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Published in The Marker, Friday, August 1, 2014
Big Brother: Gaza- The Technical Means that Observe the Gaza Strip 24 Hours a Day
By Amitai Ziv
An advanced technology system allows the IDF to observe the Gaza Strip and film it 24 hours a day using various means, from mast mounted cameras to aerostats ■ When these do not help in fighting and defense, the footage is disseminated as part of the psychological war on the Hamas
On July 8, when Operation Protective Edge was launched, the IDF published a film lasting one minute that had a powerful media effect. The film clearly shows a number of terrorists surfacing from the sea in the morning in the Zikim area. When they reached the shore, the terrorists opened fire and were gunned down by combined fire from IDF forces that prevented a major attack in Israeli territory. The film, which clearly shows the movement of the terrorist cell until it was wiped out, was the beginning of a war on public opinion, which has been accompanying the current operation.
The Gaza strip is not only one of the world’s most densely populated areas, but also one of the most heavily surveyed. Before the current campaign, and while it has been occurring too, the Gaza Strip has been constantly observed 24 hours a day by a wide range of electronic devices. Like Iron Dome, most of the observation devices that are currently being used by the IDF have been developed based on a format that the military established using Israeli technology companies that have formed a unique field of specialty for the local high tech industry. Unlike Iron Dome, these solutions have export potential and possibly civilian applications too.
The IDF video array is broad and complex, from binoculars worn by platoon commanders to satellites in orbit. Every IDF vehicle, except for antiquated infantry APCs, have some vision device: portable viewers for infantry, static observation devices mounted on masts and hovering observation assets – manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and aerostats. The video array of the IDF has not only tactical significance – protecting the area, identifying terrorist infiltrations, directing forces and intercepting the enemy, but also a psychological propaganda function.
This is not only the most filmed round of fighting that the IDF has ever experienced, but also the most broadcasted. The military uses films that observation assets produce to show operational successes, prove the morality of the operations and sometimes to tarnish the operation of the enemy (such as videos that ostensibly show firing from Al-Wafa Hospital). The Hamas has also learned to film, and they also portray operational successes, such as the film distributed this week, showing the infiltration of a base next to Nachal Oz.
The Observers Identifies and Fires
Skylark. A soldier launching the mini-UAV. Photo: Ilan Asyag
The Combat Intelligence Collection Corps, which operates the video array, is part of the army and consists of two arrays: the first is intelligence gathering troops and the second is gathering controllers, known as observers. The gathering troops undergo Rifleman 03 or 05 combat basic training, and operate on foot or by vehicles, such as the Raccoon (HMMWV based) and Zariz (Land Rover Defender based) vehicles. “In all of our activities we used advanced sensing devices, which include what we refer to as ‘terrain sensing ability’, like a radar”, says M., a senior officer in the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps. “But a radar scans using a beam, like a sprinkler, while the devices that the IDF use examine a broad area”.
The tools that the IDF uses today are optic or electro-optic devices, which are based on zoom lenses, while at night they use thermal devices, which are based on heat identification. Sometimes, observers use thermal devices by day too, for example to tell whether an object in the field is inert or alive.
M. says that the terrorist cell that operated in Zikkim was first identified by a combination of terrain monitoring ability and “see and shoot” capability, which is a combined system of observation and fire, followed by fire from aircraft.
Observers today can not only view terrain but also initiate gunfire: weapon systems are deployed throughout the sector, and once an observer identifies something, they can aim a machine gun at the point, after receiving clearance, and open fire. The firing is usually performed by commanders or more experienced operators who have been qualified to do so in a specialized course. “Observers constantly deal with complex events, such as deciding whether a person approaching a fence is an innocent passerby or a terrorist who is coming to lay an improvised explosive device”, says M. “They are high quality personnel, and after 11 weeks’ training they also work with battalion commanders of infantry units, talk with forces, maneuver them in the field and direct fire assets.”
Johnny Carni. The company cannot exist without exports.
Photo: Ofer Vaknin
Like all military-defense companies in Israel, Controp has also been working hard in the last few days in order to satisfy the needs of the security forces. Controp, which develops airborne payloads for the IDF, specializes in electro-optics and other major developments in the field. The company was established in 1988 by four engineers – three veterans of Israel Aircraft Industries and one of the IDF. “Was started on half a floor in the Hod Hasharon industrial zone, and now we work out of two buildings, 190 people in total, a major proportion of whom are engineers”, says Johnny Carni, VP Marketing.
A payload is a sealed unit in which an electro-optic thermal camera, a daytime camera and a laser range finder for distance measurement or a laser designator for directing forces are installed. The payload is installed at the top of an observation mast, on a vehicle or aircraft, and is used as its eyes. A small payload costs about $15K and large payloads may cost up to $400K.
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
An unmanned aircraft, previously known as a remotely piloted vehicle (RPV). The IDF deploys many UAVs, such as the Skylark. Each UAV has a payload according to its load bearing ability.
CONTROP, which was sold in 2012, is currently held by Rafael (50%) and by Aeronautics (50%). Its rivals in the payload field are Orion, Israel Aircraft Industries and Elop. “The IDF is a key, important customer, but without export the company cannot survive – because exports are what fund its future developments”, says Carni. 8% of CONTROP's budget is invested in research and development. “Our customers in Israel are the military, the police and the Ministry of Defense, and besides them we sell worldwide”, explains Carni. “We manufacture only payloads, so our customers are usually not military forces but integrators, such as Israel Aircraft Industries or Elbit, which may also be our competitors, but may also add our cameras to devices such as their UAV's”.
The main source of pride for CONTROP is what the company refers to as STAMP and the IDF calls a "mini-payload" – the small payload that is on the Skylark mini-UAV. “The IDF asked us to make a small payload weighing 800 grams, but also demanded quality lenses, so that there would be no focusing or zooming problems. The officers at Mafat (the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure) told us: ‘Make something small – but with the quality of large systems’. Of course they also set the fixed requirement of affordability. STAMP is able to identify an armed person from 1,000 feet”. At the other end of the products is a payload called DSP-1, which is installed on the Heron1 UAV. It weighs 22 kg, has continuous zooming and is able to operate from 15-20 thousand feet altitude.
A giant array of masts that are deployed along Israel’s borders that have the various payloads installed on them form the wide base of the video array in the IDF. The most common is a payload called Green Hawk, which was developed by Elbit’s payloads division, Elop. CONTROP has developed a competing payload called SPIDER. “SPIDER has ability to identify movements on the ground”, explains Carni. “There is a scanning algorithm that is based on comparison with a pervious image”. As such, SPIDER is used as an alternative to radar and can issue an infiltration alert. The IDF does not always like this ability, says Carni, because it may cause observers to become complacent.
These payloads are hybrid animals: on the one hand they contain physical elements, and on the other hand a lot of electronics: “We design the lenses here, manufacturer them abroad and assemble them here”, says Carni. “When we work on a payload that will be installed on a UAV in the future, considerations of weight, volume and energy consumption apply. The payload has GPS systems and a gyroscope installed to keep the picture stable. It has image enhancement systems, and like Instagram to some extent, various filters may be used to improve the image under conditions of haze, fog or to see an object in a dark area better.”
A CONTROP payload. The price varies with the size.
Photo: Ofer Vaknin
From the World Cup in Brazil to the battlefield in Gaza
Observation aerostats are the stars of operation Protective Edge, to the point that different units compete over their use. Aerostats may be launched relatively easily, and can stay aloft for days. Each aerostat has a payload under it, which is connected to the ground by a wire that provides electricity and communication, and allows for it to be controlled from the ground. The aerostat operator is on the ground, to watch and transfer data.
Rami Shmueli, the CEO of RT, which develops observation aerostats, has been in the business since 1981, when he participated in the IDF’s first aerostat course. He founded RT in 1996, and in 2008 sold 51% of the company to Aeronautics. “The aerostats were first adopted by the IDF were large, expensive balloons, requiring lengthy training to operate them”, Shmueli recalls. “Units that used them had engineers who worked on them. Today they are a battalion-level asset, without any engineer, and just 5-14 days of training are enough to understand how to operate them.”
RT manufactures a series of aerostats called SkyStar. The smallest is SkyStar 100, whose diameter is one meter and which can carry up to 1 kg; the largest, SkyStar 300, is used by the IDF, is 8 meters diameter, can carry up to 50 kg to a height of 500 meters. The price of an aerostat starts at $75K, and may reach $2M. “It’s of no consequence to the aerostat what the payload does, but the higher it climbs, the better it sees. The model 300 may identify a person from a long distance, by day and by night. An aerostat may be used for observation, but may also be used for other purposes, such as listening and as a relay station. In the USA, for example, we have sold a system that may be launched after a hurricane and used to operate a broad WIFI network”.
The company, which supplies the aerostat as a product or as a service, works with police forces around the world, and its aerostats help protect demonstrations and festivals. “In mass events, an aerostat is used to protect the crowd, and direct transport, focus on a specific event and direct forces”, says Shmueli. “SkyStar 180, whose diameter is 5 meters, can carry 20 kg and is able to detect a person from a distance of 5 km. During the World Cup, it took part in the security array of the fans complex of Copacabana Stadium”.
The aerostat is made of two layers: an outer skin and a liner that holds the helium that it contains. Helium is a light gas on the one hand and an inert one on the other, i.e. it cannot ignite like hydrogen. Helium is the most expensive part of operating an aerostat, because it can be purchased only from the USA or Russia, and the two countries create a deliberate shortage of it. Helium constantly leaks from the aerostat, and the aerostat is lowered to replenish its helium content.
“Our greatest success is the development of an aerostat that is capable of lifting an identical weight to that of a competitor, while being a quarter of the size”, says Shmueli. “It took us six years to develop the liner material and we patented it. It looks like a plastic bag, but it is made of a very strong material that loses little gas. If a defect forms in the liner, soldiers in the field take it out and put in a new one. The outer skin is based on parachute silk, but parachute silk breaks down after 200 hours of exposure to light, so we have added other materials to protect it and now it lasts for years. In Israel’s weather, the aerostat can stay in the air for 95% of the year. The only thing that bothers us is lightning, because the aerostat is high up and cannot be earthed (grounded).”
The aerostat is deployed in the field from a trailer, which is equipped with helium tanks, batteries and communication equipment, and requires 3-4 people to operate it. The IDF is planning to move gradually to smaller, more tactical systems. This has been the case with UAVs, and Shmueli estimates that this will be the case for aerostats too. “A work hour of even a small UAV costs about $800, while launching an aerostat costs $1500– but every additional hour of operation is almost cost free. If you want to scan a large area, a UAV is obviously better, but if you wish to focus on one point, such as a fugitive’s home, there is no doubt that an aerostat is better.”
Rami Shmueli. The aerostat can stay in the air for most days of the year.
Photo: Ofer Vaknin
An RT aerostat. For both military and civil uses.
Photo: Ofer Vaknin