Israeli Army's Visual Intelligence Unit Unprepared for War, State Comptroller Says

Report slams elite reconnaissance unit's outdated operational doctrine, inadequate staffing and problematic cooperation with ground forces

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Soldier wearing VR glasses, 2015.
Soldier wearing VR glasses, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yaniv Kubovich

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira believes that the Israel Defense Forces' elite visual intelligence unit is not properly prepared for an emergency. The report his office released Monday stated that VISNT Unit 9900 of Military Intelligence, and its subunits, suffers from a shortage of manpower, an absence of requisite standing orders for shifting to a war footing and also a problematic operational doctrine.

MI has three main intelligence-gathering branches, and Unit 9900 is responsible for gathering visual intelligence including geographical data from satellites and aircraft, as well as other sources, and mapping and interpreting the information for decision makers and combat forces alike.

Some of its soldiers are deployed on the frontlines, mostly in the Southern and Northern Commands. The unit, whose operations are usually kept secret, serves a critical role during periods of fighting and also has a major role in shaping the IDF’s intelligence map during periods of calm.

Shapira’s report, relating to the period between December 2016 and January 2018, says that various shortcomings could affect the response the unit provides in times of emergency and war.

The head of MI and the army's chief intelligence officer, it adds, must correct these problems “and support the unit in dealing with the challenges” facing it.

Ceremony of Israel's Unit 9900 of Military Intelligence, 2016.Credit: IDF

The standing orders in the unit and its subunits have not been updated, according to the report, even though in recent years its soldiers have started to relay information to ground forces during fighting.

Except for a few fundamental concepts touching on all intelligence units, it notes, the operational doctrine used by 9900 has not been changed since it was written 19 years ago, which could have a negative impact on the training and professionalism of members of the unit.

It operates at present without any proper framework that defines its exact role, objectives and operations as carried out in practice, the state comptroller says, adding that without a current and comprehensive operational doctrine, it will be impossible for its commanding officer to properly supervise his forces.

Shapira's office also found that not all positions in Unit 9900 are filled, which could also harm its operational capabilities. For example, only 38 percent of the field posts filled by members of the unit – those operating at the division and brigade level – were manned by personnel who had undergone proper training.

The Unit 9900 of Military Intelligence in 2015.Credit: IDF

The interface between Unit 9900 soldiers and the combat units was also found lacking, and it appears that nothing has been done to improve the situation. No geologists have been assigned to the unit, even though its commander ordered at least one geologist to work with every squad to provide a full, real-time intelligence picture; geologists serve an especially important function today since the underground tunnels have become such a serious threat.

The report also criticizes the way the unit used its aerial reconnaissance personnel, who depend on a range of technologies. These soldiers, who belong to the Shelef force, actually operate as part of the air force, even though technically they belong to MI. The comptroller's office says that no proper protocol, organizational directives or standing orders have ever been put in place to deal with this situation, and that the aerial unit plans all its own operations without the involvement or oversight of 9900 officers. In addition, the person commanding the unit for the past 16 years is a civilian employee of the IDF, in violation of orders.

In response to the report, the IDF said it is still studying the document in depth and will act to fix the problems. Some of the findings were already addressed in 2018, and the lack of manpower and training-related issues will be resolved by year's end. The IDF added that Unit 9900's operational directives are now being updated and that process will provide solutions to some of the deficiencies revealed in the report – for example, with respect to the process of moving from routine operations to an emergency situation.

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