How the Israeli Army Is Raising the Next Generation of Cyber Geeks

But Israel’s military is bullish on a special after-school program for smart high school kids - from the country’s outskirts as well.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces has given cyber warfare, both defensive and offensive, special attention. Defense sectors related to cyber warfare have received increased funding and priority in selecting highly qualified inductees. As the number of agencies and activities linked to cyber warfare grows, including at Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, so does demand for suitable young draftees.

The problem is that there are very few suitable candidates, despite Israeli youngsters’ familiarity with computers. Plenty of candidates are potentially fit for other prestigious military careers, as in the air force or special forces; at cyber units, not so much. The skill set and character required for cyber warfare are different than for being a computer engineer, for example.

Military Intelligence and the Manpower Directorate are the main IDF agencies recruiting for cyber warfare. When the need for more cyber personnel was identified in 2009, MI found 170 suitable candidates in the whole year’s cohort. They were inducted into cyber warfare units, with several dozen filling the most challenging jobs. Even then the military needed at least double that number but had to compromise and take fewer, who underwent accelerated training.

MI research showed that most of these inductees came from the center of the country and large cities elsewhere, mainly from the top high schools. Only a handful came from the country’s outskirts. So the army and the Education Ministry launched a program called Magshimim (Fulfillers), in which qualified high school students take part in after-school training in cyber subjects. During the summer there’s a more intensive course for those interested.

The program focuses on students in the north and south, with 440 trainees registered this year. Only some take matriculation exams in cyber subjects, and the most qualified go to the IDF units that need them. The military views this program as a success and is constantly trying to expand it. The program benefits both the country’s periphery and the IDF’s cyber units.

A second IDF/Education Ministry program is called Gvahim (Heights). There, excelling students matriculate in cyber subjects at the highest level. The program was officially inaugurated this year with 20 classrooms in 10 schools across the country; graduates are expected to serve in IDF cyber units.

Unlike normal procedures, matriculation test questions are written by army cyber experts. Twenty soldiers and civilians employed by military cyber units, as well as a few Shin Bet personnel, serve as instructors - several of them volunteers. One unsolved problem is the lack of women in these programs; only 10 percent of trainees are women. But the IDF says the obstacle is cultural, not cognitive.

An IDF course for cyber-defense in Ramat Gan. Credit: Alon Ron