‘Steering wheel of the military’: IDF intelligence officers provide rare glimpse into their secret world

July 5, 2018 by Yaakov Lappin - JNS.org
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As Israel’s enemies build up their military force while hiding themselves in civilian population centres, the intelligence officers of the Israel Defense Forces keep a close eye on them and prepare the military accordingly…writes Yaakov Lappin/JNS.

Yaakov Lappin

Recently, two IDF intelligence sources provided JNS with a glimpse into their secretive worlds, providing exclusive interviews in which they discussed how the military is creating a new kind intelligence officer.

A growing number of intelligence officers have gained experience in both the field, where they serve with combat units on the ground, and at the level of the General Staff, at central headquarters, where the major strategic decisions are made.

Maj. M, who currently serves at the General Staff level, is charged with monitoring a northern area. In the past, he served as an intelligence officer with brigades and battalions on the ground.

“Every military framework is like a car. And the intelligence is the steering wheel,” he says. For intelligence officers who serve on the ground, together with combat units, the stakes could not be higher,” the officer adds.  The commanders of such units heavily rely on the intelligence the officers provide.

“If your intelligence helped the commander prevent an attack, you’ve reached operational success. If the unit took an enemy village and brought all of the soldiers home safely, the sense of satisfaction is great. In other incidents, you can do the maximum, and it still does not end well. That gives you a sense of proportion on life,” says the major.

In the field, he explains, the officers must deliver “very tactical, focused intelligence on certain areas. You give limited intelligence to your commanders, and your field of vision is more narrow” since too wide a picture will not be useful to combat units with specific tasks.

In addition, “the things you write and analyze are things you directly experience. The location of the enemy, the height of the mountain—these are things you see with your own eyes,” he says. “People—including us, the officers—fight in the places we talk about. We are right there with the combat soldiers, not disconnected from them,” he says, describing the experience of delivering on-the-ground intelligence. “If you don’t give commanders the things they need, people can get killed or injured. Civilians can be harmed. We could end up not meeting our mission.”

With so many lives resting on the field intelligence officer’s shoulders, room for error is narrow. “You see that the things that come out of your mouth make the difference between life and death. When you’re in a home that’s being fired on or walking with wet equipment in the rain, and you need to make a decision after not sleeping for days, no drill can prepare you for that. You still have to give your commander the best answers,” says Maj. M.

The major then transitioned into the IDF General Staff, where he began delivering intelligence services at the highest strategic level. “If you’re stubborn enough, you can bring the things you learned from the field to the general staff, and vice versa,” he says.

That variation in experience creates the more capable intelligence officer, he argues. Blending these two worlds – the field and the General Staff – is not a written directive, but “it is happening,” he adds.

After arriving at the General Staff, Maj. M said he was amazed by the technological capabilities on display there. “There are things one sees in James Bond films that look like this. It’s hard to believe they exist in the world, but they do. When one sees the very core of the secrets of the State of Israel, it creates great pride. I feel that I am utilizing all of my abilities. I get up in the morning with a smile. I know I did things in the field that protected civilians, and that I am doing things at the General Staff that will defend the state for years to come,” he says. “The Military Intelligence Branch believes that everything is possible.”

Knowing the enemy’s weak spots

Maj. I is an intelligence officer for the 188 Armored Brigade. In the past, he served as the head of a team in the Research Branch at the General Staff level. He, too, built up a varied experience of what it means to deliver critical intelligence.

Today, he says, the 188 Armored Brigade is expected to fight in any arena, meaning that he must have his finger on the intelligence pulse of any potential combat zone—be it Gaza, Lebanon or Syria.

“My role … is planning the war. To know where the enemy’s weak spots are, how to exploit them,” says the officer. “I have to know how to build our force, train it and make sure that all soldiers understand the threats they will face, and give them the tools to deal with it,” he says.

No matter what kind of intelligence work is needed, all intelligence officers must be  able to research and analyze the enemy, as well as provide solid evaluations, states Maj. I.

But the kind of thinking varies significantly between a combat unit and the General Staff, and the officers must be able to adopt themselves to where they are.

The General Staff intelligence officers focus more on figuring out the significance of information coming in, and creating a clear picture, yet the intelligence officers on the ground need to turn their data into specific information that will help operations.

Asked to describe what the enemy looks like in 2018, the major noted that a common denominator links them all, whether they are located in Syria, Lebanon or Gaza.

All of these enemies are “sub-military, meaning that they are organized like a military, have command and control like a military, build up their force and activate it like a military, but the way in which they fight deliberately involves civilians,” he says.

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