The IDF’s New Boot Camp for Startup Entrepreneurs

Unit 9900 has not produced a flood of tech companies like its more famous sibling 8200, but it plans to catch up.

Moti Milrod

IDF Military Intelligence Unit 8200 is one of the Israeli army’s strongest global brands. An elite signal intelligence unit, it offers its veterans a fast track into Israeli’s high-tech sector.

But 8200 isn’t alone in attracting top tech talent: Special Intelligence Unit 9900, its shyer sibling, supplies the country’s political and military decision makers with valuable visual intelligence, that is, everything having to do with mapping and interpreting aerial and satellite images. The two MI units compete with each other for the recruits with the most potential.

While countless information security and communications networks startups have been founded by graduates of 8200, Unit 9900 has yet to become a startup hothouse. But, as part of an effort to improve its image, attract top talent and improve its services to field units, the unit is adopting technologies that will take it into the world of  wearable devices and augmented reality through developing military products based on technology such as Google Glass.

“9900 integrates the geographic and visual worlds in Military Intelligence and in the Israel Defense Forces as a whole. That, as well as technological aspects, is the focus of specialization of a number of groups within 9900,” says the commander of Unit 9900, here identified only as Col. J.

Unknown to the public

Until just a few years ago, 9900, which has several hundred soldiers, was virtually unknown to the general public. Slowly it has begun to cast off some of its cloak of secrecy.

The unit is responsible for gathering images from satellites and airborne surveillance as well as open-source intelligence, or information that is available publicly, and analyzing it for Israel’s political leadership as well as military forces in the field.

Unit 9900’s intelligence center engages in decoding, field research and extracting the materials for operational insights.

The center’s activity includes analyzing, movement routes, field data and asssessing threats. Its decipherers know, for example, how to identify weapons from aerial photographs. The intelligence the unit analyzes arrives from sensors located on satellites, ground observatories, planes and Global Positioning Systems. Much of it is open-source information.

Unit 9900 carries out mapping for the army and operates surveillance satellites, providing intelligence directly to the agencies that depend on these images.

For years, including during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, critical intelligence held by MI and the IDF did not always reach Israeli military forces on the ground in a timely manner. In order to change the situation, soldiers, intelligence personnel and 9900, who know how to read the intelligence and have undergone specialized training, are attached to ground forces as needed.

“Because of a multiplicity of means, there is now a fear of excess information. The needs are greater and the need to supply the answers is definitive, clear and requires plenty of resources,” Col. J. says, adding that capabilities have greatly advanced.

“There are more sensors, of many different types, that operate around the clock. We need to be more focused to better utilize the information and provide tools that support information. Not everything depends on human insight. We use other advanced capabilities.”

One of the central objects of criticism in the Second Lebanon War was the senior commanders who preferred to be on plasma TV screens rather than with their troops on the ground. 9900 has a role in returning forces to the field, with a combination of information from those famous plasma screens.

“When I saw the conclusions from Operation Cast Lead, to my horror I saw that they were surprisingly similar to the conclusions from the Second Lebanon War,” says J. “Our situation did not improve enough. Intelligence in the field, given all its significance, is the basis for everything. If we don’t know the field, we don’t know where to go, where we can see, what the layout of the village or warehouse is, where it’s possible to enter. It does not matter how sophisticated the intelligence is. The forces don’t know how to carry out the mission.”

In recent years, the unit has tried to alter the situation, and according to J., the results are already visible on the ground.

“Things that looked like a dream some years ago would not have been possible without technology,” he says. “In Operation Protective Edge, we were in a good place in the middle of building this force. We proved reasonable capability at this time, and it continues to get better at any given moment.

Technology is at the heart of Unit 9900. Developing technologies is done within and outside the unit. Similar to other areas in the IDF, because of the need to become more efficient, some of the development was outsourced. In addition, the unit utilizes existing technologies, which it adapts to its needs. One of the main claims in the unit in past was that there was a disconnect between the technological capabilities that were developed in it and the use that was done by the decoders. J. admits that “this saying was true in past. Techies love to go crazy, but things need to be relevant and be in the right context.”

In contrast to Unit 8200, which is a kind of hothouse for startups, very few of those who leave 9900 have founded companies so far. It seems that the DNA of the unit’s veteran is less entrepreneurial. In Israel, companies have been founded in the unit’s areas of expertise — the most outstanding example is the Waze navigation app, which was sold for a billion dollars to Google — but there is no known connection between the company and the unit.

Civilian applications

Still, the unit’s knowledge does have civilian applications, among them in the field of mechanical vision, which is already a field in which Israeli high-tech has a competitive advantage. The success story about which people in 9900 are most proud is the company VisionMap, which dealt in 3-D photography and digital mapping, and was acquired by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and the SK Group for $150 million in 2013. J. recognizes the business potential of the knowledge given to unit graduates, especially in an age in which the sensors in smart phones supply a wealth of geographic information.

“The worlds of Waze and Google Glass are found deep in the heart of 9900,” says J. “There is a deep dialogue between the civilian sector and the army. We don’t intend to invest the billions that civilian companies do, but rather to take existing things in a large number of instances and make the required adaptation, or to collaborate.”

J. gives the example of how one could create a Waze for the IDF. “You could create a model of the battlefield zone, and give as many advanced tools as possible to the fighters,” he says. “Not where there are traffic jams, rather where there are hazards, where the land allows one to pass, where the forces are hidden — and advise what is the best thing to do based on the information provided before the mission, and sometimes in real time. It is of course a revolution.”

This example of using fighters in the field is not coincidental. It’s a view behind one of the unit’s central developments of late, which even won it the 2014 Intelligence Corps prize for vision. The project, “Building Worlds,” envisions connecting the mapping and geo-information world to creating a model allowing the use of reality-enhancing glasses like Google Glass to supply forces in the field with real-time intelligence. The soldiers could see, for example, what’s inside the building in front of them, with enemy and IDF forces clearly identified. They would also be able to receive topographical intelligence.

“We didn’t invent the wheel or the 3-D world. We know how to connect our needs to existing abilities,” says J. The idea is to integrate most of the information from all intelligence-gathering bodies and make it accessible when brigade or battalion commanders need it. The system supplies intelligence for various missions, like entering and seizing control of buildings.

If a force were in a Gaza alley, J. says, data would be streamed to the force through the augmented-reality glasses about the target, with enemies marked in red and friendly forces in blue, about rocket launches in the area, and allowing them to see inside the buildings.

This technology is still not ripe, for now allowing forces to prepare for an operation before reaching the field. A reality simulator called Oculus Rift is testing the system. It is a mask that mainly gamers use for 3-D games. Facebook acquired the company that developed it, Oculus VR, for $2 billion in 2014. Members of the unit say they started using the tool before the acquisition.

Unit 9900 provides the service to operational forces, and to every unit a solution is adapted based on its relevant needs. “The forces can go to a place they need to reach, do a simulation and lead the mission,” says J.

The device was used dozens of times prior to operations in Operation Protective Edge. According to J., soldier feedback is very positive.

“By building a virtual world, the soldiers receive better tools for learning the mission and practicing incidents and reactions against the enemy,” he says.

In the system’s next stage, forces in the field will use it during operations using light, comfortable, augmented reality glasses that will give the fighter tools, not bother him, and will allow the soldier to communicate with his surroundings.

Members of Unit 9900 do not intend to develop the augmented-reality glasses themselves, rather they plan to adapt a solution that exists in the civilian market.