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.
Through an in house-developed C4 network, the Mishlei builds a continuously fortified situational picture from stationary coastal sensors and onboard electronic, signals, optical and intelligence systems for operations ranging from mere minutes to 48 hours away.
It was from here, underneath the Navy’s administrative headquarters in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) compound in Tel Aviv, that Lt. Col. A. si Ben-Chami, a young officer that an officer still in his 30s, [how old is Asi?], commander of the service’s Maritime Control Group, spent 51 days monitoring the beaches for enemy frogmen and controlling on behalf of upper-echelon brass a third of all IDF artillery fired in the summer 2014 Gaza War.
And it was here, from a setup smaller than a typical municipal emergency response center, that the same young officer managed the March 2014 capture of an Iranian arms cache in international waters some 1,500 kilometers from Israel’s Red Sea port.
"I sat here, next to the chief of staff of the Navy and there sat the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister. It was all managed from here," the officer Ben-Chami he officer [may I use his name, or at least initials?] recalled of the high-seas seizure of Klos C, a Russian-built, Marshall Islands-owned, Panamanian flagged weapons smuggling ship.
"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."
Col. G. il Ben-Ami (may I use his full name?ok), commander of the Navy’s C4 Branch, noted that the central command-and-control network connecting all air-, surface-, undersea- and coastal-based sensors and communications systems was developed at the service’s software development center in Haifa.
"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 have very strong, almost full connectivity with the ground forces and the Israel Air Force," (IAF) said A., commander of the Mission Control Group, which operates the Mishlei war room. "We see the air picture in here and they see our sea picture in their command center. It’s the same with the ground forces and the territorial commands."
In a recent visit, the officer demonstrated the shared picture, where Israeli ground forces patrolling or exercising around the Gaza Strip were clearly visible and labeled on computer screens.
"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."
The officer noted that in Israel’s summer 2014 Protective Edge campaign in Gaza, data coming into the Mishlei from a 19-year-old female conscript it was 19-year-old female conscripts working computer consoles in the Mishlei who [is this correct??] that first spotted Hamas frogmen approaching Israel’s Zikim beach at the northern part of the strip. That data was translated into fire orders from the Mishlei.
"We detected them on our radars … in the end, everyone participated in the firing that destroyed this terrorist infiltration threat."
In the coming year, plans call for further strengthening connectivity with the Air Force, where the Navy’s powerful, long-range sensors at sea could provide another angle of visibility in detecting threats from Lebanon- or Syrian-launched gliders or UAVs. unmanned aerial vehicles.
"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.
The Navy does this, he says, by its own seapower projection presence, its use of maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, sophisticated analytical software, as well as traditional monitoring means such as automated information system (AIS) transmissions.
"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.
"Then, at dozens of 40 or 50 miles out, we check again. If even one data point is not as recorded, we will investigate. … At the end of the day, the sea is open to everyone. There are no fences and it’s hard to put sensors in the depth of the sea. That’s why it’s so important to keep fortifying our maritime awareness. We do that all here by fusing all the information and building up the tactical picture," the officer said.
On computer screens here in the Mishlei, Israel’s maritime sector is clearly delineated with several lines followed by the a 40-mile mark, a 20-mile mark and then the dotted blue line representing Israel’s 12-nautical mile territorial border. On the day of our visit, the commander was dealing with an ostensible anomaly where a ship sailing from Israel’s Mediterranean port of Ashdod was broadcasting its destination as Port Said, Egypt; yet was turning right, in the direction of Cyprus.
With a click of a mouse, all the ship’s information — its owner, its flag, its UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) registration, its history, its associations with other ships and all journeys taken and ports visited — appeared on the screen.
"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.