IDF sees move south as way to rebrand as tech giant

The military is using the relocation of units to the Negev to recast its image, and forecasts benefits from cross-pollination with Ben-Gurion University and local startups

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An IDF C4I Corps soldier monitors for hacker activity (Photo credit: Courtesy)
An IDF C4I Corps soldier monitors for hacker activity (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Forget about army bases, rifles and tanks. The talk in the IDF these days is all about campuses, ecosystems and tablets.

Indeed, as the army prepares for the massive move of many of its units to the southern city of Beersheba — as part of a multi-year plan to streamline and digitalize the giant institution — it is using the logistical campaign to spruce up its game as well. Banished is the image of a large, autocratic war machine. Enter a fast-moving, tech-led organization with super-smart digs.

All of this is meant to make sure, among other things, that the best and the brightest of its minds stay within the army ranks, rather than get lured away by the fat salaries tech giants are offering in the civilian market.

The soldiers to be transferred to Israel’s south “are the startup nation people. Our tech people — our tech front,” Lt. Col. Itai Sagi told The Times of Israel. Sagi is responsible for setting up what the army calls its “tech campus in Beersheba,” which will be the new home of the computer services directorate, also known as C4i, and the Cyber Defense Directorate in the south. The tech units are the most significant part of the IDF’s relocation to Beersheba.

Lt. Col. Itai Sagi, the head of the department responsible for the setting up of the C4i and Cyber Defense Directorate technological branch in the south (Courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The move, Sagi said, is an opportunity to revamp the IDF itself, to examine “our organizational structure, what needs to be changed.”

“We look at our changing work environment — how do we focus, become more efficient? What are the jobs I should license out, because I don’t have a competitive advantage there? How do I create a smart tech environment around me that makes me more efficient?” he asked. “We want to move to a new concept and new environment.”

His soldiers, he said, are his “high-tech future,” and while it is difficult to compete with the draw of civilian firms, the aim of the new campus is to do just that: to help the IDF hold on to its brightest minds by “creating an environment that is much more advanced than what we have today.”

With Israel’s startup scene flourishing and multinationals setting up research and development centers, a shortage of engineers is heating up the competition for skilled personnel, with companies offering higher and higher salaries to recruit talent.

Earlier this month, the competition for this talent came to a peak as Israeli entrepreneurs virtually wrestled with Amazon, accusing it of poaching their workers.

Illustrative. IDF soldiers from the C4I Corps work in a command and control center. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

A reliable pool of skills that fuels the so-called “startup nation” has traditionally come from the army, which recruits most 18-year-old female and male citizens for a compulsory two-to-three-years of service and allocates them to combat or other units, including intelligence and tech units.

After intensive training, these soldiers are put in highly sensitive, secret and responsible jobs, developing and using cutting-edge technologies. After their service, some stay on to become career soldiers while others are either snapped up by high-tech corporations or set up their own startups.

But with a shortage of skilled workers hampering Israel’s high-tech industry, competition with the civilian world has heated up and the IDF struggles to retain its soldiers. Tech giants offer higher salaries and superlative work conditions — from gyms to food halls and music rooms — to make sure their workers are happy, and, most importantly, stay put. The IDF can’t compete with the salaries. But it emphasizes the impact soldiers can make on the country’s security and the wide variety of real, interesting, responsible jobs they will be undertaking within the army.

The IDF’s new tech “campus” in Beersheba, construction of which will start next year, is planned to have smart and energy efficient buildings with lighting and air-conditioning that goes off and on automatically. Soldiers will be able to access the base with a swipe of their smart card and through facial recognition, just like workers at a tech firm would expect to do. They will also be alerted via an app as to where their next meeting will be held, “just as smart cities have,” Sagi said, outlining his vision for the site.

Illustration of the IDF’s Beersheba tech campus (Courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“I am talking of technologies that are common in the civilian world, not something futuristic. They exist, but for us in the army this is a significant piece of news. Because we are taking a step that hasn’t been taken for decades and I don’t know if a similar step will be taken in decades to come.”

The campus is also expected to become a catalyst for a local technological ecosystem, Sagi explained. The proximity of the army facility to the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the surrounding technology parks, which have started to house startups and more-developed tech firms, will help increase the interaction between the soldiers, army projects, academic researchers and tech industries, so each can feed off the others’ experiences.

True, he admits, the campus, being an army base, will be fenced off and closed to visitors. But the “walking distance” to the university and the startups will enable army programmers to pop over to a university class to complete their degree studies when their day’s work is done; they could also drop by a startup, during the workday, to develop something together.

“We and the academia and the high-tech firms will have huge amounts of synergies — we can gain a lot from this,” he said. This kind of collaboration with tech firms and academia is already happening, of course. But the physical closeness that the move to Beersheba will foster “will be much better than what we have today,” he said. It is “very, very significant and will open up a lot of opportunities.”

Cadets in the IDF’s C4I programmers course. Most are still men (Courtesy: IDF)

One major hurdle the IDF faces, though, is getting its personnel to agree to relocate their families away from familiar surroundings in the center of the country to the Negev desert and Beersheba. The city, which is now enjoying a comeback thanks to the planned IDF move and the tech ecosystem that it is fostering, was once perceived as a failed development town of immigrants living in drug-infested neighborhoods.

“It is a significant challenge and a question of faith,” said Sagi, who studied electrical engineering at the Ben-Gurion University between 1996 and 1999. “It is not a question of will we succeed. We must succeed. Otherwise, it’s not that people won’t come, but fewer good people will come. We have to fill our ranks with the best people because this is our main resource, this is our competitive advantage.”

For this purpose the IDF, the Defense Ministry and the municipality of Beersheba are making sure there are incentives and housing plans in place, including kindergartens and schools, when the officers and their families arrive. “We are looking at all the aspects,” Sagi said.

And if all works as it should, Sagi said, then both the IDF and the biblical city founded by Abraham will thrive.

That process is already underway. Earlier this month Ikea, the Swedish flat-pack furniture behemoth, announced it is setting up a store in Beersheba.

An illustration of the IDF’s tech campus in Beersheba (Courtesy IDF Spokesperson Unit)

“At the end of the day, more companies are coming (to Beersheba) and companies follow one another,” he said.  The “thousands” of servicemen that are scheduled to arrive to the area will create a whole new dynamic for the city, he added.

Sagi’s vision is in sharp contrast to research published by the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that said the impact of the move on the local residents will actually be minor (see separate story).

But Sagi insisted that this exodus to the south fulfills the dream of the nation’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, who pushed for populating the vast Negev desert.

“I am proud that the army will be spearheading this initiative,” he said. “The move is not just a major logistic event, but an Israeli social happening,” he said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed