Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery used to direct operations from a converted caravan during the Second World War. A mock-up of the command post was used as an illustration by the British Army in mid-October to show how army headquarters are changing over time. As part of the United Kingdom’s transition to a more digital army, a global trend, Israel’s leadership in networked command centers is being examined to meet London’s needs.
The UK’s Army Warfighting Experiment is designed so that new technology can be tested and seen by soldiers to prepare for wars of the future. For three weeks in October the British looked at various new technologies. One of the innovative designs is by Israel’s Elbit Systems and is called the “Rhino mobile headquarters.” It uses advanced digital technology to link together units in the field and commanders with the best information possible to help achieve results on the battlefield. A post by the British Army noted that it helps “reduce the size of the headquarters, makes it less vulnerable and able to make and communicate decisions faster.”
Martin Fausset, CEO of Elbit Systems UK and Gil Maoz from the company’s C4I and Cyber division discussed the importance of the experiment. Fausset says that Elbit displayed a range of equipment that supports digitization of future structures of the British army. Elbit has developed these systems not only with the Israel Defense forces but also through work in Australia and other countries. Elbit is one of Israel’s three major defense giants, known for a variety of technologies, including drones and the kinds of hi-tech that soldiers are increasingly using on the battlefield.
There is a considerable amount of interest in the techniques the IDF uses and different scenarios and threats, Fausset says. The Rhino command post has attracted a lot of interest because it shows how Israel is exploiting technology to make soldiers more effective. Think of the command center like a large rectangular room inside a large vehicle that makes it mobile so it can be relatively close to the battlefield. Then think of ducking down to enter the vehicle through the back, the way one would get on an armored personnel carrier, and inside is a room full of comfortable chairs around a dozen computers that are bolted to a table in the center of the room. All around the top of the rooms are screens or phones that put the soldiers in contact with various units or headquarters or with drone operators and intelligence officers. Computers show various aspects of the battlefield, such as the location of friendly troops or known enemy threats. This is the kind of room we are familiar with from watching any show like Homeland where terrorists are being hunted. One essential difference is that it has all been set-up inside a vehicle.
Maoz says it is important to understand the “larger context of it, providing to land [forces] in combat a network system and that is the way digital transformation is handled in military forces. So this Rhino you see, which is one type of a deployed mobile command post, is something that helps and enables commanders to exploit that they have a combat network system, so they can handle the battlefield.” The problem for commanders today is not like in Montgomery’s time when a commander often didn’t have enough information and always wanted more details to put on their maps so they could plot operations. Today’s military, whether Israel, the United States, or UK, has a plethora of information at their fingertips. The digitized battlefield is all about sponging up information. That is why the F-35 is a sensor-laden sponge that grabs information and passes to sister aircraft. That is why drones are used in multiple layers and combat air patrols, and it is how tanks and soldiers deal with the battlefield today.
The issue is that you have a huge amount of information coming into headquarters but you need to be able sift through it rapidly and make decisions. For instance, an infantry and armored unit may be moving through a village to take an objective. They face threats from mortars, katyusha rocket fire, and RPG teams. They could flatten the village with airpower, like might have been done in wars of the past. But today’s military doesn’t just blow up homes full of civilians to kill one sniper. A bombing like that was conducted by the U.S.-led Coalition during the Battle of Mosul and was critiqued for its death toll. Similarly, Israel has been slammed in the past for instances like the July 2002 bombing of Hamas commander Saleh Shehade’s home in Gaza, using an F-16 and a one-ton bomb that didn’t only kill Shehade, but also seven children and other civilians. Better information on who is in a building and better precision weapons with a variety of forces able to carry out the strike can lead to fewer civilian casualties and more effective results.
Eighteen years of learning from the U.S. experience in places like Iraq and Israel have brought commanders the kind of information “richness” that this command post is capable of. Israel’s Elbit has worked with the UK for years on other applications, such as battle management systems. The concept of British Army doctrine takes into account these new technologies, such as deploying quickly to a battlefield that may be far away. The Rhino post can be put on a standard vehicle and be effective “strait away,” says Elbit.
The goal is to provide a comfortable solution and one that handles the information as best as possible. Israel has done this successfully. As part of Israel’s multi-year Momentum Plan the country has been seeking to add more multi-dimensional units and more combined arms drills. In the fall of 2020, Israel conducted not only regular constant drills of infantry and tanks, as well as recent drills using hi-tech war games, but also three rounds of F-35 joint training with the United States. Israel has conducted a massive training involving all its forces called “Lethal Arrow” to prepare for potential threats in northern Israel, and also inaugurated the Galilee Forest training complex for the 91 Division in Northern Command. All of this is using the latest technology and preparing for potential confrontation with Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon or threats from Iranian-backed groups from Syria. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Hezbollah and Iran against “entrenching” near the Golan on October 21.
The modern battlefield that will accommodate systems like the Rhino command post is part of knitting together the commanders with various layers of communication. This means using technology such as software defined radios tailored to the tactical environment, Elbit’s experts say. Layers of communications also bring in the latest sensors connected to troops and platforms in the field. Behind it all is artificial intelligence and computer algorithms that help digest the information and make it relevant. This connected battlespace includes tanks, soldiers, jets, and everything else on the field of battle. “The concept of this digital backbone is hard to present, you can’t touch it,” says Fausset. Nevertheless, the digital backbone sounds nowadays like that euphemism that an army marches on its stomach. Today’s version of Napoleon or Frederick the Great or George Patton would say that an army marches on its technology. That is where armies are going, and if they want to compete against enemies today, especially sophisticated enemies such as China or Russia, they need the best technology.
The Rhino post and the technology linked to it has redundancy, so that if a command vehicle is destroyed, there are other systems with duplicate information. The information is stored and distributed, sort of like cloud technology works with smartphones, so it isn’t lost. One of the issues in modern war is that destroying an enemy’s command and control networks can make them unable to “see.” That was how Saddam Hussein’s massive conventional, and relatively modern, army was destroyed by the U.S.-led Coalition in 1991. Much has changed since that revolution in military affairs postulated what high-tech could do to the battlefield, and we’ve learned that while technology doesn’t win every war, it is increasingly necessary for everything militaries do. That means you can fight a counter-insurgency using low-tech, because it’s true that armed drones and surveillance can’t always defeat enemies like during the ambush U.S. special forces faced in Niger in 2017. But you nevertheless need technology in the long run to help win conflicts.
The British Army, posting about the new technology in mid-October, called it “boots and bots.” It has come a long way from the command tent Patton or Montgomery would have had, but its goal is the same: win the conflict in the shortest possible time with the maximum amount of force applied at the right place on the battlefield, using the best information and intelligence to reduce casualties of allied forces and collateral damage.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.