Two weeks ago he called me to apologize, saying that he would not be able to participate in the training exercise because his wife is due to give birth at any day," Roi smiled. "This is the kind of officers who serve here."

With the possibility of a violent conflict on their minds, the officers and NCOs of the 80th battalion said the Lebanon war, despite the shortcomings displayed by the IDF, proved vital to the upgrading of TFIU.

"Since 2006 there have been substantial improvements in the amount of training and equipment we're allocated and a dramatic increase in the operational readiness," said Capt. Yuval, who heads a team.

"Today we're working on shortening the lock-on process: a few dozen seconds elapsing from identification to destruction." he said.

Source: Xinhua
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