TEL AVIV — A visit to the Israel Navy's high command center, the first ever by an international media organization, validates the old truism that first impressions are often deceiving.
Belying the stark simplicity of the cramped basement war room known here as Mishlei – a Hebrew acronym for Supreme Control Post — is a sophisticated sensor-fused command-and-control network that supports power projection, allows for interoperability with air and land forces, and provides a high-fidelity picture of maritime activity hundreds of miles beyond Israeli borders.
From here, through a handful of screens and workstations, Israel's smallest service monitors the more than 90 percent of Israeli commerce that comes from the sea and controls an operational theater many times larger than the Israeli airspace and ground territory combined.
"Mishlei is the heart that manages and controls all the activities of the Israel Navy. We open it only in combat operations, special missions or emergency situations … and we're connected to all the other service and territorial command centers feeding into the pit," the officer said, using the slang reference for the IDF General Staff's J3 operational center.
He added, "In the Israel Navy, size doesn't matter. For us, it's sufficient. And more importantly, we know how to work in parallel to other posts."
"We develop the capabilities exactly tailored to our mission. Whether they're on the coast or on individual platforms, the entire Israel Navy is connected by our in-house systems," the officer said. "And with the support of the IDF C4I branch, we're connected strategically with other services and we're becoming increasingly joined at the tactical levels."
According to the Navy C4I chief, the service is "a pioneer" in cyber defenses. "We've made huge efforts over many years to develop cyber-secure capabilities, systems and products that are not on the market today."
He credited technology and planning divisions of the IDF's C4I Branch – part of the IDF General Staff – for a military-wide effort to forge connectivity through satellite and radio communications links, ever-increasing bandwidth and storage so that all relevant organizations enjoy common and persistent situational awareness.
"We know where the jeep of the battalion commander is on our systems. It allows us to open up a corridor for them; to improve their situational awareness by providing another angle and another dimension that they can't get from the ground or from [unmanned sensors] in the air. We speak the same language and know how to engage targets together," the officer said.
He added, "This is a not trivial achievement."
"We detected them on our radars … in the end, everyone participated in the firing that destroyed this terrorist infiltration threat."
"Our coordination is already tight, but the plan is to solidify cooperation. They already have an officer who is permanently here with us. And starting in 2016, we'll have a Navy officer at the rank of captain or major permanently with them," he said.
As for Mishlei's monitoring of activity on the high seas — where freedom of navigation is sacrosanct, yet must be carefully balanced with Israel's need for early warning of potential threats — the officer said the Navy is constantly striving to broaden its awareness within its so-called economic waters.
"Today, because of our economic waters, we're building a much bigger, wider picture westward of 100 miles and more. In many cases, we start checking at 200 nautical miles, or about 48 hours before they reach our sovereign waters," the officer said.
"It's congested here in the Middle East, so if a ship leaves from Cyprus, it's less than 200 miles or 48 hours. The same applies for ships coming from Egypt, where ranges are shorter."
According to the officer, the challenge is to discriminate between innocent merchants and suspicious ships.
"Essentially everything that moves in our maritime theater, we monitor. Our procedures are clear: About 48 hours prior, we get all the data and check if everything is legitimate. We check the people on the ship, the route, where it came from and more. If there are no anomalies, we establish contact again about 100 miles out to validate all the previous information and make sure nothing has changed.
"Here's a ship we called and talked to twice already. If they didn't supply logical answers, we would have asked them to stop until we clarified the situation," the commander explained.
Ultimately, the Israel Navy contacted the ship's local agent, who explained to the service's satisfaction that they changed the delivery order, yet forgot to change the routing.
"In this case, everything checked out. It was merely an event that hones our readiness," the officer said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.