Israeli Army Combating a New Kind of Cyber Threat

Prestige, zero risk and a promising career: The benefits of joining a cybersecurity unit are so large, the most desirable draftees are increasingly opting out of combat roles

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

The dry statistics are not encouraging: Fewer than 72 percent of the males born in 1999, who are now of draft age, are actually subject to the draft. Of those exempt from the draft, 14.7 percent are yeshiva students. Another 7.4 percent are exempt for medical or psychological reasons. And only 57.8 percent of women reaching draft age will be drafted. The main reason for the falloff is that 34 percent receive an exemption by declaring themselves religious.

How’s the motivation for combat service? There has been moderate but constant drop in the rate of male soldiers interested in serving in combat positions, from 76 percent among those medically eligible in 2010 to 67.5 percent in 2017. And over the past decade, the percentage of potential combat soldiers who were deemed fit slid 6 percent, based on their mental or physical military profiles.

The army has encountered two worrisome, secondary developments: The motivation to serve in combat units has fallen mainly among the most desirable soldiers and there is a decline in demand for infantry units. In 2013, two of every three draftees who were fit for infantry service asked to serve in an infantry division, but by this year, that figure dropped to one out of two.

Instead, soldiers are seeking out less dangerous tasks, sometimes called “combat light,” such as work in the aerial defense system or in rescue units of the Home Front Command. There has also been brisk demand for positions in the Border Police. It has been on the frontline against knife-wielding Palestinian terrorists over the past two years, and the Border Police offer better conditions, such as frequent vacations and better facilities on bases.

Better news for those responsible for personnel planning in the Israel Defense Forces will come in 2020. From then on, because of a higher birthrate, there will be a larger pool of draftees. The rise should close the gap that will be created in March when mandatory service is cut by four months.

The cybersecurity temptation

There are two main reasons for the decline in motivation. One is the lack of a sense of a clear and present danger to the country, a feeling that has been felt among draftees for many years. The second is the temptation to be part of the IDF’s high-tech cybersecurity efforts. The intensive involvement of state authorities, the media and the public in the field of cybersecurity has dramatically increased the desire of draftees to serve in such positions, which seem to combine the best of all worlds: prestige, making a contribution, zero risk, and along the way also the chance to land a fulfilling job for life.

“These are messages the children receive from the entire country,” admits a senior officer in the Manpower Directorate. “From the prime minister through the education minister, the National Cyber Authority and the education system, they all explain to the young people that cyber is the future. Every self-respecting high school is opening a cyber track. At the same time, the universities are starting B.A. courses in math, physics or computers for 16-year-old boys and girls who have already completed their matriculation exams in these fields. Within a few years, we have gone from 50 such young people a year to 400.”

A gap in expectations is therefore created, says the officer. “The IDF may need many more cyberexperts, but not in the numbers that the education system producing. We don’t need so many mathematicians and not every one of them has the characteristics that meet the needs of the intelligence branch, which often looks for other personal characteristics among the draftees for its units. Israeli society is struggling to accept this, and the army is portrayed as being deaf, not identifying the talents that are being passed over.”

Many of those who are ultimately accepted to serve in cybersecurity units are not necessarily the least suitable for combat, due to their emotional makeup. But identifying the top tenth of a percent of people talented in cybersecurity in every cohort, requires the IDF to screen many thousands of draftees, many of whom feel slighted if they aren’t accepted to do the job of their dreams.

The IDF’s General Staff Headquarters is interested in sending the message that service as combat soldiers still takes precedence over cybersecurity, and that it expects that even in 2047, most of its generals will come from these ranks and not from those in tech-related positions. In recent years, the Manpower Directorate has found that there are more than 100 soldiers who are highly qualified to be outstanding combat soldiers who end up in cybersecurity positions in each annual cohort. In many cases, these draftees drop out of commando courses, and those who don’t fulfill their aspirations in one of the elite units prefer cybersecurity over infantry units such as Golani or the Armored Corps.

Given this situation, the army recently started to try to spot the draftees who have potential to serve within a number of years as combat company commanders, based on forecast models, data mining and reverse engineering of the screening processes. The data include information from schools, motivation surveys, IDF interviews and screening data. “We absolutely want to maintain this quality group and embed it in combat, even in the cyber era,” says the senior officer.

The IDF will start insisting on embedding members of this group, who are fit for both combat and cybersecurity, in combat units beginning next year. “I know for sure that today they are going to cyber,” he says. “Is it possible from now on to instill motivation for combat in them? It’s a controlled experiment, but that’s the goal, and it is part of an effort to restore the combat units to the top of the priority list. It’s too early to say if the experiment will succeed.”

The pool and the draft

As the investment in cybersecurity grows, so does the competition for cybersecurity prodigies in every incoming group of draftees. The intelligence branch (responsible for collecting and improving offensive cybersecurity capabilities) vies with the General Staff Communications Division (responsible for defense) and a smaller number of people at the Mossad espionage service and the Shin Bet security service, to which a small number of draftees are assigned.

A database called the cyber pool includes about 1,000 young people each year. They are mostly male graduates of the highest level high-school tracks in computer and math. There is an NBA-type draft for the 300 most qualified young people once a year. The intelligence branch is responsible for ranking the young people. The Manpower Directorate decides how many slots should be allocated where and the outstanding candidates are divided accordingly.

IDF officials insist that the screening processes is fair, but they confirm that there is a real fight for candidates at the top of the list. Top priority is given to the intelligence branch’s cybersecurity division, which each year gets the top soldier on the list and a higher rate of other outstanding candidates than its competitors.

More women in combat roles

The IDF has taken a series of steps to increase its pool of candidates to fill the ranks of combat positions. This includes placing more women in combat roles. The proportion of female combat soldiers has climbed to nearly 9 percent, about 2,700 per year, compared to 550 just five years ago. After increasing the number of mixed regiments to four, army officials intend to pause and evaluate the ramifications. General Staff officials insist that opening opportunities to women has come about in accordance with the army’s needs, and not as a result of demands for gender equality in the army.

One noticeable trend among female combat soldiers is a 250 percent rise in the number of religious female fighters over the past six years, jumping last year to 2,500.

Some 30 percent of religious women are now drafted, and the phenomenon is growing despite enormous counter-pressures from rabbis. The IDF recently foiled a move by opponents of the draft who began bringing religious judges to girls’ religious schools, rather than requiring the women to go to religious courts to sign a religious declaration form that exempts them from the draft.

Another possible source, albeit limited in scope, for combat soldiers is the minority population of non-Jewish Israelis of draft age. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot set a goal of tripling the number of Bedouin serving in the IDF by the end of next year. About 1,200 Bedouin soldiers now serve in the army, only 700 of them as conscripts. And only about 370 Bedouin a year join the army. The main difficulty involves recruiting Bedouin in southern Israel, where the Islamic Movement wields considerable influence and where there is widespread opposition to army service.

About two-thirds of Bedouin soldiers are from the north, although they only make up a quarter of Israel’s Bedouin population. The army is now involved in a comprehensive effort by government ministries who have adopted the approach that joining the army will also facilitate the absorption of Bedouin into the labor market and Israeli society in general. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the thinking regarding the draft of ultra-Orthodox men.

Further-reaching measures?

Is the army ripe for more far-reaching measures, that will thin out the ranks and perhaps depart entirely from the people’s army model, which requires drafting everyone, or at least 70 percent of the men? For the time being, it seems that the answer is still no. A senior officer who was asked about such a shift expressed fierce opposition. The IDF, he asserted, needs everyone at least at the initial screening stage, saying that to get to the most suitable soldiers, it has to rely on the entire field of candidates. Otherwise, it can expect a sharp drop in the quality of the combat command, a problem that most Western armies that do not have a draft suffer from.