The IDF’s “target bank” has registered hundreds of successful kills over the past few years of terrorists both in the north and in south. The operations are managed from a command and control center called the “Canopy of Fire.” This mobile room is filled with flat screens showing its operators everything that is happening on Israel’s borders. The officers who command this center are the ones who order the use of firepower on the border fences, which at times makes the news: A cell planting explosive devices was eliminated, a Syrian cannon was destroyed, or terrorists trying to infiltrate Israel were thwarted.
Ynet recently visited the “Canopy of Fire” command and control centers in the north to document the operations of those who, at the moment of truth, will have to make decisions within seconds that could prevent ISIS terrorists from infiltrating the Golan Heights and arriving at one of the towns there, or stop a new war from breaking out in the north over the kidnapping of a soldier.
The most top secret of the command and control centers will soon undergo a significant upgrade, when a new technological system is declared operational, which is aimed at aiding the commanders of the “Canopy of Fire” to oversee the destruction of dozens of targets at a short period of time.
“The challenge is not just in identifying and neutralizing individual terror cells that come near the border fence to plant an explosive device, ” Col. Guy Markizno, the “Canopy of Fire” officer at the Golan Division, told Ynet. “It’s also, at the same time, to destroy a very large amount of targets that were marked in advance.”
The new computerized system was fit with an easy-to-use interface that shows the images on the big screens in HD quality and high resolution. The system’s interface is similar to that of Facebook, with user-friendly icons. But this is the extent of the virtual, friendly part of the software.
The classified system still does not have a name, but it does have algorithms that will be able to calculate, within seconds and without human interference, which rockets, shells or bombs will be “paired up” and launched at which target (an enemy control and command center, a big terror cell, or a Syrian APC speeding towards the Quneitra border crossing transporting jihadists). These algorithms have already proven their efficacy over the past few weeks.
The deadly orchestra’s conductors
The target bank of the IDF’s Golan Division, which was established only two years ago in light of the civil war raging in Syria, is housed at the Canopy of Fire command and control center, and is often updated.
“By the time this story is published, the briefing I’ll give you about what’s going on in the Syrian Golan will be considered archive material, ” Col. Markizno said. “Things change here so often. There are many sources of power in the Golan, compared to Gaza or Lebanon, where it is clear who the enemy is. There isn’t one dominant ruler on the Syrian side, the groups there don’t answer to anyone. Today they’re fighting against each other and tomorrow they will fight alongside each other. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (who are affiliated with ISIS) for example, are fighting for territory, unlike the Nusra Front (who are affiliated with al-Qaeda), who are fighting for ideology.”
And amidst this chaos, the IDF is preparing for a large-scale terror attack the Islamists could launch against Israeli targets. The military’s working assumption is that there will be no intelligence warning of an attack including dozens of militants who try to infiltrate Israel and fire rockets deep into the Golan. In order to be ready for such a possibility, the IDF’s Golan Division drilled this very scenario in a wide-scale surprise exercise two weeks ago, which also included training for ground attacks inside Syria.
Such a scenario will include fighter jets and helicopters, tanks firing shells and bombs, and artillery troops launching accurate Spike missiles. The conductors over this deadly orchestra will be sitting in the “Canopy of Fire” command and control center in the division’s base, located among the green trees of the northern Golan.
“It all starts with intelligence, an area that we have greatly improved upon this year. This intelligence can come from a variety of sources, including the division’s observations battalion, ” Col. Markizno said. “We have to quickly translate this intelligence into the correct armament, from mortar shells to bombs dropped by a fighter jet.”
And the firepower is now far more available in the plateau than it was before the civil war in Syria. Nowadays, the Israeli Air Force is far more alert to the happenings on the Golan Heights, with hundreds of fighter jets scrambled up to the northern skies every year. In addition to that, there is an artillery battery and tank companies stationed on the border on a permanent basis – something that until recent years only happened on the Lebanese border.
These troops have already shelled dozens of targets on the Syrian side of the border over the past three years, while maintaining cautious rules of engagement – but such that don’t hesitate to signal to the other side that the IDF has invested a lot of its operational resources in the Golan Heights – and has yet to use them.
“We’re operating in a method of ‘Deterring Retaliation, ‘” Col. Markizno added. “We won’t retaliate with the same intensity, but rather with firepower that would make the enemy wary of firing again.”
Decision to open fire within seconds
The decisions at the “Canopy of Fire” command and control center must be made within seconds – minutes at most – because the “targets” tend to run away and disappear. The authority to use firepower is given to Markizno and two other artillery officers, who serve as on duty “Canopy of Fire” commanders alongside Markizno in three shifts, 24/7.
“The target is ‘vital’ for only a short time, sometimes for seconds, ” one of the officers said. “We have to work together and fast with all of the involved parties.”
The most critical stage of launching the “Canopy of Fire” is the “incrimination stage.” It is the moment in which the officers in the command and control center declare that the target on the flat screens as hostile, and give the go-ahead to destroy it.
“At this stage, you don’t deal with assumptions and guesses. When there’s doubt – you don’t shoot, ” Markizno said. “The ‘incrimination’ comes from crossing intelligence with information from other gathering measures – radars, observation cameras, drones, and more.”
The one who decides whether a target has been “incriminated” is the intelligence officer stationed at the command and control center, who was especially trained to that end. After the “incrimination, ” the responsibility is passed on to the on duty “Canopy of Fire” commander, who examines the “morality” of a target, a fairly new term in the IDF, which has been recently introduced to other units as well, including in the navy’s submarines. The commander has to examine whether there are innocents near the target or a mosque.
There are also lookouts stationed at the command and control center on a regular basis, who closely accompany the operation.
The “Canopy of Fire” center also conducts damage assessment in real time after the bombardment in order to ensure the target has been destroyed.
Much like the Golan Division’s “Canopy of Fire, ” the Galilee Division’s similar mechanism on the Lebanon border is preparing for a change that could be immediate.
“We wrap up every incident, like the ones on Mount Dov this year and last year, as quickly as possible, ” explained Col. Alon, the division’s “Canopy of Fire” officer. “Hezbollah is fighting in Syria, gaining experience and turning into a semi-military organization. We’ll know how to deliver a strong and significant blow to it.”