War is still hell, but it helps to have some cutting-edge tools to navigate your way around in it. Consider, for example, a scenario from what could be a typical future battle engagement for the IDF: A soldier is carrying out a mission in Gaza, but instead of having to rely on a combination of rumor, instinct, and possibly inaccurate intelligence, as is the situation now, he can see satellite images of what’s going on behind a wall or inside a building.
“Right now, soldiers on missions in places like Gaza have to remember directions and rely on radio contact to navigate, taking great chances and hoping they don’t run into terrorists,” said Lt. Col. Eric (last name withheld for security reasons), chief technology officer of the IDF’s Lotem C4i Technological Division. “Imagine equipping soldiers with a device like Google Glass, which will let them see via video what is happening three kilometers ahead.”
Glass is Google’s new wearable head-mounted computer that allows users to connect to the Internet using voice commands, and displays videos, information, and images directly in the eye of the user. Google Glass is a going concern and is set to be widely distributed by the company next year. With a Glass-like device, said Eric, “soldiers will be able to reduce their risks significantly, and be able to more successfully carry out missions.”
As CTO of Lotem, the IDF’s Computer and Information Technologies unit, Eric is the man in charge of implementing new technologies for the IDF, peering at future technologies that will likely help the army defend the country from the plethora of threats it faces.
If Israel plays its cards right, it could use the new high-tech warfare methods it’s developing to bring an end to the terror threat that has plagued the country for decades, Eric said — bringing an era of unprecedented peace to a country that has known war all too well.
The world, and Israel along with it, is moving towards a high-tech future faster than anyone could have anticipated just a few short years ago. And as the country’s front-line of defense, the IDF is leading that move into the future, Eric told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview at Lotem headquarters in central Israel. “The IDF is a very high-tech army, and technology has a great deal of influence on how we face our problems,” he said. “We approach it from both directions. We look at the technology available, and under development, and try to imagine scenarios where it will be useful, and we look at the problems we face and try to find technologies to solve them.”
For example: New technologies such as augmented reality will be very useful for training soldiers, with exercises taking place in a closed area, allowing soldiers to take on virtual foes without using ammunition. “You could have soldiers in an enclosed space that mocks a battlefield, allowing them to shoot at targets and undertake missions virtually,” said Eric. “They get the benefit of full field training, while saving the risks of a training accident. And the army saves the cost of having to deploy manpower and equipment in the field, an important prospect in an era of massive budget cuts.” Of course, soldiers still need field training, and they will still get it even when AR training is implemented, said Eric, but virtual training will play an important role too.
AR, virtual cameras that scan the battlefield and provide field soldiers with intelligence, and much more, are the kinds of issue that Eric, along with the soldiers serving in Lotem, are researching on a daily basis. “We are the biggest security organization in the country, with thousands of people from engineering, math, information technology, and other areas working with us. We enroll soldiers from within the IDF, from academic institutions, and from among promising IDF draftees,” said Eric. Lotem’s headquarters are currently outside Tel Aviv, although the unit is set to move to Beersheba, where it will be housed in a new IDF facility dedicated to tech research.
Eric ticks off a long list of responsibilities he and his charges have undertaken — chief among them keeping the IDF at the forefront of technological advances. “We look at vectors like communications, big data, disaster recovery, security, data redundancy, and much more. We check out technologies that are already on the market and those that will be in the future, and we examine how they can help us better defend the country.”
For example, big data is a big topic in the corporate world today, and the IDF is looking at big-data strategies as well, said Eric. “The plethora of data is a boon, but also a problem, in many industries, not only defense. We have satellites and sensors all over the place now that are streaming reams of data to servers. How do we make sense of this information, culling the data that will help us fulfill our missions?” One problem with big-data analysis that is more prominent in defense than in civilian life is the need for speed. “While on a mission, soldiers need to know immediately if they are facing danger,” said Eric.
“The data may show that there is something to be concerned about, or even that a terrorist is lurking, but if we can’t dig deeply and quickly enough, that data is not going to do us any good,” Eric said. A related issue is cloud security; all that data is being sent wirelessly, to and from satellites and command centers. Ensuring that that data is secure is a concern in enterprise, of course — billions of dollars are at stake — but ensuring the security of data in the IDF’s cloud is a matter of life and death. “Secure communications are a part of the picture as well, and we research the latest in communication security and problems on a constant basis,” he said.
Although the IDF has the same concerns as does government and enterprise, the stakes are much higher – and failure is not an option. That’s one reason why the IDF – mostly through Lotem – develops its own applications and end-user products for use by soldiers. “Certainly, defense and security applications are all developed in-house,” said Eric; that’s what his unit is there for. Lotem also develops some of its own communications protocols, although the army relies on hardware and devices from large companies.
“We also use infrastucture applications, like databases, from the outside.” There’s no reason for the IDF to build database technology from scratch, said Eric, just as there is no reason for it to develop its own general purpose hardware, like computers and servers. “Of course, we check to make sure the equipment we get is secure,” and that it is up to the standards of the army and of Lotem.
Ensuring security is also the reason why, when he has the option, Eric chooses products and technologies from Israeli companies. “In some cases we need to import products for various reasons, such as fulfilling our obligations to use US military aid to purchase materials and technology from US companies,” he said. With that, he said, the IDF has been able to take many of the items it acquires from the US and “upgrade” them, bringing them up to the often-stricter tech standards of the IDF.
One area that greatly concerns Lotem, said Eric, is user experience. “Keep in mind that the IDF is largely a reserve army, so we need to ensure that soldiers who come in for several weeks a year or who are drafted from civilian life during national emergencies are able to slip into their roles with a minimum of training. I see games as an important aspect of the user experience, and we study them to determine the best way to allow soldiers to interact with our technology,” said Eric. “Other technologies, like augmented reality and perceptual computing, will make interacting with technology more natural, obviating the need for peripherals like keyboards and mice.” In an era of touch screens, the army needs to keep up to ensure that soldiers interact with technology in as familiar a way as possible.
In an era where (at least for now) Israel’s neighbors – specifically Egypt and Syria, the two main instigators of war against Israel – are clearly in no shape to fight the IDF, it would seem that Israel’s biggest security worry is currently electronic warfare, in the form of cyber-attacks by hackers working for anti-Israel hacktivist groups, or on behalf of foreign governments. Eric agrees that such attacks are a major threat, but he does not believe that traditional battlefield warfare is a thing of the past.
“We are definitely in the midst of a major cyberwar, and the country has developed some good defenses,” said Eric. But in the end, when it comes to war, you are going to need boots on the ground. A war could begin with a major cyber-attack, or a major air bombing, for example, as was the case in Gaza last year. But in the end, the troops needed to go in,” in order to quell the constant shelling of southern Israel by terror groups. The same holds true for Israel’s electronic warfare efforts; technology is useful up to a certain point, Eric said, but war will always remain war.
However, the IDF’s tech efforts may have an impact on one security issue that has plagued Israel for decades – the spread of terrorism in places like Gaza. Using some of the technologies Lotem is preparing for the soldier of tomorrow – such as the aforementioned Google Glass-type apps – IDF soldiers will be able to much more easily eliminate terror squads, even in crowded places like Gaza. “With these technologies there really is nowhere to hide,” said Eric.
Although he does not minimize the dangers to Israel from conventional – and unconventional – warfare, Eric said that the IDF must be prepared to face another kind of war. “Our biggest security threat comes not from a state, but from terror groups. We have not had a traditional war since 1982, during the first Lebanon war. Today’s enemy is unseen, small, and lithe, and unlike in the past, his objectives are small too; terrorists do not believe they can destroy Israel, but they do believe that with successful terror attacks they can lower our morale and our will to fight.
“It’s not a war between armies, it’s a war between terrorists and citizens,” said Eric. But when terrorists see that we have taken away their biggest advantages – the anonymity of the crowd, the ability to hide themselves among the population – they will quickly realize that their tactics are outmoded and won’t work anymore. Could high-tech warfare bring an end to terrorism? I certainly hope so.”