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The famous British philosopher and strategist Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, who coined the term “indirect approach strategy”, used to say that “the deepest truth about war is that the outcome of battles is decided by the minds of opposing commanders, not by the bodies of soldiers,” and that “to succeed in combat one must always keep one’s intentions unclear, and strike the enemy when it least expects and where it is the most vulnerable.” Based on that it can be determined with almost total certainty that “modern battles are decided by the minds of inventors and developers of advanced technologies, allowing for the implementation of new combat techniques that were considered science fiction only a few decades ago.” The existence of the covert intelligence IDF unit 9900 supports this theory. The unit is referred to as “nine nine-hundred”, or officially as “the satellite unit” within the “visual intelligence formation”, part of the Intelligence Division.
Precision, real time visual intelligence – that’s the capability that is the most pivotal to winning battles, more than ever before. This unique intelligence is presented by 9900 not only to the analysts of the Intelligence Division, it is also given to field commanders so that they can find out exactly what the enemy is doing anywhere in the battlefield, including areas beyond hilltops and in various dead zones. This information is gathered by 9900 using satellites orbiting the Earth, high above the combat arena. In addition to satellites, 9900 uses manned and unmanned aircraft, manned and unmanned surveillance, and advanced sensors capable of distinguishing between real and fake.
In the summer of 2010 the Ofek-9 intelligence satellite was successfully launched, joining the other defense establishment satellites in orbit: Ofek-5, Ofek-7, Eros A, Eros B, and one of the most advanced satellites in the world – TecSAR. Ofek-9 has unique targeting capabilities – it can track multiple targets simultaneously and in 3D, gather visual information through heavy cloud cover, receive and transmit visuals at night and during harsh weather conditions, display high-resolution images and cover wide areas. It has another unique capability – operators in Israel can aim its cameras at different targets no matter where it is in orbit. The satellite can receive commands from ground stations anywhere, not just directly below it. The connectivity between the Ofek-9, the TecSAR, and other defense satellites operating continuously, allows for surveillance of arenas and targets thousands of kilometers away from Israel, including Iran.
The satellite unit operators work in underground bunkers and control most of the long range intelligence arena, while the IDF uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to gather intelligence in the short range. An example of 9900’s abilities was presented in 2009 by then-commander of the IDF’s visual array, Colonel Eli Polack, at a Fischer Institute and Science Ministry space exploration convention. During the convention a 3D model of the uranium enrichment facility in Netanz was displayed, including underground structures. “Without satellites Israel probably couldn’t have operated at these ranges”, said Polack.
It’s no secret that Israel is a “satellite superpower”. Israeli researchers explain that “seven countries today operate in space using their own knowledge and capabilities.” Israel is right behind the U.S. in satellite quality and technologies, and it is one of the only states that manufactures both advanced satellites and their launchers. One of Israel’s unique advantages is the development of lightweight satellites, almost the size of home refrigerators. An example of the Israeli expertise: France asked Israel to share its advanced technologies. According to the French offer Israel is supposed to build the satellite itself while France will manufacture the payload. In order to develop the payload France issued an international tender, and surprisingly the winner was El-Op, owned by the Israeli Elbit.
Using 9900’s capabilities the IDF transmits 3D images of the targets to forces in the field. Using this information the soldiers know exactly where they’re going: ground cover in the area, suspicious buildings, likely ambush spots and more. In addition, the unit supplies forces with detailed maps, not simple satellite photos but detailed 3D maps, which include all the important routes and targets.
9900 supplies real time information to all levels of the establishment: The political leadership, top military decision makers, battalion commanders and even smaller units. Since 9900 can monitor distant countries most of the demand for its information comes from the defense establishment. The unit’s commander explains: “Information is sent out immediately after the request is received. We instantly aim a satellite camera at the requested zone. Since Israel has 10 satellites, each one orbiting the earth every hour and a half or so, we effectively have worldwide coverage. An Elbit system, for example, synchronizes surveillance activities in a certain order, and that’s how we receive real time information.”
Unit 9900 deals with more than just simple information gathering, it also assists complex operations undertaken by the IDF special forces and Air Force. “Today we know how to build an accurate, miniaturized model of the target, or run a 3D simulation, thus allowing fighters to understand how things actually look,” adds the commander. “We assist all levels, from high command to soldiers in the field, while in the past we could only assist the high command.”
The commander also adds that “Field units grew very familiar with our capabilities over the last few years, and their demands for our pre-operation assistance grew. Today we know how to send fighters in the field aerial photos under very short timetables. The images received by commanders reflects the reality. We update the information so that ground forces know everything down to the contents of every house and even room, what’s happening in the area they’re in and what they can expect along the way. Our specialty is not only information gathering, it’s also streaming that information to where it’s needed in real time.”
9900 has received new information processing systems that allow it to fully utilize the gathered intelligence. The unit can receive requests from various IDF and intelligence community sources at any time, and assists in monitoring and documenting. In the past the unit had to process photos taken a few days before the operation, but now it can transmit images in real time even if the operation takes places thousands of kilometers away.