IDF winning the war with big data

Matzpen tech unit recognized for key role during Operation Protective Edge, ensuring troops got to the Gaza front quickly and efficiently

Matzpen commander Col. Avner Ziv (R) receives an award on behalf of his unit from former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, January 15, 2015 (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Matzpen commander Col. Avner Ziv (R) receives an award on behalf of his unit from former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, January 15, 2015 (Photo credit: Courtesy)

More than ever, war and defense are big data operations, which makes the IDF’s Matzpen unit one of the army’s most important, according to Colonel Avner Ziv, the unit’s commander.

“In the past, wars were slow and precise, so control was a long, planned out process,” said Ziv. “With today’s technology, things can change in an instant, so an army has to be agile and ready to implement changes in strategy and objectives in an instant.”

It’s not just Ziv that holds that opinion. Barely a year and a half old, Matzpen has won three IDF tech and achievement prizes for its work, which was judged by top army staff as “indispensable” to the IDF’s successful operations, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said at a recent prize presentation. “The work done by Matzpen was an important factor in the success the IDF had during Operation Protective Edge last summer.”

Looking into the crystal ball

Part of the IDF’s Lotem C4i Technological Division – the army’s technology department – Matzpen, first formed in 2013, has developed many of the important logistic and defense software components that were used in recent IDF operations. Among the systems developed for and used during Operation Protective Edge, for example, was Crystal Ball, which gathers large amounts of data from numerous sources and puts it all on a single screen, where senior officers can pick and choose information for further analysis.

The unit also developed a system that allows officers to quickly contact soldiers in the field, and reserve soldiers who need to be called up quickly, as well as Tzayad, a GPS-based system that lets commanders know the exact location of soldiers, as well as the terrain and environmental conditions in the area.

Those solutions, as well as the others Ziv could not talk about because of security restrictions, are all based on big data – so a large part of the work done by the unit consists of building big data processing systems that can handle large amounts of information flowing in from sensors, computer screens, field units and other sources. The unit develops end-user applications for PCs, tablets and other personal devices, and for specialized IDF communications equipment.

Matzpen programmers write routines that take advantage of all that information in order to deploy command and control systems for IDF units, providing up to the second instructions about the location of enemy targets, changes in the environment, and other dangers that soldiers need to be aware of, said Ziv.

“The enemy keeps improving his capabilities, so we have to keep pace and stay a step ahead,” Ziv said. “Like in the rest of society today, big data is remaking war. Fortunately, we have a good pool of soldiers with a strong background in the skills needed to do this kind of work.”

“Today, almost everything a soldier carries in the field includes a sensor and a communication component, enabling officers to see what is happening, and that means there is a lot of data to process and make sense of,” Ziv continued. “Among the things we do is process that data to come up with recommendations on how to best deploy troops, or ways to improve their tactical position. And, we can anticipate problems before they happen, based on the trends that the data presents.”

Mobilizing the troops

Besides battle information, Matzpen’s systems help the army with deployment, internal communications and leveraging personnel to ensure that the right people are in the right place at the right time.

“Moving people and equipment from one place to another — thousands of soldiers, vehicles, food supplies, etc. — when there is an emergency could be a logistical nightmare,” said Ziv. “There is no question that wars have been lost in the world because of disorganization, so we see logistics as a very important part of our mission.”

This was one of the missions Matzpen was given in Operation Protective Edge. The weeks leading up to the beginning of the operation on July 7 of last year were fraught with tension, with many IDF soldiers called up, first to search for missing Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, and then to deal with the aftermath of massive Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel.

As those events were taking place, software was analyzing data on Hamas positions in Gaza, as well as helping coordinate the search for the teens. When the government finally decided on a full-scale operation, Matzpen’s software ensured that soldiers were called up, equipped and deployed within hours.

“In the old days all this would be done by phone, with a battery of people in a logistics center doing the coordinating,” said Ziv. “What we do is much more efficient.”

It’s that efficiency and effectiveness that has won Matzpen numerous awards – the most recent just last week, when it won the prize for technological achievement for 2014 for its work during the Gaza operation. The award was presented by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who praised the work done by the unit. The prize is the third one the unit has received in the year and a half it has been in existence.

If there is anything that worries Ziv, it is ensuring a steady supply of the math and science-savvy kids who make up the bulk of Matzpen’s personnel.

“I think we need to do better in recruiting from the entire population, not just for their sake, but for ours – because we are probably missing out on a lot of great talent,” said Ziv.

It’s for that reason Matzpen is taking its show on the academic road – opening up courses in high schools, first in the Tel Aviv area, and later in the rest of the country.

“Our objective is to ensure that students appreciate the importance of science and technology. That’s good for Matzpen, and good for Israel in general,” Ziv said.

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