How the IDF Weaponized Autism

“The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces”: An Excerpt

Nadav Rotenberg was a typical Israeli teenager full of life and energy who loved sports, the outdoors, and spending time with his many friends and beloved girlfriend. When his time came to enlist, he volunteered to serve in Battalion 202 of the Thirty-Fifth Paratroopers Brigade. On November 7, 2011, his unit engaged armed militants on the Gaza border. In the ensuing battle he was killed. Shortly afterward Nadav’s father, Dror, met a number of his colleagues. They were looking for a way to commemorate Nadav. As the men talked, they shared stories about their sons and daughters. One of the fathers talked openly about his two autistic sons, who were struggling. Listening to his story, Tal Vardi, a former Mossad officer, decided to do something about it with the IDF.

Autism is a growing phenomenon, or at least its recognition has grown. A study released in April 2018 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one out of fifty-nine children in America was on the autism spectrum, a 15 percent increase from two years prior and a 150 percent increase from fourteen years before. In total, about 3.5 million Americans have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by what is, obviously, an expanded definition. Nor is the phenomenon uniquely American; similar percentages are encountered around the world. Nearly 42 percent of people in their early twenties with autism have never worked and those who do earn meager wages. For young autistic Israelis the frustration is compounded because, unlike their peers, they are exempted from military service and thus denied a major part of the formative experience of most young Israelis.

The IDF have a long tradition of taking upon themselves missions that are not purely military for the greater good of society and the nation. But Tal Vardi had to find some valid justification for the heavy costs of enlisting autistic recruits. He found it within his own area of expertise: intelligence.

A central challenge of our era is the increasing gap between the technical capacity of data collection and production and the human capacity to select and process the flood of information to turn it into meaningful knowledge that might actually be useful. That is where some ASD individuals can have a distinct advantage. In ways that are still undiscovered by science, it seems that their brains are wired differently, enabling them to perform certain tasks more effectively. Most notably, they can focus on a single item for a relatively long time, and also perform repetitive tasks that require screening large amounts of information with very small discrepancies, a task that would quickly exhaust others.

Vardi called his friend and colleague Tamir Pardo, then head of Mossad, who organized a meeting with researchers and IDF officers to find out if autistic Israelis of military age might be usefully employed. When Vardi and Pardo originally started to inquire into the matter, they discovered that another Mossad colleague, Leora Sali, a physicist in charge of the technology team for the Mossad, had preceded them. Sali, who has an autistic son, persuaded some IDF officers to put together a small team of researchers to explore how the IDF could use the special capabilities of ASD subjects. Vardi joined hands with Sali but suggested a different course of action; instead of research, they should start a pilot program. In 2012 the Roim Rachok (“We See Far”) pilot program duly started.

The team identified Intelligence Unit 9900 as the perfect fit. Unit 9900 gathers visual intelligence, including geographical data from satellites and aircraft, and is responsible for mapping and interpreting the visual intelligence for troops on the battlefield as well as for senior commanders. A key 9900 task is to screen vast numbers of photos of the same subject matter in order to detect very small variations between them, such as a small pile of earth that was moved or a new dirt road seemingly leading nowhere. In dense urban settings, the changes are even harder to decipher.

It is not uncommon for ASD subjects to focus obsessively on the same object for hours, and to possess superb memory for minor details. It was therefore hoped that in comparing photos they could detect the smallest variations. On a visit to Unit 9900, when LG Gadi Eisenkot (IDF chief of staff 2015-2019) stopped by the desk of one of the autistic soldiers, the latter showed him with great pride something of significance he had found in an aerial photo. Eisenkot looked at the photo up close; “Where do you see it?” he asked. “There, it’s so clear,” the soldier said to his chief of staff, pointing at the computer screen. Eisenkot, no matter how much he tried, could not see anything unusual.

There were many barriers, including how to select those who could adapt to military life. How to expose them to military secrets, knowing they can be more vulnerable to manipulation by outsiders? There were no answers, but Vardi and Sali forged ahead. The program starts with a three-month course at a civilian college, where candidates learn basic social skills and study academic topics that will prepare them for military service. Candidates are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. Of the roughly 100 applicants each year, some 80 percent are accepted. Many possess specialized knowledge on various topics at a high level, whether it relates to archaeology, languages, or music. After the program, those who qualify enlist in Unit 9900, where they go through special training to qualify as analysts.

Dividends were almost immediate. Before the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the ASD soldiers were tasked with comparing tens of thousands of aerial photographs to uncover signs of potential Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist activity, such as explosives, mines, or tunnels. Their commanders expected that the work would require a year and a half, but the results were ready in three months, in time for the findings to be used by units in the field. In fact, unlike regular soldiers, the unit members had to be told to stop working after many hours, because they could overwork themselves. While they are working, the ASD soldiers in 9900 typically wear earphones to listen to music, neutralizing anything that might distract them.

The program is now functioning for multiple purposes: it provides these recruits with a sense of belonging and normality by serving in the military as other youths do; it facilitates their entry into the job market; and it can generate very valuable intelligence. Moreover, the skills they learn are directly applicable in many high-tech firms. The Israeli branches of Intel and eBay were the first companies to hire from the program. Other big corporations outside Israel have taken notice. “It’s a talent pool that really hasn’t been tapped,” said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft.

As of now, the program has been applied in other parts of the IDF, including the Air Force. But the IDF had trod this path before. The same IDF units 8200 and 81 chief of staff Rafael Eitan who established the elite Talpiot program was also responsible for starting another continuing program, this time for the less privileged. Officially named MAKAM, the Hebrew acronym for Center for Advancing Population with Special Needs, the program is more widely known by its unofficial name, “The Raful Boys” (from the nickname of Rafael Eitan). It is designed for soldiers who come from difficult backgrounds, many of them school dropouts with criminal records for small offenses, which exempts them — and excludes them — from military service.

After overcoming much resistance in short order, Eitan, one of the toughest officers in the history of the IDF, had his way, and the first recruits enrolled in 1981 for a basic training program of three months designed specifically for them. The training site has symbolic significance: Havat Hashomer (“The Guards Farm”), also known as Sejera Farm, was the site of the first Zionist self-defense organization, Bar-Giora, which was started in 1907 under Ottoman rule. Two years later it grew and became known as Hashomer (“The Guard”), a small, very selective elite organization (its members did not accept even David Ben-Gurion into their ranks, something he never forgot nor forgave). When the need for a countrywide organization became clear in 1920, Hashomer merged into the Haganah, which later became the IDF.

The unit commanders, from squad leaders to the company commander, are all highly skilled and meticulously selected women soldiers — the IDF’s first choice for trainers in general. Admission to become a commander is highly selective, and those selected possess a rare combination of toughness with high sensitivity to address the special psychological needs of their soldiers. The commander of the entire program, a lieutenant colonel, is typically an officer with years of experience in combat units such as the paratroopers or the Golani Brigade, and the post is considered quite prestigious. The program itself includes a basic combat training curriculum with additional high-school-level educational content, such as classes in history and geography, as well as individual psychological and emotional support. The young command staff is supported and advised by psychologists and social workers who monitor the entire process.

After four decades of trial and error, the program is considered a success. Each year 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers participate, 85 percent of whom successfully complete the course and join the ranks of the IDF in various positions. Many are trained in trades that can provide them with a livelihood after their IDF service: truck drivers, heavy machinery operators, cooks. But each year some 15 percent join combat units. After they complete their conscript service the soldiers of course remain in the reserves for many more years, thereby justifying the program even by the narrowest metric of generating soldiers from potential delinquents. Some advance in rank and even become officers, and their stories inspire other candidates. The larger contribution is of course to Israeli civil society, as every year hundreds of young boys who had a high probability of spending the rest of their lives in endless cycles of crime and prison are transformed into law-abiding productive citizens.

Excerpt from: Edward N. Luttwak & Eitan Shamir’s “The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces“, published by Harvard University Press (Copyright © 2023 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Edward N. Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

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