The Israeli soldiers quickly don their overalls and, armed with their communication gear, scramble onto the plane together with the air force pilots. They know they could be up in the air for hours or days, landing only to refuel and then take off again.
These men and women are the soldiers of the Aerial Communications Unit, part of the Tzameret battalion that enables Israel’s ground, air, marine and intelligence forces to communicate with each other through radio signals at all times, even when the distance between the troops and the control rooms in which the commanders sit is hundreds of kilometers.
“We can provide answers to any communication problem where and when it is needed,” said the commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Yaniv Nimni, in an interview with The Times of Israel at his office at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv.
The teams work together with the Israeli air force to “extend the range of radio and data transmission” so as to give the forces greater control over events, said Nimni. The forces are equipped with a communication box/computer that uses radio over IP and digital technologies that enable them to transmit both voice and data, like mapping of forces for example. These messages are then transmitted to the plane or planes above, which relays them to the command centers, however far they may be.
The IDF has released, for the first time, footage of the unit in action.
The IAF provides air support to the communications aircraft, with the same capabilities that it uses to protect Israel’s airspace.
The soldiers, whose faces and names cannot be published because of the high sensitivity of their work, undergo a careful selection, and then get trained for half a year in the telecommunications unit, do a parachuting course. They train on planes and learn commanding skills.
“In the end there is a team that will be in the air and that alone will have to find solutions for anything that is required by our forces to enable them to talk to their commanders,” Nimni said. “They are expected to provide end-to-end solutions on their own because they cannot fall back on their commanders for help because they are in the air.”
They tell the pilots in flight what they need; they define the areas in which to fly and the height of flight to get the best possible results. “A sergeant in the plane is often the commander in the air. It is wonderful to see these soldiers who are in the air, at times for hours, who know how to come up with professional and qualitative solutions by themselves,” Nimni said.
During the Protective Edge operation in Gaza, in the summer of 2014, “we were for weeks in the air continuously, and landed only to refuel. You land, refuel and go up again,” he said.
The soldiers in the aircraft provide the only communication link between forces in the field and the command and control center. The information is passed on via various radio and communications systems. If there are technical problems they are solved on the spot.
In Entebbe, 40 years ago, a plane in the sky made sure that the Israeli forces operating in Uganda to free the hostages could speak to their commanders based in Israel.
“This is a proof to what ranges we can reach — and as I said, any place that Israel needs, we will know how to give an answer,” Nimni said.
All the communication is highly encrypted, he said, so as not to reveal information to enemies.
The Tzameret battalion is one of the battalions in the Hoshen branch, the branch in the signal (C41) corps responsible for providing both visual and radio communications to all of the arms of the Israeli army. The battalion has existed since the establishment of the IDF and has participated in all of Israel’s operations.
Today the battalion is one of the biggest in the army, said Nimni. And while the necessity for communications between the various sources has remained as crucial as ever, the technology has evolved and kept itself cutting edge, to meet the changing reality of the operations’ challenges.
“Through the use of technologies that were developed in the army we allow our commanders to have an online picture from the battle field or the operation in course, wherever they are in the country,” he said. “We can transfer intelligence – in the shape of video footage from any unit in the army to our troops and from our troops. These are visual pictures in all shapes that comes from any device — from the air, the ground, the sea. We make sure to give the troops all the information they need as soon as we get it, so those troops can operate quickly and professionally to neutralize the enemy.”
Soldiers working for the battalion collate all the images they receive from drones, reconnaissance planes, intelligence sources and boots on the ground and direct them via fast broadband and satellite to the officers who control the operation and to the soldiers in the field. Video transmissions played a crucial role during operation Protective Edge, Nimni said, transmitting pictures from Gaza and outside Gaza to the most senior commanders in the army and to the forces.
“We are always looking to advance our tech, use new systems to allow the commanders to control their forces anytime they need. These systems already define the face of battles, and will do so even more in the future,” he said. “And these technologies will set the tone of how quickly the events will be resolved.”
During Protective Edge soldiers were armed with tablets, Nimni said, in an experimental deployment of the technology. In future, more and more of these technologies and systems will be deployed with the troops.
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