You can’t shake a stick in Israel’s technology scene without hitting a graduate of the IDF’s famous Unit 8200, which has produced CEOs and CTOs of some of the world’s most successful tech and cyber-security firms. All of those soldiers passed through the IDF Computing and Cyber Defense Academy, which runs dozens of courses for the many tech needs of the modern Israeli army.
“The Israeli army faces challenges large and small, from the sakin to the gar’in” — threats ranging from stabbing attacks to nuclear weapons, according to Major Dor Cohen, head of the programming section of the Academy.
There is today one common denominator that powers all of the army’s defensive efforts, he said.
“It’s fair to say that technology is the basic building block of any defense effort these days, large or small,” said Cohen.
“Programming, cyber-defense tactics, app development, and other technology are the backbone of all parts of the IDF today, from systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling that defend against missile attacks to programs that can quickly issue deployment orders and ensure that soldiers and reservists get where they need to be quickly to ensuring that supplies, parts, personnel, and everything else arrives where it is supposed to. I’m proud to say that the academy is ground zero for the training of the personnel needed to master the technology to do this.”
Part of the Lotem IT Division in the C4I Corps, the academy hosts dozens of courses at its campus, including, for example, Shahar, the tech-oriented “little brother” of the much more well-known Nahal Hareidi program, which deploys ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the field, on patrols and in combat duty.
The Programming division teaches students basic and advanced knowledge in computer languages, app development, cyber-security, firewalls, hacking projects – anything needed to navigate the world of programming and networks, with the objective to quickly, neatly, and effectively deploy systems that help protect Israel.
Speed of response is one of the important skills taught, said Cohen. “We learned this all too well in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, when things changed minute to minute. In most organizations you have levels of administration and approval that require supervisors to sign off on projects, and the process could take weeks. Cyber-threats and other matters came up throughout the war, and we needed to respond within hours.”
In addition, apps are becoming increasingly important in the IDF, said Cohen. “Everyone today carries around in their pocket a super-sophisticated computer that can be used to provide directions, information, warnings, and other vital information. There is no reason not to use these devices and their capabilities in defending Israelis. Of course, the apps and the system have to be secure.”
In February, the Academy sponsored a hackathon in which hundreds of soldiers developed apps and technologies that could respond to the issues faced by soldiers in the field. “Our courses teach programmers to develop apps using secure technologies the IDF has developed,” said Cohen. “There is a great demand throughout the various forces for these apps, and we get many requests for solutions using these devices.”
One of the greatest challenges Cohen faces is finding the personnel to fill the growing number of programming jobs throughout the IDF. “As everyone knows, there are not enough kids studying math and science in high schools, and we are part of the effort to encourage more students to take on those subjects,” said Cohen. “But we don’t strictly rely on the educational system to produce the candidates we need. We review the records of IDF recruits and check their aptitudes, and if we find a likely candidate we lobby them to join our program.”
According to Cohen, his program can take recruits who know almost nothing about computers or programming and turn them into programmers with very good to excellent skills.
Of course, a lot of hard work goes into creating programmers “from scratch” – both on the part of the candidates themselves and on the part of Cohen’s staff. Fortunately, they are up to the task, he said.
“Many of the teachers in the program are themselves graduates, very highly motivated – enough to remain in the army and to help develop the new generation of programmers instead of going into private enterprise.”
And although many highly motivated young Israelis prefer service in combat units, there’s plenty of action – and prestige – in the army’s programming and cyber units, said Cohen. “Our soldiers don’t fight in the field in the same way Golani and Givati unit soldiers fight, but they are engaged in extremely important defense projects.Tech is now the basis of warfare. Without our people, the army cannot move an inch.”