Trust your lieutenant, even in the digital era
Whoever studies the phenomenon of some commanders with their eyes glued to computer screens, observing operations halfway around the world, should start with Israel's obsession with technology.
Reaching a fevered pitch after the Second Lebanon War, this process is culminating in an unprecedented blending of roles, missions and even future force structure, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are striding toward tri-service networking. By introducing its Digital Army Program (DAP)—in Hebrew, Tzayad—designed by, the IDF aims to enhance situational awareness at all tactical command levels. Its goal is to cement precision firepower from distant commanders as an integral part of maneuver warfare.
The latest version, called Torch 400, will be deployed in an initial stage to battalion commanders and possibly down to company commanders. Most tanks and artillery cannons have already been equipped with the system. “The system can either be in a vehicle or operated by handheld computer, allowing a commander to create digital targets and map out battle plans that will be seen by all of the system users,” explains Col. Gil Maoz, DAP project manager in the Ground Forces Command. “Essentially, a commander can just hit the screen and mark a target, and that target will automatically be seen by tanks, artillery cannons and even attack helicopters.”
In addition to a map of the area of operations, the system provides users with a 3-D version of the battlefield, providing commanders an even better assessment of their battle plans. Since the system also marks the location of other users, it is effective in preventing morale-sapping friendly fire incidents.
But how did this friendly technology of plasma screens become one of the 2006 Lebanon war's most despised symbols? While one of the pervasive images of the war was of commanders leading operations safely from Israel while watching the fighting on screens, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 saw brigade commanders leading their forces again from deep inside Gaza.
Decades of IDF leadership tradition emphasized that senior commanders must accompany their forces in battle. With Tzayad, a senior commander might have an unprecedented real-time situational awareness picture at his disposal, enabling him to intervene with long-range precision ordnance. However, even the most advanced command, control, computers, communications and intelligence (C4I) system cannot replace personal leadership in battle.
The effective use of Tzayad depends on mutual trust between the senior commander and his subordinate tactical commanders—and while guiding them, still not diminish their freedom in action, which is imperative for mission success. “Trust Your Lieutenant” is still the catchphrase of mission command philosophy, even in the digital era.
Their is no single answer the question of the location of commander in battle, except for the principle that he or she must be in a place to optimally influence the fight. While Tzayad could become an excellent tool during the initial phase of the mission, it cannot replace the “feel” of the battle after first contact is made and rapid changes to the initial plan become inevitable.
Another lesson from the use of Tzayad: Because subordinates learn best by doing, senior leaders should accept the possibility that less experienced subordinates will make mistakes. If subordinate leaders are to grow and develop trust, it is best to let them learn through experience. Good leaders allow space so subordinates can experiment within the bounds of intent-based orders and plans.
Despite the lively controversy over Tzayad's impact on the basics of command, it remains a powerful tool. The C4I Directorate, Ground Forces Command,and navy may have succeeded in at establishing a system that enables a tank commander to designate a target on a computer screen in the tank and transfer the data in real time to headquarters. It could also be sent to a strike aircraft.
The IDF is looking to equip its battalions with compact radars that would be deployed ahead of the main force, searching for enemy forces. Radar data would be transferred back to the battalion's command post, where commanders could automatically dispatch UAVs to provide live footage of the suspected enemy force.
Digital networking can render long-range precision-fire support to forward units, which was not available before the digital era. The commander located at headquarters, with better situational awareness, can intervene with precision fire within minutes, directed on critical targets appearing on the computer screen, before the frontline commander becomes aware of the threat.