Israel announced in December that its Joint Cyber Defense Division (JCDD) held an important cyber defense drill with its American counterparts in U.S. Cyber Command. The recent drill was the largest cyber exercise ever held by Israel. A senior officer from the JCDD recently described the future of the JCDD and the value that Israel sees in developing its cyber defense capabilities.
“To give you it in a nutshell, JCDD is the division responsible for cyber defense in the IDF,” the officer said in an interview. He noted that Israel’s cyber efforts are divided into several entities responsible for various aspects of cyber defense. “We look at this from the perspective of the digital landscape and also taking part [in] the wider effort of defending Israel in this matter. We are combined with the National Cyber Directorate,” the officer said.
The cyber frontier is different than traditional warfare, which has typically been segmented into forces on land, sea, and air. However, officers from numerous branches of the IDF contribute to cyber defense efforts.
The officer highlighted that Israel devotes significant attention toward international engagement and joint military exercises. “Since the division was established, we have put a lot of effort in international engagement with the understanding that [because] cyber is a global threat, you need to work with allies and friends to be stronger and faster,” the officer said. He continued: “Cyber threats will run via a variety of data centers all over the world before [they] will attack you, so it’s important to have intel and tech and allies to stop threats before [they] get in the perimeter, or to tell friends and allies that something is happening in their area of responsibility.”
The recent cyber drill with the United States is not the first joint exercise that Israel participated in. However, the recent drills with the United States are of paramount importance to Israel because Israel sees cyber as an increasingly important domain. Israeli authorities have spoken increasingly about the importance of artificial intelligence. The last conflict in Gaza, for instance, was seen as a watershed moment in terms of the use of artificial intelligence. The officer noted that artificial intelligence will continue to be a key component of Israel’s cyber defenses.
While it is unique that cyber defense is carried out virtually, there are advantages to being in the same place, shoulder-to-shoulder, the officer pointed out. “The idea with cyber is to share thoughts and knowledge and reach out with problems. And this is one of the reasons that we decided to send a big group,” the officer said.
Recognizing the importance of the cyber domain, Israel has been investing in cyber defense for years. Efforts to advance the IDF’s cyber capabilities and modernize the military have broader implications for all of the IDF. The IDF hopes to use technology to push information to troops on the frontlines so that they can make decisions faster.
Former Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot established the JCDD during his tenure. Beginning in 2014, Israel worked to expand its cyber defenses and reorganize them under the J-6 command structure. This has allowed the IDF to connect its cyber defenses to every branch of the IDF.
The establishment of the JCDD was a dramatic change for Israel. With this in mind, Israel has worked to create a pipeline of skilled recruits who can contribute to the IDF’s growing efforts in cyber defense. This pipeline has allowed Israel to make rapid advances in the cyber domain. Many of the soldiers that develop expertise in the IDF go on to work for private Israeli technology companies. Israel sees this as an advantage because the growth of the Israeli technology sector also strengthens Israel. In addition, as some of them remain in the reserves, the IDF has a “feeder network” that can provide unique support for Israel’s needs.
Cyber attacks have been increasing throughout the world and Israel has frequently been targeted. The evolving threat has led Israel to see cyber as a long-term priority. Israel must always maintain superiority in the cyber realm, the IDF officer said. Even though Israel has invested heavily in cyber defenses, threats continue to arise. For example, it took the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center over a month to recover from a recent cyber attack. Notably, the dangers posed by cyber attacks come from hostile nations as well as global criminal networks. However, due to the sensitive issues involved, the IDF officer could not discuss specific elements of the threat posed by Iran and other Israeli adversaries. The evolving nature of the cyber domain will require Israel to continue investing in its technological capabilities and training programs.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.