How Israel's military tech innovators are preparing for war

Israel is at the forefront of the world in hi-tech, with some $25 billion raised last year by Israeli companies. The IDF is finally catching up with Israel’s success in hi-tech.

NORTHERN COMMAND: Miniature start-up nation within the IDF. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
NORTHERN COMMAND: Miniature start-up nation within the IDF.

For many years civilian hi-tech industries around the world have largely outpaced how militaries are preparing for future conflicts.

This is because things like phones or navigation applications that help you find a route are not as secure as militaries need them to be.

Over time, though, army technology has begun to exploit all the successes that we have seen in our daily lives, whether from drones or artificial intelligence.

Israel is at the forefront of the world in hi-tech, with some $25 billion raised last year by Israeli companies. The IDF is finally catching up with Israel’s success in hi-tech. Young innovators are transforming the army and using tools that exist in the civilian world to help inform commanders how best to solve problems relating to defense, according to interviews with three officers from the IDF’s Northern Command.

“I think the IDF must move forward, going to the next step in technology. We must take the next step,” says Lt.-Col. Elad Ben-Sha’anan, head of a unit in the command’s engineering branch.

 NORTHERN COMMAND: Miniature start-up nation within the IDF. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT) NORTHERN COMMAND: Miniature start-up nation within the IDF. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT)

He’s 37-years-old and knows the challenges the army faces. He says that in many units the IDF has the challenge of changing methods that go back 10 or 20 years, to adapt to today’s needs. 

He points to the IDF’s Momentum multiyear plan, called Tnufa in Hebrew, which foresees using more technology. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi has pushed a technological revolution in the IDF, and it has a Digital Transformation Division. Sha’anan says the IDF is doing a lot more in hi-tech, not just in his engineering unit but in other units as well.

The Northern Command that Sha’anan is part of has technological centers that have made it a kind of miniature Start-Up Nation within the IDF. It carries out unique developments and innovations. This includes the Amit Center located in the command’s “pit” in Safed and also the “WePlan” team, which helps create 3D-designed-and-printed models for innovative solutions in engineering projects at the planning stage.

I spoke with Sha’anan about what is called the WePlan project.

“Without going into specifics of the project, it was started about one year ago. This was my project,” says Sha’anan.

The concept is to give soldiers in the engineering unit new tools that can aid in better planning and execution in constructing sites inside the Northern Command’s area of operations. 

That could mean protective buildings or other types of infrastructure, including training areas, employing the latest technology to make 3D models and other plans before actually building something. The modeling is then put in the hands of commanders, and decisions are made about whether to build the site based on the plans. It enables commanders to see exactly what will be constructed.

This seems kind of obvious, if you think about how large modern architectural and engineering projects are constructed. We are used to seeing models on computer and 3D models. But, as noted, armies tend to lag behind the civilian world in using these technologies, for a variety of reasons.

Northern Command is now innovating. The commander notes that in the old days soldiers would take a pen and paper out to a site to detail a project.

“Now I can give them the tools to actually solve [the problem] before they start to build it so we see what it looks like in the end. This is important to the Northern Command. By doing that I am able to save a lot of funds and also a lot of work. 

“I save many days of work, because I’m not spending days and cost in the field; so that helps me to do the project successfully, even before I start. That is my vision,” the commander says.

He gives as an example a training site that was made for units at a cost of NIS 1.5 million.

“Before we started this project, we planned for three months, and for three months we actually got the details about every element we put in the ground,” he says.

A model was created using a 3D printer, and commanders could see it physically. By planning in this method, a lot of funds were saved, the commander says. 

He has presented this new method to other commands and says he is getting good feedback. In a sense, Northern Command has become a tech innovator and incubator for projects that could help unit commanders across the army. “If something works and is successful, I want to increase it and pass my knowledge to other units.”

SGT. FIRST Class Gabriel Abramovich, a 26-year-old who runs the Amit Center within Northern Command, is another example of the technological innovators that are transforming the IDF. 

“The purpose of the team is eventually to bring fast and good solutions for technological problems,” he says. “The idea for the team began two years ago when we had a soldier who knew how to write code; he did a boot camp before the army in France; and some officers in our unit spoke to him and we came up with this idea.” 

Now, for the last two years, they have been bringing new technology to the army. 

Abramovich notes that the IDF is a large organization, with different units needing different technologies.

“Because of all the needs, you don’t have enough systems to do it. That is what my team does. We get a problem, check it and split it into small problems, and then build our solution to it,” he says.

His Amit Center unit has gone from three soldiers to 12 in the last years. It plans to expand more, like a classic start-up.

He says that over the last year the unit has created several projects, one of which is called Octopus, or Tamnun in Hebrew. “The purpose of this program was to bring the commander all the issues going on, because a commander needs to do a lot of things and know what is going on. So [its purpose was] to bring to OC Northern Command an image of what is going on, and to see if there are problems.”

What that means in essence is harmonizing information, data and other details in one place – learning the various ways units were reporting problems and combining them on one platform.

“Today, if my commander is at his home, he can [learn about it] from the minute the problem occurred, he can know in a minute when it starts, and the soldiers needed to solve the problem don’t need to make a phone call; all the soldiers linked to this can know it and begin to work from there.”

This sounds a lot like the kinds of tech and apps we are familiar with in the civilian world, such as, Asana and other types of customer relationship management software.

“If a system doesn’t work, then we will know what makes it malfunction,” the officer notes.

He says we can take an example of a communications network and look across units in the North that might not be part of the network.

“What does that mean? It means the soldiers have been there and don’t have cellphones or computers,” he explains. “Sometimes it may be a small unit, but it is important for them to have all the data right now. One soldier can’t solve this problem alone. So he can open a file of a problem, and the commander can see that this unit doesn’t have A, B, C systems, and so the soldiers can do that and the commander can know [about it] when he comes to solve it; [he can see] what the soldiers did before and know how to try to fix the problem.”

This is pivotal because the army may have solved the same problem numerous times before. Without having inputted it into a database or sharing information, several units could easily all face similar issues and not be aware of already developed solutions. Harnessing data and information lets commanders see the history of the same issue in a particular place, as well as know if it occurred elsewhere.

“So in the past you might have a major problem, and then it returns months later, and no one knows how to solve it again, because there is no history of how to solve it,” he says.

This also helps provide an image of what is going on across numerous units.

Abramovich says that this new system could bring the entire IDF good solutions and make the army better at communicating these issues among units and commanders. “You might have two units with the same problem but don’t know what was done until now. So now you can bring the solution to the user.” 

This is crucial. In past conflicts, the lack of communication between units and basic issues such as logistics caused problems. This was especially a challenge for Northern Command during the 2006 Second Lebanon War; many of the largest problems were supposed to have been worked out years ago in the wake of that conflict. Advances in technology should streamline current challenges.

I asked the officer whether solutions exist in software developed by the civilian world. He says that the problem is that many of these systems are not ideal for the army, being that the IDF is complex and large with many systems. “These systems in the ecosystem of technology, they don’t have the target we need; we took ideas from outside though.”

The changes for the IDF have been rapid. 

“If we go back five years ago, no one would have imagined that a small unit in Northern Command would take charge of this big system. But today I have a lot of support from the army. It’s like if we are looking back one year, my team has doubled in size.”

He says the army is rapidly progressing in areas such as artificial intelligence, analytics and use of computers.

The IDF still appears balkanized as it attempts to go through digitization. There are units doing coding in the Kirya military headquarters, and other units in the Center and South that may not be familiar with challenges units face in the North.

“They live in the Center and don’t feel the needs in the North,” says the soldier. 

“So our commander believed he had some soldiers who could code and create some solutions to solve these issues; so that is why, in the North, we have a unit like this,” says Abramovich.

He believes this “Octopus” system will be deployed elsewhere soon. This will be important for making sure units are prepared for conflict. 

Israel currently faces the threats of a multifront war and also incoming rockets that could reach thousands a day if Israel confronts Hezbollah, Hamas and other Iranian-backed proxies. Recent drone incidents in the North are an example of the growing threat.

CPL. ALON Lushi has been in the army for a year and a half and works on the Northern Command’s WePlan under Sha’anan within the combat engineering unit. He is the WePlan team leader now.

“Basically, my office is under the command to place concrete elements and engineering items, and deals with where they will put new roads, or make a bunker for defenses that we design and execute,” he says.

He expands on the methods of WePlan. The group uses drones and goes to the field to prepare for mapping and executing a project using 3D models. In one case they had to build a site for an Iron Dome battery; they used a 3D model to make it most effective. 

Lushi is a graphic designer, having studied graphic design in high school, so he came to the army with some experience. “Most of my training was here. I was certified in this field alongside other people, and we do 3D models and have a photographer and videographer and those who make the visual side of the project.... There are engineering students. Basically, we combine [these technologies] to design the project.”

After making the models and running the math, they are able to see if the planned structure will be structurally sound and also secure against the kinds of rocket or other threats it might face.

The process saves money and time because new technology enables less meetings and planning.

“We use a wide range of software. We are not limited; it’s not just Photoshop, Illustrator or Premier or other video apps.... We have a 3D printer we use a lot, [and] we get to work on the math side.”

This is a major shift from what could be done years ago. “It’s like night and day; even five years ago, you couldn’t think in 3D the same way for the normal everyday soldier. So, while before, someone in the army was in for years to learn specific tasks, now people come with no background, and it’s more intuitive. In the past you couldn’t teach it to someone with no experience; [now] we can develop things faster than five to 10 years.”

Threats are also evolving and changing, with new drones or other technology that Hezbollah or other enemies might be using.

The soldier says, “There always will be new types of threats, and the way we develop, to deal with this, is in our quality and the speed at which we work and come forward to develop our defenses.... It is alongside what our enemies are doing. If someone challenges something, my mission is to stop them with my technological advances. That’s the game.”

I asked about other types of examples, and Lushi points to the development of a new training facility. The concept was to come up with a site that replicates the kind of terrain the army might need to fight in and enable better assessment of the training. The unit combines the “ability to think on our feet and deal with all kinds of things.” 

That might mean helping units that have to deal with tunnel threats or any other kind of issue in the field. “This includes everything that happens in northern Israel; it’s not just limited to engineering. We have people from the Iron Dome, and we have worked with Golani and other regiments; everyone who does something in the North – we have contact with them. It’s very widespread.”

Lushi says the future will hopefully see expanding this initiative across the entire IDF. “It began here in the North and is expanding really quickly.” 

For Abramovich this is central. He says that two months ago there was a program relating to preparing the IDF for the next war.

“Inside this program you need to check if some units are ready or not ready. And when they are checked for this, they asked for a system like [the one we developed] and they were told that five years from now they will get this system, so they came and said we can solve it not in five years but in two months. So we built this system from scratch,” he says.

The new system will be online soon and in use by units that need it.

“Sometimes my unit is like special forces of a problem that needs a solution right now.”

How will the new technologies help units prepare? One system is able to quantify how prepared a unit is for conflict based on a plethora of parameters. That could return a final value of 50% prepared, or 80%.

“If you have a lot of data, sometimes you get mistakes,” Abramovich notes.

So while in the old days quantifying all this with Excel or some other model could lead to mistakes, the new system calculates everything in a better way. This allows commanders to see where all their units stand today.

What is extraordinary about the endeavors in Northern Command is how it has seen the human potential in soldiers coming to the units. To create this mini Start-Up Nation within the IDF means it is recognizing soldiers who come with experience like graphic design or are willing to learn to code. The soldiers in the interviews indicated how important this was. 

The soldiers also take these skills with them when they leave. Abramovich says that the unit has had four soldiers who recently completed their army service and have already gotten into the world of hi-tech and start-ups. As a conscript army, the IDF plays an important role in the pipeline for Israeli hi-tech as well. 

“They made it all on their own. This is the beauty of this unit. We are not afraid of challenges. We will do all we can to bring the most [to the IDF],” says Abramovich. 

“I believe that if we get support in educated soldiers, we will become better. I believe we need more units like this.” ■