The road to the AI IDF

A visit to the forefront of the IDF’s data-driven digital revolution and how it is changing the modern battlefield.

IT’S NO small challenge to take the data, use algorithms to analyze them, and get them to the troops on the front lines.  (photo credit: IDF)
IT’S NO small challenge to take the data, use algorithms to analyze them, and get them to the troops on the front lines.
(photo credit: IDF)
A buzzword for the past few years, “artificial intelligence” (AI), is changing not only the civilian world but militaries and battlefields across the globe, with the Israel Defense Forces at the forefront.
The IDF has been working on AI for decades after troops and officers first recognized the need and realized that the military and defense establishment had to invest time and manpower in the development of the technology.
“The world has changed; we are living in a world full of data,” Maj. M., a senior officer in the C4I Directorate told The Jerusalem Post as we sat in his office in a nondescript base in central Israel.
In the small base with old buildings, his office is full of plaques and awards for his unit, which has been at the forefront of the IDF’s digital revolution.
“Since 2005 the technology has made a revolution in the military. It’s allowed us to acquire a lot more intelligence with a lot more velocity.”
With battlefields changing, a central part of the IDF’s Momentum multiyear plan is to transform the IDF into a “smart army,” holistic and tech-friendly, using simulators for more and more battalions and using AI to significantly increase its target bank.
The IDF is now “data-driven,” Maj. M. said, adding that “it’s no small challenge” to take the data, use algorithms to analyze them, and get them to the troops on the front lines.
In May, the IDF called Operation Guardian of the Walls the first AI war, having relied heavily on machine learning to gather targets belonging to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and strike them.
While the Israeli military relied on what was already on the civilian market and adapted it for military purposes, in the years before the fighting, the IDF established an advanced AI technological platform that centralized all data on terrorist groups in the Strip on one platform that enabled the analysis and extraction of the intelligence.
“For the first time, a multidisciplinary center was created that produces hundreds of targets relevant to developments in the fighting, allowing the military to continue to fight as long as it needs to with more and more new targets,” a senior officer said at the time.
While the IDF had gathered thousands of targets in the densely populated coastal enclave over the past two years, hundreds were gathered in real time thanks to programs developed by soldiers in Unit 8200 who pioneered algorithms and code.
Troops from Maj. M.’s unit were sent to the Gaza Division to help soldiers and commanders understand all the data they had been given.
The military believes that using AI helped shorten the length of the fighting, having been effective and quick in gathering targets using super-cognition.
And in the North, using innovative intelligence and advanced technology, the IDF’s target bank in the Northern Command is 20 times larger than the target bank the military had in 2006, with thousands of targets ready to be attacked, including headquarters, strategic assets and weapons storehouses.
In addition to AI being used to gather intelligence and targets, the IDF is also using more robotic platforms and drones along its borders.
“We want our borders to be smart and deadly. Instead of putting troops at risk, we can deploy a semiautonomous vehicle with sensors and cameras to do the same job,” Maj. M said. “But there’s always a person sitting in the command room operating it.”
And while troops did not maneuver inside Gaza during the fighting in May, “future battlefields will see troops on the front lines with all the data they need in real time, such as what weapons they need to hit targets, who will support them, and more” Maj. M. said.
Along with the IDF, Israeli defense companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have also been pioneering AI technology for years.
“IT’S BEEN the buzzword for the past few years; everyone is using it,” Dr. Irit Idan, executive VP, R & D, Rafael, told the Post.
While only recently has it been in the spotlight, AI has been around since the 1950s, Idan explained.
“It’s not something new, but there are waves where we see several jumps in capabilities,” she said.
The first wave, from the 1950s to the 2000s, laid down the rules that are still being used today, but intelligence was gathered in a fairly simple manner. The second wave, from 2000 to 2020, dealt with machine learning and statistical intelligence, but the machine was unable to explain how it arrived at a connection or answer.
Idan said that we are now in the third wave, where companies want the machine to explain the rules that it is using to make the decision.
“It’s very important to be able to explain the decision-making; because if you want to rely on the machine’s decision and base your action on AI, you have to really understand why it says what it says,” she said, adding that “it’s very important for the civilian market, but even more important in the defense industry and on the battlefield.”
With “a lot of challenges remaining” in this third wave, Idan told the Post that there are some places where there are no humans involved, although people will still need to be in the loop for most decisions.
Using the examples of two well-known Rafael systems that use AI, the Iron Dome and Windbreaker, Idan said that time is a crucial aspect.
“A shell launched towards a tank from a short distance and the system needs to identify the launch, what kind of shell was launched, and destroy it within a few seconds. No human brain can do that in the few seconds that you have between the launch and the hit,” she said. “We have to rely on the AI in the system.”
But with the Iron Dome there’s a bit more time involved, and therefore a human is involved in the decision-making process.
“And that’s what we are going to see in the coming year, where man and machine work together and know their strengths and weaknesses and how to get the best result,” Idan added.
“We have our hands on the pulse on what’s going on across the world in AI,” Idan said, explaining that Rafael uses AI for both civilian and military needs.
Pointing to companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook, Idan said that the “AI market is worth billions of dollars, and it is all based on data. And whoever has the data leads AI.”
Citing the examples of China and Russia, Maj. M said that “the IDF wants AI superiority; we want to be quicker, more precise, effective, and not at a high cost.”
According to Idan, while Israel is a groundbreaker in the field, China is a leader in AI “because there are no regulations” in China when it comes to such technology.
Russia is also at the forefront, and in 2017 Russian President Vladamir Putin said that “artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind.... Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
As technology continues to break barriers, AI will continue to be the buzzword, both in the military and in civilian spheres around the world. 
And Israel and the IDF will continue to aim for AI superiority.