Israel Shows Electronic Prowess

Israel Shows Electronic Prowess.

By David A. Fulghum, Robert Wall and Amy Butler

The U.S. was monitoring the electronic emissions coming from Syria during Israel’s September attack; and—although there was no direct American help in destroying a nuclear reactor—there was some advice provided beforehand, military and aerospace industry officials tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That surveillance is providing clues about how Israeli aircraft managed to slip past Syrian air defenses to bomb the site at Dayr az-Zawr. The main attack was preceded by an engagement with a single Syrian radar site at Tall al-Abuad near the Turkish border. It was assaulted with what appears to be a combination of electronic attack and precision bombs to enable the Israeli force to enter and exit Syrian airspace. Almost immediately, the entire Syrian radar system went off the air for a period of time that included the raid, say U.S. intelligence analysts.

There was “no U.S. active engagement other than consulting on potential target vulnerabilities,” says a U.S. electronic warfare specialist.

Elements of the attack included some brute-force jamming, which is still an important element of attacking air defenses, U.S. analysts say. Also, Syrian air defenses are still centralized and dependent on dedicated HF and VHF communications, which made them vulnerable. The analysts don’t believe any part of Syria’s electrical grid was shut down. They do contend that network penetration involved both remote air-to-ground electronic attack and penetration through computer-to-computer links.

“There also were some higher-level, nontactical penetrations, either direct or as diversions and spoofs, of the Syrian command-and-control capability, done through network attack,” says an intelligence specialist.

These observations provide evidence that a sophisticated network attack and electronic hacking capability is an operational part of the Israel Defense Forces’ arsenal of digital weapons.

Despite being hobbled by the restrictions of secrecy and diplomacy, Israeli military and government officials confirm that network invasion, information warfare and electronic attack are part of Israel’s defense capabilities.

They’ve been embraced operationally by key military units, but their development, use and the techniques employed are still a mystery even to other defense and government organizations. It remains “a shadowy world,” says an Israeli air force general. Israel is not alone in recent demonstrations of network warfare. Syria and Hezbollah showed some basic expertise during the Lebanon conflict last year.

“Offensive and defensive network warfare is one of the most interesting new areas,” says Pinchas Buchris, director general of the Israeli defense ministry. “I can only say we’re following the [network attack] technology with great care. I doubted this [technology] five years ago. But we did it. Now everything has changed.

“You need this kind of capability,” he says. “You’re not being responsible if you’re not dealing with it. And, if you can build this kind of capability, the sky’s the limit [for sophisticated intelligence gathering and clandestine operations].”

So far, the most sophisticated example of nonkinetic warfare is the penetration of Syrian air defenses by Israeli aircraft on Sept. 6 to bomb a site—analyzed as a nascent nuclear facility—without being engaged or even detected. Commercial satellite pictures of the target on the Euphrates (about 90 mi. from the Iraq border) taken before and after the raid show that a large building (the suspected reactor building) in the center of the site has disappeared and the ground has been bulldozed flat.

The incident is attracting attention because “the Syrians have an extensive air defense system that they’ve been building for decades—since the [1967] Six-Day War,” says an Israeli defense planning official. “It may be the largest in the world.”

That ability of nonstealthy Israeli aircraft to penetrate without interference rests in part on technology, carried on board modified aircraft, that allowed specialists to hack into Syria’s networked air defense system, said U.S. military and industry officials in the attack’s aftermath. Network raiders can conduct their invasion from an aircraft into a network and then jump from network to network until they are into the target’s communications loop. “Whether the network is wireless or wired doesn’t matter anymore,” says a U.S. industry specialist (AW&ST Nov. 5, p. 32; Oct. 8, p. 28; Feb. 19, p. 31). Now development of the technology in Israel is being confirmed.

“The raid on Syria was a strategic signal, not a threat,” says a retired senior military official who flew combat in the region for decades. “This [raid] was about what we perceived are their capabilities [for developing weapons of mass destruction] and about deterrence more than creating damage.”

He contends that Syrian procedures even contributed to the successful bombing raid.

“Part of the vulnerability of the Syrian facility was that they kept it so secret that there weren’t enough air defenses assigned to it,” the official contends.

Israel’s capabilities are similar to the “Suter” network-invasion capability that was developed by the U.S. using the EC-130 Compass Call electronic attack aircraft to shoot data streams, laced with sophisticated algorithms, into enemy antennas. The passive, RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft then monitored enemy signals to ensure the data streams were having the intended effect on the target sensors. Israel duplicated the capability when it fielded its two new Gulfstream G550 special missions aircraft designs. Both were modified by Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta Div. in time for the 2006 Lebanon war. The ground surveillance radar version can provide data streams from large active, electronically scanned array radars, while the intelligence version provided the signals surveillance and analyses.

Buchris contends that it’s not manpower and technology that limits development, but constructing systems (that can put invasive data streams into enemy networks and then monitor the results) and making them operational.

The new G550 radar and electronic surveillance aircraft, for example, are still “in the process of being integrated into the intelligence system,” the planning official agrees. “The name of the game is balance of systems, intelligence, training, communications and forces. It has to be conducted like an orchestra. If one instrument is out of tune, it doesn’t sound right.”

The special mission aircraft were used during the war with good results, but military officials expect better future exploitation as they are plugged into the Israel Defense Forces’ network. Another handicap in developing Israel’s network attack capabilities is that they haven’t directly enlisted the research potential of their universities as the Pentagon has done in the U.S.

“I know that in the U.S., universities are involved in these kinds of issues,” Buchris says. “But in Israel, we are not. It’s totally different. How the Israeli system works, you can’t share with anybody. I don’t want to go into the issues [of technology development, personnel training and who runs the organization]. It’s very interesting. It’s very sensitive. Any such capabilities are top secret.”

That secrecy is causing Israel problems. Compartmentalization means that those who know about the new capabilities aren’t allowed to tout their usefulness. Yet at least low-key publicity is needed to ensure government funding for additional development and acceptance of their operational use.

“Now I have to find a way to explain these capabilities to other people so that they understand,” Buchris says.

Israeli officials won’t address the raid on Syria directly.

“We want to ease feelings with Syria,” says Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee. “We don’t want them to feel humiliated.” Moreover, Israeli analysts aren’t really sure who to blame. “No one really knows whether President [Basher al-] Assad is the one who calls the shots. It may be senior army generals or other figures with influence. We don’t want a confrontation.

“It’s sensitive enough that the Army made an unprecedented decision to change an important exercise in the Golan Heights to another site,” Hanegbi says. “And, it was equally unusual for them to announce it. That’s a symptom of the atmosphere.”

Israeli officials reject any suggestion that the Syrian and Iranian nuclear programs were or are linked in any way.

“I don’t think Iran knew anything about what Syria was doing,” says a long-serving member of the Israeli parliament with insight into military affairs. “I don’t think they would have told the Iranians. They didn’t need Iranian assistance because they had help from the North Koreans.”

However, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, disagrees. “I’d be very surprised if the Syrians were to engage at least without Iranian acquiescence,” he says. And, “it may be beyond that,” he tells Aviation Week. Since Syria alone lacks both the funding and expertise for a nuclear weapons program, it would logically turn to Pyongyang for technology and oil-rich Tehran for funding, he says.

Moreover, Bolton says the use of network attack is a clever move by the Israelis. He contends that it will serve as a deterrent for Iran. Or, at the very least, it sends a message that even the advanced, Russian-built air defense systems won’t protect Iran’s nuclear activities.

“I think it is very telling, obviously, in its potential impact on Iran since they’ve been supplied by the Russians with air defense equipment as well,” Bolton says. He describes the Syrian facility as a “clone” of North Korea’s primary nuclear plant in Yongbyon, and it share the same dimensions. The roof was covered with materials to mask it, apparently unsuccessfully, from overhead collection. Prior to his work at the U.N., Bolton was undersecretary of State for arms control during 2002 when construction of the Syrian site was said to have begun.

An indication of North Korea’s involvement in the Syrian facility was a condemnation of the raid issued by the government there. “This was an almost automatic response,” he says. “It is not because North Korea and Syria share a common border. To me, it was an inadvertent tipoff from North Koreans that they had involvement with that facility.”

Israeli analysts closely watch foreign aid to Syria and that country’s support of Hezbollah during last year’s fighting in Lebanon and Israel. Of key interest was a signals and communications intercept operation that was run by the Syrian military. The intelligence products on location, makeup and intent of Israeli operations—much of it obtained from cell phone intercepts—were passed to Hezbollah.

In this case, they point to the involvement of Chinese and Russian advisory groups operating in Syria.

“When you’re talking about selling high-tech systems, they need support and staffing,” says a senior Israeli government official. “You can’t just talk about an air defense system. You also have to talk about communications, networking and intelligence gathering,” which includes the skills of communications and signals intelligence gathering and analysis.

“I can tell you that now, when I go into a [ministry] meeting, I have to take the battery out of my cell phone,” the government official says. “We’re aware of [traffic intercept during the Lebanon fighting]. There’s also the issue that in the north of Israel you have very large Arab communities. Most wouldn’t be involved, but you’re talking about a half-million people up on the border. That means there are people with the ability to watch and pass on information.”

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