'It goes out there hot off the line to save lives'

Shield of Israel: At evacuated Kibbutz Sasa, an armor factory toils to protect troops

Despite orders to leave the Lebanon border, Plasan employees work around the clock to create and deploy innovative solutions in real time, as the IDF battles on multiple fronts

  • The Plasan production line at Kibbutz Sasa. (Courtesy)
    The Plasan production line at Kibbutz Sasa. (Courtesy)
  • An Israeli soldier stands guard in front of an armored vehicle during an operation in the West Bank town of Hebron on June 17, 2014. (Photo by HAZEM BADER /AFP)
    An Israeli soldier stands guard in front of an armored vehicle during an operation in the West Bank town of Hebron on June 17, 2014. (Photo by HAZEM BADER /AFP)
  • Plasan director of design Nir Kahn. (Courtesy of Plasan)
    Plasan director of design Nir Kahn. (Courtesy of Plasan)

Just two miles from Israel’s border with Lebanon, the Plasan armor factory at the abandoned Kibbutz Sasa hums with activity, as hundreds of employees work around the clock to protect IDF soldiers and their vehicles.

Residents of the kibbutz have long been evacuated — along with residents of other northern communities — after 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were brutally murdered in southern Israel and another 240 were abducted by Hamas-led terrorists on October 7, threatening the stability of Israel’s borders and leading to increasingly heated skirmishes with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.

Plasan staff members are working harder than ever despite frequent rocket attacks — an anti-tank guided missile scored a direct hit on the kibbutz’s school auditorium on December 17 — and having to take refuge in safe rooms.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas onslaught, the company ramped up production of much-needed body armor plates for bulletproof vests, Plasan’s core product when it was founded in 1985. Since then, the company’s focus has shifted to bolt-on armor kits for military vehicles — a sector in which it is a world leader.

“The IDF and the Defense Ministry came to us and said we need as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” said Nir Kahn, the company’s director of design.

The company got the production line working again and has since supplied “tens of thousands” of body armor plates to the IDF and other security forces in Israel, Kahn said.

Plasan director of design Nir Kahn. (Courtesy of Plasan)

Plasan also handed over all the armored vehicles it had in stock as a matter of urgency, and set about increasing 24/7 production of the SandCat Tigris — a military version of the Ford F-Series commercial truck.

In addition, it is now providing a round-the-clock spares and maintenance service to ensure all its vehicles are mission-ready.

But the real sense of pride at Plasan is over its development of new products to meet the emerging needs of the IDF in the theater of war.

“We see our products being used on the news every night,” said Kahn. “And we know that it’s something hot off the line that’s gone straight out there, saving lives, that it’s involved in bringing the hostages home, and it’s doing good work out there — and that’s incredibly motivating.”

Kahn cannot share any details. Much of what Plasan does is shrouded in secrecy. That is the nature of the military hardware business.

Gilad Ariav, vice president of marketing and business development at Plasan. (Courtesy of Plasan)

“If there’s anything that needs a very special solution, or design, or thinking of out of the box, we are the place to go,” said Gilad Ariav, vice president of marketing and business development at Plasan.

“You’re always prepared for the last war, you try to prepare for the next war, but there are always surprises and the enemy is thinking outside the box — so once the battle starts, you face new challenges that you didn’t expect before or you didn’t expect in that magnitude,” he said.

In some cases, said Ariav, what the IDF needs is something that Plasan has already developed as a product and just needs validating for soldiers to use, while in others the army faces a very particular challenge and seeks the company’s help in finding a solution.

“We’ve been building stuff we had already, we ramped up production, we’ve been getting out of the door as fast as we possibly can,” said Kahn. “But what’s certainly in engineering and design, what’s kept us busy the last couple of months, is developing new stuff.”

Plasan’s SandCat Tigris. (Courtesy)

Kahn said that during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Plasan’s role was to design vehicles and solutions for the American and British militaries in real-time, as the conflicts unfolded — and that it felt very much like a personal mission to protect those soldiers.

“Now we’re highly motivated because it’s close to home,” he said. “This is the first time in my 22 years in Plasan that I’ve really felt, on the home market, that we’re coming in in the morning and that everything we do matters.”

“We’re creating solutions that are going to be out in the field very, very quickly,” he said. “We obviously can’t go into details about what any of that is. But we’re developing new products for the IDF based on urgent requirements and based on threats that are being seen.”

It was back in the early 1990s in response to the First Intifada that Plasan expanded from protecting people to protecting vehicles.

The company pioneered a way of armoring vehicles that was just as effective as the traditional solution — essentially a welded steel box — but significantly lighter, cheaper, more adaptable, and quicker to produce.

Plasan takes the chassis of existing production vehicles and designs bolt-on panels using a variety of specialist materials to withstand bullets, bombs and improvised explosive devices.

“We looked at it like an IKEA wardrobe, instead of as a welded steel box,” said Kahn.

The success of the mold-breaking approach is clear. The US military is incorporating Plasan’s armor into the 150,000-strong fleet of new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs) that is currently replacing its all-purpose Hummers and jeeps.

And Plasan has a wide range of clients across the globe. The current war means it needs to juggle its domestic duties with its obligations to others abroad. But the ongoing war in Gaza presents its own challenges.

The Plasan production line at Kibbutz Sasa. (Courtesy)

“I was on a flight to the US for an exhibition in Washington,” said Ariav. “I hit the ground on the night of October 7 in JFK, did a U-turn, and came straight back to Israel.”

He returned not to Plasan, but to reserve duty in the IDF — along with as much as 20 percent of the company’s workforce, which has also been called up.

Most remaining employees at Plasan are on-site. Those working on the production line obviously cannot take their work home, while those in design and other roles are able to work remotely, but generally choose not to.

That is despite the evacuation of the 400-strong population of the kibbutz, who have had to abandon the kiwi, apple, avocado, and grapefruit crops they were growing.

Evacuating the Plasan premises remains an unwelcome possibility, if Hezbollah escalates its activities in Lebanon.

“It all depends on the severity of the situation up in the north,” said Ariav. “And we have a plan for that — a backup facility to make sure that we continue the work.”

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