The Israel Defense Forces has made the West Bank a priority, above other fronts, ahead of possible annexation moves by the government, a senior Military Intelligence officer said Thursday.
The officer, who serves in the visual intelligence-focused Unit 9900, told reporters that the IDF Central Command had requested “mapping of houses in the West Bank at high resolution” in light of the government’s purported plans to annex portions of the region.
“I would have preferred [to focus on] another front, but I made that a priority,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, without specifying which front.
Defense officials — both current and former — have warned that annexation moves could spark violence, requiring the IDF to divert its resources from other fronts, notably Syria and Lebanon. Top IDF officers have also complained of being kept in the dark regarding the government’s annexation plans, making military preparations more difficult.
The senior officer said Unit 9900 had recently conducted an exercise simulating the possible consequences of annexation.
Following months of speculation and anticipation that the government would announce some move to annex portions of the West Bank on Wednesday, July 1 — the first day it was permitted to do so under a coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — no such declaration was made, though the matter remains on the cabinet’s docket, reportedly pending internal consensus and United States permission.
In apparent preparation for such a development, Military Intelligence’s Unit 9900 was tasked with producing up-to-date maps of the entire West Bank.
Unit 9900 was an original part of IDF Military Intelligence, formed in 1948, but it has taken on increasing importance in recent years with the development of advanced mapping software and big data algorithms, as well as cheap and powerful sensors and drones, allowing soldiers in the field to receive tablets with interactive, highly detailed, three-dimensional maps of the areas in which they are operating.
The goal of the unit is effectively to create a “Google Maps, but military,” another officer in the unit said.
But the IDF operates under much stricter and weightier requirements than a civilian company: If Google gives the wrong operating hours for a store, a user may have to wait a day to buy a desired product. If Unit 9900 tells a pilot that a building is abandoned when it isn’t, innocent people can die.
The unit collects the intelligence for its maps from three sources: spy satellites, reconnaissance planes — in tandem with the Israeli Air Force — and drones. The unit can also receive additional information from other units within Military Intelligence with which it can further improve its maps.
“Anything that gives me location data, I can put into a map,” a third officer in the unit said.
With this information and using powerful computing techniques like neural networks and other forms of artificial intelligence, the unit hopes to build maps that will be made available to officers in the field, providing them with accurate three-dimensional mock-ups of buildings, including floor plans in some cases. These maps are also interactive, allowing both units in the field and intelligence officials away from the front to identify and highlight targets to attack, as well as threats and civilian bystanders to avoid. This information is meant to be made available throughout the military, meaning an infantry officer on the ground, an artillery cannon several kilometers away and a fighter jet overhead can all see the same target and allow commanders to decide which of them should move in to attack it.
Some aspects of these maps are still in the process of being developed, while many of them are ready for testing. Indeed, the IDF’s 36th Division, which operates in northern Israel, will soon try out one of the new systems in a division-wide exercise. After that, it will be put into use along the Gaza border, according to the military.
In addition to their applications in the field, the high-quality maps can also be used to create realistic computer simulations — effectively true-to-life video games — that units can employ to prepare for missions.
Whereas in 1976’s Operation Entebbe, in which Israeli commandos rescued Jewish hostages who were being held by terrorists in a Uganda airport, a team of builders was brought in to construct physical models of the structure for the soldiers to train on ahead of time, now a team of computer programmers can build a near-perfect digital facsimile in a fraction of the time.
Drones, drones everywhere
Though the unit has been using spy satellites and reconnaissance planes for decades, the use of drones has exploded in recent years, as both the aircraft and the sensors they carry have dropped in price tremendously, also becoming easily available on the civilian market.
These once expensive tools now cost “pennies, in military terms,” a fourth officer said, meaning they cost anywhere from several thousand shekels each to the low hundreds of thousands.
The drones, cameras and other sensors are also bought off-the-shelf, meaning if and when they fall inside enemy territory, there is no risk of secret technology being revealed.
“If a drone is shot down, the enemy will discover a top secret: there is a company called Sony, and it sells cameras,” the senior officer joked.
Another officer in the unit said the benefit of such drones is that they fly low enough not to be detected by radar or affected by clouds and high enough not to be easily be spotted by the naked eye, though he stressed they were not intended to be stealthy.
The operators of these drones are on constant standby, with the drones and their control computers packed inside cases in a van, and can be called in within minutes to travel to an area to perform reconnaissance flights in order to render up-to-date three-dimensional maps.
Asked about the potential of drones made by Chinese companies to be exploited one day by Beijing — worries that led the United States military to reject all use of Chinese drones — the officer acknowledged that the IDF was indeed concerned about such a possibility.
“We try not to use Chinese drones operationally,” he said, adding that Chinese models that are in Unit 9900’s arsenals are used mostly in training and exercises.
The drones used operationally are either made by Israeli companies or purchased from other countries.
“But the [drones themselves] don’t really matter, the sensors do,” the officer added.
Though the drones and sensors are all purchased from civilian companies, the military asked that the specific makes and models not be published.