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 lost over technologically inferior Arab forces.
That deterrence has eroded in recent times, as guerrilla warfare 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 Ebb, who studies such systems for Jane's Information Group.
System yet to be battle-tested
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, Ebb 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," Ebb 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 cannons 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.
Different symbols marked other army vehicles, their locations kept up to date with GPS-like devices. All the vehicles carried similar screens, giving soldiers a realtime map of the battlefield.
One soldier demonstrates how to add a new target to the map: A tap on the screen places it, then he can describe its size and character.
Seeing the target, a commander can then order a strike with a few more taps, deciding who will fire and how much. The order immediately appears on those units' screens.
The system's newest version, built by Israeli defense contractor Elbit, has yet to be battle-tested, but Israel used an earlier one in its Gaza offensive two years ago, Ben-Shushan said.
That war, launched to stop militant rocket fire on Israeli towns, killed about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Four of the 10 Israeli soldiers were killed by friendly fire, but Col. Gil Maoz, head of Israel's Digital Army program, said the technology helped to prevent other Israeli fatalities.
Israel had only an early version of the system during its war with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah in 2006, which killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis. An Israeli investigation into the war, which was widely seen as a failure, criticized the inability of commanders to relay key information to the field.
Maoz said having the system then could have lowered the Israeli death toll.
Elbit spokeswoman Dalia Rosen said that what sets the Israeli system apart from others is the ease with which it allows land, naval and air forces to communicate with each other and its ability to link everyone from rank-and-file soldiers in the field to the highest commanders.
She said Australia purchased Elbit communications technology for its own battle management system in a deal last year valued at $298 million.
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