Training the next generation of Israeli ‘cyber warriors’

Lt.-Col. Yaniv Ossi, commander of the computing school that trains hitech soldiers, talks of the threats and intentions to work more closely with academia to retain Israel’s qualitative edge.

IDF computing school (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF computing school
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
In 1958 the IDF decided to acquire its first computer, a Philco 2000 Model 211. It was the size of a room.
“There was a debate over whether they should get a computer or build a new runway,” recalls Lt.-Col. Yaniv Ossi, the commander of the IDF’s elite cyber computing school. At the time, computing was a new technology. Philco, a San Francisco-based company, claimed its system could sort and process a ream of paper filled with data in 18 minutes. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, then-deputy chief of the General Staff and director-general of the Defense Ministry respectively, both supported the acquisition and saw that the future was in computing.
In those early days the IDF’s computing capability was entrusted to just a handful of soldiers, who often had to cart punch cards back and forth from the computer room in Ramat Gan to IDF headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
Today the IDF is “arguably one of the most computerized armies in the world,” wrote Stacy Perman in her book Spies Inc.: Business Innovation from Israel’s Masters of Intelligence. That was in 2005. Since then the IDF’s expertise in computers and technology has mushroomed. This often gains attention in the media for how the IDF’s tech expertise has influenced the country’s hi-tech boom or the “Start-Up Nation” as Dan Senor and Saul Singer termed it in their 2009 book. Today no one in the IDF questions the choice of whether to build a new airfield or acquire new technology. A ransomware attack known as WannaCry that harmed more than 200,000 computers worldwide in early May illustrated once again how important Israel’s defenses against cyber attacks are.
Along an unassuming residential street in Tel Aviv is the Basmach (IDF Academy for Computer Science and Cyber Defense). Behind the sleepy exterior and bland buildings that look like they were built in the 1980s is the beating heart of the IDF’s investment in the next generation of cyber technology.
“To deal with threats, the chief of staff [Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot] decided that, just as you have fighting platforms in the air, water and land, there is cyber,” says Ossi. Cyber is the new frontier because unlike the land, water or air, which are unchanging elements, technology is always changing. This is the mantra of the IDF and the army is devoting significant resources to training computer programmers, cyber security defenders and network administrators.
Like the United States, which created a Cyber Command in 2009, the IDF realizes the cyber front and all its associated technological applications throughout the army, navy and air force is a key to the future.
“Our school here is not on its own. Our army is very technological and the school is part of a larger idea,” says Ossi. He says the IDF has gone through a revolution during the last decade. This affects all aspects of new technology, including cyber defense and intelligence gathering, such as Aman (the Directorate of Military Intelligence).
“Everything is IT and technology,” says Ossi.
Listening to the IDF’s devotion to technology as a kind of revolution is a reminder of the last great technological revolution in the army, often called the “revolution in military affairs.” This gained prominence after the 1991 Gulf War, when the US Army’s technology outpaced that of the Iraqi Army, negating its massive size and leading to its total destruction with a low loss of life on the US side.
The Iraqis lost some 3,700 tanks, while the US-led coalition lost 31. The idea learned from 1991 was that technology would not only change the precision targeting and guidance of weapons like missiles and smart bombs, but also revolutionize communications, logistics and provide soldiers with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), robotics, satellite imaging and other advanced weapons.
“We even change the way they fight, because the technology gives us the ability to do so. We protect the technology, which is a significant tool on the field of battle, so if we give it to a commander, it must be protected. So, for instance, are all the elements he receives, such as robots, drones, tablets, all the tech that shows you where your soldiers are located,” explains Ossi. Something as simple as distributing tablet-style computers to officers, is part of this new revolution that changes the entire battlefield.
To get to the point where the IDF can pioneer new technologies and manage a battlefield that is increasingly technological requires a large number of soldiers proficient in computer science. The academy for computer science offers several courses. It doesn’t provide the exact numbers of soldiers it selects every year.
The priority is to find soldiers who can be programmers and write and develop code. Those who studied computer science in high school or have high cognitive skills are selected for a six-month course.
“They know how to deal with complex situations and information – those who know how to analyze by themselves and in teamwork and don’t need me to supervise all the time; those who are good at working under pressure,” says Ossi.
Only some 15% to 20% pass the rigorous selection tests. Ossi says thousands of applicants want to get into the unit.
For Ossi, the major revolution began especially after 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Commanders increasingly know precisely where and how to destroy the vehicle that fired the rockets and target the person responsible.
For the programmers who want in, what follows is a course that begins at breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and lasts until 10 at night. The day is spent studying and working on projects, with a short break for lunch.
“We teach them just what is practical,” asserts Ossi. The concept is to provide recruits with the precise tools for their marketplace – in this case not Silicon Valley, but the air force, army, navy, or other units that gather intelligence, such as Battalion 8200, the IDF’s Combat Intelligence Unit.
The unit is into open source IoT (Internet of Things) platforms and not re-inventing the wheel, but borrowing and using what works.
“I take what already exists outside the army and make it our own,” says Ossi. He understands these needs, because he studied engineering at Tel Aviv University and IT in the army. He was a technology officer and in Mamram working hands-on and learning about human resources.
If the programmers are like the elite pilots of the tech field, the army still needs to march on its stomach just as in the time of Napoleon. To keep tech marching requires system and network administrators who were also trained at the academy. In addition, the entire system requires cyber defense.
Ossi compares this to sitting in your house and seeing the trees suddenly moving suspiciously in your garden. Someone has to monitor the trees around the network. A four-month course prepares soldiers to monitor for vulnerabilities in the IDF’s system. All of the courses require soldiers to sign on for more service, which can add an additional two and a half years to their military careers.
From the army’s perspective, they are investing major resources in these programs and having the soldiers “exit” into the hi-tech world rather that remaining in uniform is a major loss. In addition, the academy provides retraining and ongoing education for those who have already been through the programs.
“You need to keep learning platforms and we bring people back here to keep learning, so they can all understand the resources. We always want to be cuttingedge and up-to-date,” says Ossi.
TO SEE some of the actual training, we toured several levels of the academy building. Soldiers exiting a classroom seemed to be celebrating someone’s birthday. Maj. Cohen, after shushing the soldiers, invited us into his office.
“The nation builds the army, which builds the nation,” he says. As did Ossi, he describes an army that is part of the “ecosystem” of Israeli society. Unlike foreign militaries, it can’t just recruit specifically for one task. It takes a crosssection of society, which he insists is represented throughout the IDF’s cyber components.
Cohen opens a computer screen with a series of building blocks that show how students progress from learning the basics of C, a programming language, to programming paradigms like OOP, and other languages such as Java, CSS, HTML, and Python.
Cohen opens a few games that programmers have built that have a basis in the real world. One models rockets fired from Gaza and their interceptions by the IDF. For example, since the Iron Dome missile-defense system doesn’t intercept rockets that are not likely to land in civilian areas, the game challenges the player to intercept those that do. For Cohen, this is a real-world experience.
“I live in Ashkelon, so there you have the rockets and Iron Dome.”
When most people hear technology and the IDF, they often think of secret and highly classified operations. They might have seen the 2016 documentary Zero Days, which looked at the Stuxnet virus and includes many claims about Israel’s role in creating the malware that wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. These media stories about Israel’s hi-tech successes often focus on unit 8200.
Forbes called 8200 “Israel’s secret start-up machine,” whose veterans have gone on to found successful businesses, such as venture-capital firms. Ossi says that “it all begins here.” According to him, programmers and technicians are trained at the academy before being posted to the other storied units.
Their education also seeks to impart values, such as the purity of arms and professional ethics. “So we don’t take things we aren’t supposed to, or use it for things we aren’t supposed to,” Ossi says. The IDF won’t comment on any kind of offensive applications of its cyber technology.
Ossi is also cognizant of the role that the school has in Israeli society. “I am in touch with the Education Ministry about influencing the training in high schools,” he explains.
“I want to influence the academic world. I know what I need and what they need, so I am also in touch with the industrial sector and the engineers. We need that in the country – those who exit at the top influence the economy of Israel and we are part of that. We are not alone.”