The IDF is gearing up for a major relocation to southern Israel, where it plans to create new environs replete with academia and high-tech firms, and to give a significant boost to the Be’er Sheva area.
By 2023, the IDF plans to set up a sprawling campus in Be’er Sheva — known as the ‘capital of the Negev’ — which will house technological units, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and the headquarters of the military’s Southern Command, which is responsible for dealing with threats from the Gaza Strip.
The military will also build a second new campus for the intelligence community, and a new large-scale training complex. In total, the relocation will cost some 22 billion shekels ($6.44 billion), and will involve 35,000 soldiers and officers.
“We are following the vision of [Israel’s first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion. We are moving the best people to the Negev,” said Lt.-Col. Itai Sagi, who heads the branch responsible for establishing the IDF’s C4i (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) and Cyber Defense campus. “Next to me are the university and tech companies, with their own labs. We are creating a very significant ecosystem.”
Sagi said that “the first bulldozers will be on the ground in 2019. This is a national maneuver. It’s not something the military is doing alone.” The Israeli Defense Ministry has set up a Southern Relocation Administration to manage the entire program.
The new technological campus will house cutting-edge IT data centers, which will form the backbone of the IDF’s digital combat network. It will also concentrate elite cyber units into one complex.
But beyond benefits to the military world, the move south has social and national significance, according to Sagi. He said the campus’s proximity to Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and to the city’s main train station, means that “soldiers who finish their day can cross the street to the university and study for their degree. That’s something we encourage.”
The IDF campus will also be a situated near the Gav Yam high-tech park, which will encourage new cooperation between the military and the private sector. The giant state-owned company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is reportedly planning on moving into the area.
The ongoing effort to transform southern Israel into a technology hub has been described as “Silicon Wadi.” A three-way synergy between the private sector, the university and the IDF will presumably put Be’er Sheva on the map of competitive technological development, the military believes.
“Our people will head south, some [career soldiers] with families. Their partners will need jobs, and the families will create the need for kindergartens and schools. The IDF supports the idea of taking career soldiers and providing them with homes, jobs and economic assistance. We are moving a whole population to the south. All will benefit,” Sagi stated.
Enlisted soldiers will serve there too, becoming potential future employees of the nearby high-tech firms. Under this vision, the companies adjacent to the military campus can end up hiring expert IDF computer programmers and engineers. “These are the brightest minds. The companies will want to be close to them,” Sagi said.
During their military service, the personnel will enjoy modern facilities, complete with smartphone applications that direct them to the right locations, compared to the aging and somewhat crumbling British-mandate era military complexes they currently work in — like the Tzrifin Base south of Tel Aviv.
“We haven’t set up bases for dozens of years,” said Sagi. “This is something that happens once every few decades. If I was only moving my office south, I wouldn’t accomplish much. We are also changing our approach, our organizational structure, and working practices.”
As other units take up security and base maintenance duties, the technological units will be free to fully focus on their main tasks for the first time.
Prof. Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Jacob Bortman, of Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is heading up his institution’s preparations for the IDF’s new campus.
Bortman, who served for a long period in the IAF, joined the academic world nine years ago.
“The whole senior forum of the university understands that the move by military technological units southwards is also a big opportunity for the university, and for the south,” he said.
The university has been working with the defense establishment to prepare for the military’s arrival in Be’er Sheva. Its steps so far include providing academic accreditation for military personnel and recognizing the IDF’s technological courses, thereby speeding up their entry into the university system. Dozens of IDF courses have been accepted by Ben-Gurion University as academic courses.
A second step involves creating personal networking links between academic experts and their IDF counterparts. They then proceed to jointly develop technologies such as as electronic warfare systems and cyber warfare tools.
“Our aspiration is that each of the IDF experts will have their own desk and chair at the university. We will profit, because of their expertise, and the military will have a secure environment for its research,” Bortman said.
Professors have started meeting their counterparts in the C4i Branch, the Military Intelligence Directorate and the IAF.
The university also waived tuition fees for IDF graduates of elite military study programs, creating a significant incentive for them to become students there.
“We want to move ahead, with the help of quality people, and to contribute to the defense establishment and the country,” Bortman said.