“Feeling Hezbollah’s Pulse”

Facing Hezbollah, along Israel's northern border, are the warfighters of the Shahaf Combat Intelligence Collection battalion. “Hezbollah's technological strengthening notwithstanding, the capabilities of the IDF in the field of intelligence collection are prominently superior,” says the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Tomer Meltzman. Special visit to one of Israel's hottest border sectors

“Feeling Hezbollah’s Pulse”

Photo: IDF

The Shahaf Combat Intelligence Collection battalion is responsible for collecting visual intelligence in the Lebanon sector, from the Mediterranean shore at Rosh-Hanikra to the foot of Mount Hermon. The battalion command post is located in the Galilee region, and the battalion employs surveillance operators, mobile surveillance resources and warfighters performing intelligence collection operations, if necessary, across the border as well. “We are the heartbeat of the division and the brigades deployed in this sector,” explains Lt. Col. Tomer Meltzman, the battalion commander.

The combat collection battalion has a personnel of about 750 regular troopers and the capacity to grow by another 100 in an emergency. Additionally, the battalion maintains a relatively small complement of reservists. It is the IDF's second largest combat intelligence collection battalion, after the battalion deployed in the Judea and Samaria district.

The sector where the battalion operates is a fairly complex one. The dense vegetation and culture and Hezbollah as a complex enemy make their intelligence collection task very challenging. “The Radar systems introduced to the battalion in 2009 changed the world of intelligence collection,” explains Meltzman. “In the past, when optics reigned supreme, the surveillance operator would scan the sector. Such a scanning cycle took a few minutes to complete, which meant that each point within the sector was scanned once every few minutes, leaving space for Hezbollah to take advantage of.

“Today, Radars reign supreme as they enable continuous scanning of a given sector. This technology changed the operational concept of the battalion. Recently, Radars capable of seeing through foliage have been introduced, and they have improved our ability to identify Hezbollah intrusion attempts and issue alerts.”

Another intelligence collection element introduced to the Lebanon and Syria sector in recent years is the MARS surveillance system. This system consists of multiple surveillance cameras for different ranges and with different resolution characteristics, capable of monitoring a very broad sector. The optical system is integrated with the Radar, and when the Radar spots something, the optical system is alerted and takes up the monitoring process.

The MARS surveillance system was yet another factor that contributed to the improved effectiveness of the battalion's intelligence collection work. Instead of having each surveillance camera operated by a team of six surveillance operators in shifts, the MARS system makes it possible for a single surveillance operator to control multiple sensors simultaneously. This configuration enables the IDF to improve the effectiveness of the intelligence collection setup along the border.

“Intelligence in Context”

The cutting-edge intelligence collection technologies employed in the Lebanon sector notwithstanding, there are still some challenges along the border owing to the culture on the ground in Lebanon. “The culture of Lebanon is very challenging for the world of intelligence collection,” says Meltzman. “Ground surveillance systems have several inherent limitations. In order to bridge the existing gaps, the IDF employs other surveillance resources from the air which, in combination with the combat intelligence collection setup, provide a unified status picture.

“This concept has been named 'Intelligence in Context'. It is an intelligence collection concept that integrates an extensive range of resources and that integration makes it possible to overcome the weaknesses of each resource individually. Another advantage of this operational concept is the ability to focus on relevant collection. Instead of starting to search one house after another within the town of Bint Jbeil to find out what Hezbollah are doing, the context, namely – the integration with other intelligence sources, enables us to focus. We do not always know where the information had come from, owing to compartmentalization reasons, but they tell us 'look over there'. This improves the effectiveness of the battalion's capabilities by orders of magnitude.”

The people of the intelligence collection battalion understand that the other side, Hezbollah, also employs their own surveillance resources. “Hezbollah are obsessive about intelligence collection,” explains Meltzman. “That organization acquires the best technologies available in the market on which they can lay their hands. We are aware of that and operate accordingly. For information security considerations, I cannot elaborate on this issue.”

One of the challenges of collecting intelligence opposite Hezbollah involves the other side's competence. “The enemy is smart,” says Meltzman. “Hezbollah are fully aware of the fact that we are watching them, and the troopers of the battalion keep asking themselves whether what they see through the lens should be taken at face value. The procedure for writing mission reports at the battalion includes facts, interpretation and recommendations. The facts are what you see, backed up by visual evidence. The context is the interpretation of what you see, and the recommendations are the combination of facts and insights. The question each team member asks himself with regard to Hezbollah is this: ‘Does what I see truly reflect whatever actually happens’?

“All of the collection reports from all of the companies are routed to me, and a dialog is under way with the collection teams around the question of what Hezbollah are doing or what they are planning. As in the Lebanon sector the issue of information security is observed very strictly compared to other sectors, compartmentalization is implemented even between the individual companies and teams within the battalion. Consequently, one team may see something and come up with a certain interpretation for the local event in its sector, but at the battalion commander's level, that interpretation is integrated to form a more complete collection picture. Although information security and compartmentalization are intended to safeguard operational activities, they present a serious challenge as far as the implementation of the 'Intelligence in Context' concept is concerned.”

The battalion, even though it is trained to collect intelligence, also serves as a response force for the local brigades or the division when required. All of the warfighters are male, as the enemy is Hezbollah, but that situation is about to change. “In the near future, a first female deputy battalion commander will be appointed for the battalion. I do not see a reason why she cannot be a part of a response team or an intelligence collection team opposite Hezbollah if she so desires,” says Meltzman. “The warfighters of the battalion are trained to handle running engagements with Hezbollah in our sector. In most cases, we are the first element who spots them, so the ability to close the loop is important for handling such incidents.”

New Technologies Required

Since the IDF had pulled out of Lebanon in the early 2000s, intelligence collection in the Lebanon sector has become a more complex undertaking. The cost of physically entering Lebanon's territory has increased, operationally and politically. The IDF no longer has a permanent presence inside Lebanon and Hezbollah has since then developed an advanced intelligence collection and border protection setup on the other side. All of these compel the IDF to employ creative techno-operational thinking so as to maintain the advantage embodied in intelligence collection from within Israel or through the use of the Lebanese airspace. “We operate on two levels: we meet periodically with the relevant industries on the ground, in order to germinate new ideas that would solve operational problems. Additionally, we keep track of civilian technologies that may contribute to us,” says Meltzman. “Hezbollah's technological strengthening notwithstanding, the capabilities of the IDF in the field of intelligence collection are prominently superior, both because Hezbollah is restricted to the acquisition of unsupervised civilian technologies and because of our own industries.”

One challenging field is automation. The installation of the Radars, the MARS system and the other resources the battalion employs enable the collection of intelligence of the same quality, or even better, using fewer operators. Since the withdrawal from Lebanon, remote collection, from within the boundaries of the State of Israel, has accounted for a more substantial portion of the activity, and it requires additional technologies and automatic capabilities that respond promptly.

Another field is understanding the context of the target in real time. “While to this day we have had Radars and optical systems, the next leap will involve the identification of the context of the target. When you spot an individual on the other side of the border, you want to know who he is, whether the Israeli intelligence community has a record for him, whether he is new to the sector and whether he is connected to other individuals in the sector. The ability to analyze such information in real time can shorten the loop closure processes for the targets we spot.”


(1) Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Tomer Meltzman (Photo: Meir Azulay)

(2) Battalion warfighters in exercise (Photo: IDF)

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