The head of Israel’s most powerful intelligence agency depicted Wednesday a changing battlefield in which offensive cyber capabilities will, in the near future, represent the greatest shift in combat doctrine in over 1,000 years. For now, though, he said, the 170,000 rockets and missiles pointed by enemy states at Israel represented the most pressing threat, a danger he placed even above Iran’s rogue nuclear program.

“Cyber, in my humble opinion, and you don’t have to agree with me, will be revealed in a not very long time as a revolution greater than the creation of gunpowder or the usage of the aerial space at the start of the past century,” said Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Kochavi, a former infantry officer, called the possibilities inherent in cyber warfare “nearly limitless, and that is not a metaphor.”

He revealed that the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, already the largest of the army’s corps, has recently expanded further and shifted both its methodology and, more significantly, its approach. Where once, he said, a state’s intelligence service was expected to describe reality, today it must also “take part” and alter it.

Like his predecessor Amos Yadlin, Kochavi, speaking at the INSS think tank’s annual conference in Tel Aviv, described a Middle East in a historic flux, producing an array of challenges and opportunities.

He listed four central challenges. The first, notably listed ahead of Iran’s nuclear program, are rockets, he said. Kochavi asserted that Israel faces 170,000 rockets and missiles, and that, “for the first time in many decades, the enemy has the ability to drop considerable amounts of munitions on the cities of Israel.” In the past the threat was countered by the IAF, he said; today it is Israel’s enemies’ primary weapon and it represents an enormous intelligence challenge to counter.

He said the 170,000 number had actually been higher, but that Syria’s stockpiles were being depleted in the civil war, and Hamas’s arsenal had been depleted during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. “The number will rise again,” Kochavi warned.

The cyber virus, Flame, affected countries across the Middle East (photo credit: CC BY Don Hankins, Flickr)

The cyber virus, Flame, affected countries across the Middle East (photo credit: CC BY Don Hankins, Flickr)

Kochavi, who has reportedly voiced opinions that did not dovetail with the political leadership’s interpretation of the changes in Iran, for instance highlighting the potential significance of Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency, steered clear of that topic in this address. He said only that the Iranian military nuclear program continues in a manner that enables Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, should he decide to give the order, to sprint ahead “to one bomb or more.”

He revealed that the cyber threats facing Israel are growing “exponentially” and said that during the past year the state has faced hundreds of attacks and the intelligence community has faced dozens of attacks, “the vast majority of which were thankfully unsuccessful.”

And finally, he noted the “near 360 degree” presence of Jihadist elements along Israel’s borders. A slide depicting areas under the control of militant, Salafist elements covered what looked like half of Syria and had a presence in nearly every country in the region, including Turkey, he noted. Aside from creating friction along the border regions and melting the traditional state lines, he said that the rise of sub-state groups also mean that today “90 percent of Israel’s future battlefields are in urban areas.”

An Israeli tank is parked in a position overlooking the Gaza Strip, seen in the background at the Israeli-Gazan border, Dec. 25. 2013, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

An Israeli tank is parked in a position overlooking the Gaza Strip, seen in the background at the Israeli-Gazan border, Dec. 25. 2013, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

In the sort of wide-ranging presentation that the head of military intelligence typically gives once a year, Kochavi also focused on positive developments. The decline in the popularity and legitimacy of the radical axis of Hezbollah and Bashar Assad, alongside “the erosion” in the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity in the Middle East, was a positive development. Additionally, he said, “the moderate Sunni states, represent a significant opportunity.”

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states, “when you look in depth,” all share priorities that “are in confluence” with Israel’s most pressing interests.

This new reality in the Middle East, he said several times, has dictated significant changes in the way Israel’s intelligence community operates. Without being overly specific, he said that intelligence had to move faster and farther out into the battlefield, so that what is known in HQ in Tel Aviv also “appears on the computers of the company commanders” in the field and at sea, and the collection of the material has to increase and grow more diverse.

He repeatedly stressed the role of cyber war, both offensive and defensive, but concluded with the soldiers. “All of the good intelligence we have is because of them,” he said, showing a slide of several soldiers’ backs, hunched over computers. “They work a lot, work hard, and have extraordinary achievements.”