Getting big data to the skies

IAF’s Ofek unit works on sharing operational intelligence.

Digital military revolution: The air force's networks in the skies
The air force’s Ofek computer programming unit is developing technologies to better send, receive and analyze big data from fighter jets and drones, a senior officer from the unit told The Jerusalem Post.
That effort includes preparations to link up Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, which will begin arriving in Israel at the end of next year, to the F-15 and F-16 squadrons that currently form the backbone of the air force.
Ofek’s chief technology officer, Maj. Ophir (full name withheld), described his unit in a recent interview as being “on the fault line between hierarchy and order, and the need to adapt technologically to things happening in the civilian world.”
The unit developed the IAF’s main command-and-control network, and is working with the C4I (Teleprocessing) Corps to share data with the ground forces and navy.
“Ofek is now dealing with lessons drawn from Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip last summer], focusing on how to better link up with other IDF branches and swiftly share operational intelligence,” he said.
“If we don’t share pictures, you only see half the picture and don’t understand the other half. If you piece them together, things look very different,” Ophir continued.
“This sounds simple, but it is not. Beyond interconnectivity, it involves bandwidth, complex technology, moving and analyzing big data, and decision-making. Do we do these things in one place? Alternatively, do we decentralize? How do we enable various decision-makers to update one another?” he asked. “In the end, we install this infrastructure, but it is hard to know how to use it.”
The Ofek unit takes part in every aspect of the air force’s operations, and its innovations mean that the IAF can keep older platforms technologically relevant.
“When we install something in new platforms, we usually do the same in older platforms,” he said. “In some aspects, the older platforms will overtake new planes.
There is a big effort to do this.
The F-16 of today looks very different from the ones that arrived here in 1987 and 1992.
Very, very different.”
When the F-35 squadrons arrive, they must be able to share big data with the rest of the air force, and the whole of the IDF, he added.
“We don’t want to create islands [that can’t be connected].
Otherwise they will have no use,” the major said.
Cooperation with the ground forces is “very significant” as well, he said.
The Ofek unit also creates cyber defenses, and airborne electronic warfare suites to protect aircraft during missions.
The Home Front Command uses Ofek’s computer networks to activate rocket sirens.
“We develop the entire system, from the moment we detect a rocket launch to deciding whom to alert,” said Ophir. “The Home Front Command has the responsibility to activate the system.”
Soldiers who have not yet turned 20 have responsibility for systems that secure the whole of Israel, he pointed out. Such a soldier “understands that he has to speak up if something is wrong, and knows what has to be done. This requires dedication, precision.”
In the past, the IDF initiated technological progress, but today, innovation is coming from the private sector.
The unit examines how civilian companies manage themselves and do business, seeking to extract lessons.
“We don’t do business, but we provide value,” said the officer.
This learning curve has resulted in the realization that past air force systems were complex, but not intuitive or aesthetic. Today, the focus is on enhancing the experience of the end user, enabling him to carry out his role better, he explained.
In the air force, where personnel serve long shifts with heavy workloads, dealing with uncomfortable, complex systems is a burden. If a system is “fun to use, performance increases,” the major said.
One example is the development of a tablet-like device that lists enemy targets for pilots.
“A 15-year-old can develop this,” Ophir asserted. “Many changes will not come from high up in the chain of command, but from people who were drafted yesterday. We have to enable them to express themselves through innovation and initiative.
And to take responsibility for repairs when things go wrong.”
The Ofek unit was established in December 2005. It has grown into a large unit, as new professions such as big data analysts have joined programmers.
Civilians, too, are members.
“Our role is to create the right kind of fusion between the uniformed and civilian personnel. During combat, they all go underground and ensure that the systems we develop are running 24-7,” said Ophir.
In May, the unit will hold a threeday technological camp, the brainchild of former Palmahim Air Base commander Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Shahor. Based on the technology camp event initiated by hi-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, this event brings together programmers from the IDF, security agencies and police at the IAF’s Technical School in Haifa. Hundreds of defense establishment entrepreneurs will join in.