The Israeli 'E-tack' on Syria – Part I

Information warfare is a growing concern among the world's military forces. In the first of a two-part article, Richard B Gasparre outlines the recent Israeli attack on Syria and sheds some light on electronic espionage.


Landmark events don't always become the lead headlines, and Israel's air strike against an alleged Syrian nuclear facility last September is a good example. In the aftermath of the attack, global attention focused on Syria's nuclear aspirations, but the real watershed event was the execution of the air raid itself, which apparently now stands as the first implementation in a live hostile environment of 'information warfare'.

Like many emerging fields, information warfare goes by many names, such as network attack and non-kinetic warfare. At the operational military level, however, these disciplines can generally be defined as efforts to defeat or neutralise hostile military units through the use of the electronic transmissions to distort, degrade or capture the adversary's battlefield knowledge infrastructure, but without causing tangible physical damage to the equipment the adversary uses to collect, process and disseminate its battlefield knowledge.

In essence, therefore, the spirit of information warfare involves the adaptation of civilian computer hacking and electronic espionage techniques for purely military purposes.

THE BARE FACTS

On 6 September, Israeli aircraft bombed a large building at Dayr az-Zawr, a town on the Euphrates about 60 miles west of the Syria-Iraq border and 250 miles north-east of Damascus. The raid effectively destroyed the complex, which was under construction at the time.

Prior to the main attack, the strike force attacked a Syrian air defence facility at Tall al-Abyad, near the Turkish border. The site, which comprised two radar systems and probably a mix of SAMs, was damaged and disabled with a mix of electronic attack and conventional PGMs, thus allowing the strike force to penetrate Syrian airspace without being engaged or even detected.

"Information warfare goes by many names, such as network attack and non-kinetic warfare."

Then came the real surprise: immediately after the suppressive attack at Tall Abyad, Syria's entire air defence radar network crashed for a period of time long enough for the IAF to complete its mission and exit the way it entered – again without being detected electronically. This is no mean feat considering that Syria is widely regarded as having the densest and most comprehensive air defence system (ADS) in the region.

After Syria finally got around to acknowledging the raid, two burning questions arose:

  1. How did the non-stealthy F-15s and F-16s penetrate the Syrian ADS perimeter without being detected?
  2. How could the strike force have effectively neutralized most or all of Syria's nationwide ADS radar coverage if it attacked only one ADS node?

ISRAELI RETICENCE: WE'D TELL YOU, BUT THEN WE'D HAVE TO KILL YOU

Ideally, a first-hand account of the raid would be forthcoming from the IAF, but Israeli sources have not provided any insight. "How the Israeli system works, [you] can't share with anybody," stated Pinchas Buchris, head of Israel's defence ministry. "Offensive and defence network warfare is very interesting, [but] it's very sensitive – any such capabilities are top secret."

Israeli officials do, however, emphasise the importance of network warfare. "You need this kind of capability," said Buchris, who implies that that network warfare is transcending mere importance and could be on its way to indispensability. "You're being irresponsible if you're not dealing with it. And, if you can build [it], the sky's the limit," in terms of disrupting enemy forces.

Although the Israelis have kept mum, sources in the United States have provided an overview of the raid and, equally importantly, background on the types of systems used. Details from these sources, as initially reported by Aviation Week & Space Technology several weeks after the attack, should be authoritative because Israel received advice from the US regarding Syrian air defence system (ADS) weaknesses both before and during the strike.

"Following the attack, Syria's entire air defence radar network crashed, allowing the attackers to escape."

The US also monitored electronic output from Syria's ADS during the air strike. This surveillance was most likely passive rather than intrusive, as American sources emphasised that no US units were actively engaged in any aspect of the raid. However, the US defence research community could be just as proud of the strike's results as Israel was, given that information warfare originated in the 'black world' of US defense R&D programmes.

BLACK ICE: INTELLIGENCE, COMMUNICATIONS AND ELECTRONICS

For some time now, the USAF has pursued a highly classified initiative picturesquely called Big Safari. According to an unidentified Air Force officer, Big Safari is an ongoing series of projects 'emphasising integration of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), space and information operations to defeat threats of special concern'.

Of specific relevance to the Israeli raid are two programmes: Senior Suter and NCCT.

Senior Suter is one section of the 'senior' family of projects, which in turn exists under the Big Safari umbrella. The senior category deals with information and electronic warfare, broadly defined. The Suter programme (whose namesake, Colonel Richard 'Moody' Suter, created the USAF's Red Flag training programme at Nellis AFB) focuses on implementing electronic data warfare against air defence systems. The prime contractor for Senior Suter is BAE Systems.

Network-centric collaborative targeting, or NCCT, is not technically part of Suter, Senior or Big Safari (else its name would be less descriptive but more colourful). Indeed, NCCT's mission is almost self-explanatory: this system enables a network of sensors to collaborate in determining the location of a target with minimal human intervention. The prime contractor for NCCT is L-3 Communications.

The Suter programme first emerged from its 'redacted' status in 2002, when the Pentagon asked for extra funding to modify the capabilities of the EC-130H Compass Call aircraft in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Subsequently, US forces in Iraq have used the Compass Call to prematurely set off insurgent IEDs along convoy routes.

NCCT (and perhaps Suter) has been at the very least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last couple years, probably against insurgent communication networks.

"Network warfare is transcending mere importance and could be on its way to indispensability."

Similarly, Israel used its versions of Suter and NCCT technology during its 2006 incursion into Lebanon.

As their missions suggest, NCCT and Suter can be used independently of each other. Obviously, NCCT is more widely applicable, as USAF operators can use many types of weapons against the targets it locates. However, NCCT and Suter are especially synergistic because Suter is a natural extension of the NCCT task.

FIRST, FIND IT WITH NCCT

All physical entities that are 'alive' and functioning radiate or reflect energy in one form or another whenever they are doing something. These energy emissions span a range of modalities (electromagnetic, thermal, auditory, etc.) and each is detectable by sensors attuned to that modality.

As a result of millions of years of biological evolution, humans use their senses instinctively, without conscious thought, which is one reason why instinctive physiological reactions seem so swift.

In contrast, military organisations of analogous integrated complexity do not respond as swiftly (relatively speaking) – precisely because the processing of sensation into perception by the organisation as a whole does require conscious thought, in the form of interpretation and decision making by human operators.

Historically, intelligence in military organisations had to navigate up the chain of command to some higher level of authority before it could be aggregated with other intelligence to actually create useful knowledge.

According to Major Barb Carson, public affairs liaison with the Air Force Command and Control Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) Center, US military operations in Kosovo a decade ago demonstrated that this process was a key constraint on battlefield responsiveness.

"Although traditional ISR sensors performed well, their stove-piped, closed network operations weren't effective in providing timely targeting solutions for time-sensitive threats," says Major Carson, who notes that traditional forms of hierarchical data integration required several minutes at best – and often took hours when many organisational boundaries had to be crossed.

"Of specific relevance to the Israeli raid are two programmes: Senior Suter and NCCT."

Consistent with the biological comparison, the solution lies in streamlining the sensation-perception process flow. Major Carson explains, "NCCT mimics the way the human central nervous system instantaneously focuses the eyes on the potential source of a threatening sound. When an enemy asset communicates or moves, a sensor platform will get a line of bearing on it and alert the other sensors to focus on the enemy asset and provide corroborating evidence of the enemy's identity and location."

Once two other sensors detect the asset, the NCCT system can then automatically calculate the location of the asset to within a few hundred feet – roughly the area of a football pitch. NCCT needs three vectors not only because assets could be elevated or airborne, and thus utilising all three dimensions, but also because bearings can be planar rather than linear, and three planes are needed to create a one-dimensional intersection point. By obviating human intervention, NCCT reduces the time needed to locate a target from hours or minutes down to seconds.

The system is also highly sensitive in two respects. First, the sensors themselves can pick up even relatively weak signals such as those from cell phones, and can detect other C2 components that produce electromagnetic signatures. Additionally, NCCT can compare the signals to dynamic databases of previously collected signals to ascertain, in some cases, even the individual identity of the emitting enemy unit.

Part II will discuss Senior Suter and the integration of these and other technologies into an operational package.