Toward a Lean and Mean Digital Army

Fifteen years ago, then-chief of staff Dan Shomron declared that the army had set its goal of being small and smart. It will be more than 25 years until the DGA makes that vision come true.

Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron signed an agreement yesterday that will get the Digital Ground Army (DGA) off the ground. It is one of the most ambitious IDF undertakings of the last decade, and the General Staff believes it will revolutionize the IDF's ground forces.

The main result, though not an immediate one, will be a dramatic rise in the army's ability to deal with terror organizations in the context of a limited conflict. As part of the program, new command and control, and control and monitoring systems will be formed for the ground forces: infantry, armor, engineering and artillery, with a fiber optic communication network as the backbone for data transmission. The network will connect all the ground forces from the battalion level through the brigade, division and corps, giving the commanders a complete, credible view of the battlefield.

The steep financial costs of the project required a decision by the joint Knesset Committee for the Defense Budget. The committee, headed by Finance Committee Chairman Avraham Hirschson, approved the allocation last month of a billion shekels from the IDF's shekel budget, as well as an additional half billion dollars from the American aid funds.

According to calculations done by the Ground Forces Command, responsible for building the ground forces and the main consumer in the enterprise, the investment will pay off upon its completion at the beginning of the next decade. The new system will enable a significant reduction in the size and number of field commands, thereby creating savings of as much as 30 percent in equipment and manpower in the ground forces.

The DGA project is one of the key elements in the Revolution in Military Affairs as formulated in the U.S. in the early 1990s, in the wake of the first Gulf War. Elbit Systems will lead the revolution after being chosen as the chief contractor of the project and head of the consortium that includes Rafael and Tadiran Systems. The revolution is a generic term for "networked combat." It actualizes the technological breakthroughs in computing and communication to link sensors scattered throughout the army into one communications network. Such a network is built like a huge search engine in the Internet, enabling information to be acquired, accessed and freely disseminated.

This technological principle is already being implemented by the air and naval arms of the IDF. The IDF reckons that the ground forces are lagging behind those two arms by at least a decade when it comes to making full use of computers and communications. That is why the project is now a top priority for the army, ahead of other projects such as the Ofek 7 spy in the sky satellite, to replace the one that was lost in the sea a few months ago during its launch; the acquisition of new submarines and missile boats; and reequiping the infantry with armor.

The digitalization of the ground forces will break up the classic organizational structure of those forces and change the way they operate. The miniaturization of the computing systems and the dramatic decline in their costs now enable the development and manufacturing of sensors for most of the armored combat vehicles and the mass production of palm-sized personal digital assistants for combat troops. Thus, video imagery of targets "over the hilltop" or behind an alley photographed by unmanned airplanes will be transmitted to commands at all levels, from the battalion to the division, to the company commander and the soldier, the attack helicopters and the fighter jets, showing up in real time on the screens. The ability to create a common picture of the battlefield will create a new organizational power for the army that will be made up of infantry, artillery, engineering, helicopters and special forces.

According to the principles of this networked army, there will be a revolution in the levels of cooperation between the various branches of the army. Until now, they have operated on the principle of mutual cooperation. The main change affecting the army by the DGA will be "jointness," the ability to operate an integrated force with all the capabilities of all three arms of the army.

Alongside the great expectations from DGA are some problems to be solved. To implement the project throughout the army will take more than half a billion dollars. In addition, there are problems with the scheduled completion of the project. According to the contracts already signed, it is supposed to be finished in seven years. But more realistic assessments say it will take 10 years. Until then, the army will continue fighting organized terror with a clumsy army that was built for much larger wars, thus paying too heavy a price for the limited conflict.

Fifteen years ago, then-chief of staff Dan Shomron declared that the army had set its goal of being small and smart. It will be more than 25 years until the DGA makes that vision come true.