- Associated Press - Friday, January 7, 2011

SHIVTA ARTILLERY TRAINING SCHOOL, ISRAEL (AP) - Intense winds scraped sand from the desert floor, clouding the view and leaving the Israeli soldiers scarcely able to see each other as they practiced blasting artillery shells at distant targets.

In a nearby armored vehicle, commanders armed with small screens could easily monitor every cannon, jeep and target involved, ordering strikes with the tap of a finger. Their weapon: a sophisticated communication system that compiles battlefield information in an easy-to-use, video game-like map interface, helping militaries make sense of the chaos of battle.

The Associated Press was given rare access to the exercise by a military eager to reclaim some of the deterrence it held in the region when technologically inferior Arab armies were the main threat against it.

That deterrence has eroded in recent times, as guerrilla warfare became more prominent and left conventional armies _ here as elsewhere _ looking clumsy and vulnerable.

In a monthlong war in 2006, Lebanese guerrillas with relatively simple rockets knocked out Israeli tanks, and Israel’s high-tech military was powerless to stop a barrage of primitive, unguided Katyusha rockets on northern Israel.

The latest computerized gadgetry is designed to knock down the military’s response time. Troops on the ground can add new targets as soon as they spot them _ like militants on foot, a rocket squad or a vehicle _ to the network for commanders to see instantly and hit.

Strikes that used to take 20 or more minutes to coordinate now take just seconds, said Maj. Hagai Ben-Shushan, head of the C4I section for Israel’s artillery. “It doesn’t take much, then shells are going to the target,” he said.

Israel is among several nations harnessing digital and satellite technology to develop C4I systems _ short for “command, control, communications, computers and intelligence” _ that integrate battlefield information.

The goal is to have “all the elements of a force … seeing the same tactical picture, and you can move information from one to the other completely seamlessly,” said Britain-based Giles Ebbutt, who studies such systems for Jane’s Information Group.

C4I systems are operational in the United States, which started development in the 1990s, as well as France, Singapore, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, among other countries, Ebbutt said.

Israel’s version _ being developed over the past decade or so _ is “a little bit further down the road than some people … because they have a focus on the problem, they are constantly operationally alert, and they need to be as operationally developed as they can,” Ebbutt said.

The army says it started using the first, basic version in 2005, but it did not include all units and functions. The latest, completed in 2009 and in training since last March, allows all forces on the ground to communicate instantaneously.

“Visually, now everything is on the map, so it’s much easier to coordinate,” said the battalion commander whose men were being trained. “You can easily understand the map and the position of forces.” He spoke on condition of anonymity under military rules.

On a stretch of sand near the army base at Shivta, deep in Israel’s southern Negev desert, six artillery cannon stood with their barrels aimed at targets about 4 miles (6 kilometers) away. Commanders in a nearby armored vehicle stared at two screens, watching all movement on an interactive satellite map.

Pink squares marked each cannon, dotted lines of shell trajectory extended from their barrels and circles showed the expected blast radius of any shells fired.

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