In the final days of the war in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Israeli commanders were desperate. Nimble teams of well-trained Hezbollah insurgents had shocked the high-tech Israeli army. So far, nearly a hundred Israeli troops had died in complex ambushes requiring the kinds of careful coordination that no one had expected of a guerrilla army.
In hope of reversing the army’s terrible fortunes, Israeli officers laid plans for a heavy armored thrust across the Saluki River deep into Hezbollah territory. The attack wasn’t really about capturing terrain: a ceasefire was already in the works that would require Israel to withdraw its troops. Rather, the Saluki operation was for propaganda purposes, to prove that Israel could still fight and win.
There was a problem. Israeli communications systems didn’t work very well in the mountains and ravines surrounding the Saluki. To get better comms coverage for its fixed command posts, the Israeli Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Information, or “C4I,” directorate dangled radio transmitters to tethered balloons and floated them high over the Saluki. That was a compromise measure: commanders would have preferred communications systems allowing them to travel close behind the front-line troops.
The Saluki assault went badly for Israel. Hezbollah teams armed with missiles, coordinating using off-the-shelf radios and civilian mobile phones, fired down from hillside bunkers into the slow-moving, slow-reacting column of Israeli tanks. A dozen soldiers died. Although Hezbollah lost several times as many fighters, it could still claim victory, having bloodied the vaunted Israeli army yet again.
In the war’s aftermath, the Israeli army took a hard look at its tactics and equipment. For one, the army needed better communications. “Mobile C4 was in arm’s reach, but not quite within our grasp during the war,” said Major General Ami Shafran, director of the C4I directorate. Commanders were too far behind the fighting troops to react quickly to surprise attacks. “The war of the plasmas,” one Israeli officer called it, referring to flat-screen displays in the immobile command bunkers. For Israel, the act of command was too often reduced to a passive experience, like watching television.
Hezbollah, by contrast, “had an effective command, control and communications system,” U.S. Army Captain Jonathan Zagdanski wrote in a 2007 analysis of the war. The Islamists “showed they could maintain effective command, control and communications for two-to-three-man squad operations in dispersed combat with considerable competence,” U.S. military commentator Ralph Peters pointed out.
Ironically, Hezbollah benefited from its limited resources. A dearth of cash meant the Islamic group kept its comms systems simple and piled on the redundancy. “As a resistance, we don’t have a big budget like the United States and Israel,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah explained. “When we need to face them and their high technology, we need to have the simplest means of networking.”
For the next war, Israel would need comms at least as flexible and reliable as Hezbollah’s. It took four years of research and development, but today the Israeli army can finally claim to have produced such a system. In doing so, it has quite possibly discovered the Holy Grail of military technology: an apparently hack-proof comms network that can quickly link up different kinds of forces while on the move, and all for a reasonable price: around $31 million in research and development.
The key, as with Hezbollah’s mix of commercial radios and cell phones, was resisting the urge to reinvent the wheel. The army’s new “Afik Rahav” comms network is based on existing WiMax technology, with a twist. Afik Rahav made its official debut at recent desert demonstration attended by Wired U.K. and a handful of other media.