The Israel Defense Forces’ Own Little Startup Company

As fighting raged in Gaza this summer, Yiftah – a small, low-profile army unit – was developing battlefield technology on the fly and delivering it to troops, sometimes within hours.

Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz
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IDF soldiers investigating a tunnel in Gaza
File Photo: IDF soldiers investigating a tunnel in Gaza.Credit: IDF
Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz

What does a soldier do when he’s ordered to enter a building during an operation, but the door is believed to be booby-trapped? Quite a few soldiers faced this problem during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Thanks to an “explosive doorframe” – a device developed by the Israel Defense Forces’ Yiftah unit – the problem was solved. Using the device, the soldier determines the size of the entry needed, attaches the appropriate “doorframe” to the wall, hooks it up to the detonator and takes cover. Voila, a new door space and no need to risk a booby trap.

Yiftah is a small unit of just 100 staff that has worked mostly behind the scenes since it was formed in 1957, developing solutions to meet the specific needs of IDF field units. The unit belongs to the Technology Branch of the Ground Forces Command. (The name comes from a Hebrew acronym for “development of special assault and intelligence gathering.”)

“Even before the operation in Gaza, we presented the idea for this frame. We did the development and the product went out for tender to be manufactured,” says Yiftah commander Lt. Col. Yevgeni (the army bans publishing his full name). “After the war, they came to us – mostly from the Combat Engineering Corps – and told us it was a success. The product was used on a large scale.”

Another solution developed by the unit helps soldiers in the narrow alleyways of Gaza. Shvil Hazahav (Golden Path) is a chain of fuses linked together and fired from a regular assault rifle into a mined or booby-trapped alley. It sets off a series of small explosions that neutralize the explosive devices, allowing them to proceed safely.

Another Yiftah device used during Protective Edge was a compact system of security cameras, used for perimeter surveillance by soldiers who have taken over a building. By attaching four surveillance cameras to a central control unit, the soldiers have a complete picture of the surroundings, which can be recorded and provide warnings. To make the solution usable, the system runs off the same standard battery as used on IDF radios.

Some of the technology Yiftah provided during the fighting was planned, designed and developed during the operation itself – sometimes in as little as 12 hours, depending on the needs of soldiers in the field. All told, IDF soldiers used some 300 different weapons and 30 different types of item developed by Yiftah during the war. But the unit isn’t prepared to reveal the latest products yet. In particular, Yiftah’s soldier-geeks, who worked around-the-clock during the operation, were asked to provide solutions to the biggest problem confronting the army: the attack tunnels dug by Hamas under the border into Israel. Because it is a particularly sensitive matter, the unit refuses to divulge any information.

“During Protective Edge we received a wide range of questions from combat soldiers in the various units. They described the operation they were required to undertake in short time periods of 12 to 48 hours, and asked us for a technological solution,” says Yevgeni. “We studied the problem together with the fighters, formulated the concept and the operational doctrine, and designed a final product. If it was a new and nonstandard product, which the forces didn’t yet know how to operate, we also trained them ... a solution that arrives after a relatively long time will no longer be relevant,” he says.

'Boutique' solutions

Unlike other units in the IDF and the technology branch, Yiftah offers “boutique” solutions – or, in the words of the unit, “nonstandard solutions.” Technology is developed to meet a specific need, sometimes one that will be used for no more than a single operation. The job of the IDF’s tech branch, as opposed to Yiftah, is to develop large projects in cooperation with the defense industry that create technology for use by the entire army, he said. “We have flexibility and the ability to examine new ideas before approaching the [defense] industry and mass production,” says Yevgeni.

Because of these unique characteristics, the unit’s jargon is more like that of a startup company than an army unit. Quite often, its commander sounds more like an entrepreneur than an officer; Yiftah calls the soldiers it serves “customers” and the weapons it develops “products.” Yiftah’s personnel are also required to demonstrate creativity and innovation, just like the employees of a startup. “We see that as the basis of our existence,” says Yevgeni.

Technological innovation in the IDF is generally identified with such famed units as 8200 (the signals-intelligence unit) or the IDF’s main computer unit, Mamram. Yiftah, which has to compete with them to get the best recruits, has also chosen to raise its media profile, in order to attract young recruits and strengthen the engineering talent it has at its disposal.

Most of the core positions in Yiftah are filled by engineers who were part of the IDF’s so-called Academic Reserve (Atuda’im), in which the military defers enlistment for a small number of recruits until after they finish university degrees. In exchange, they have to sign on for an additional three years’ service.

Working alongside these engineers are a number of technicians and other soldiers with relevant skills. While the unit includes soldiers who served in field units, the great majority have specialist training in electronics, design and modeling, and mechanical engineering. After completing their army service, most easily find jobs in the high-tech sector and defense industry.

Historically, Yiftah was originally part of the Engineering Corps (known as the Laskov unit, after its founder, Brig. Gen. David Laskov). In its early years, it was involved in developing bridging – such as the pontoon bridges used to cross the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War – and explosive devices. One of the unit’s earliest developments, in the 1960s, were simple rockets – not so different from the kind used by Hamas against Israeli civilians.

Between wars, Yiftah develops equipment for the army’s long-term needs. The idea is to “germinate” ideas, similar to the process in civilian R&D frameworks. “Every year we invest in thinking about what will be needed, so that in another year it reaches the customer,” says Yevgeni.

Among the tools developed by the unit in recent years are a low-cost mortar shell used for training, and a shaped charge that can create a pit within seconds in hard ground that is difficult to dig into.

Early adopter of 3-D printers

One way Yiftah can speed delivery of technology to customers is because it both develops and manufactures in-house (the unit also has the capability to manufacture its own electronics and circuits). But another reason is because it was an early adopter to 3-D printing technology, which the unit started using back in 2006 – years before the printers swept the consumer-technology world – and uses them to make prototypes and final products.

Using 3-D printers from the Israeli-U.S. company Stratasys, the unit produces samples and spare parts from a range of sturdy materials that can be used in the field instead of machined parts. “In four hours of printing, it is possible to manufacture equipment that would have cost 5,000 shekels ($1,350) with other methods and once took a week to put into production,” says Yevgeni. “The costs are minimal, so the price of a mistake is low. Engineers can challenge themselves,” he added.

As for intellectual property rights, the question is a bit more complicated for secret IDF developments than it is for a high-tech startup. “The intellectual property belongs to the army, but patents aren’t registered. Every product developed in [the unit] is defined as the property of the Defense Ministry,” Yevgeni explains.

The developments that come out of his unit usually cost less than those from the defense industries, which have to concern themselves with profitability and try to balance optimum performance with cost. “But we, as a military body, do the development ourselves and have a single interest – to provide the best solution at the lowest production cost,” concludes Yevgeni.

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