I have always wondered how has Israel, given its challenges, managed to position itself as a leader in cutting-edge military tech. And it seems the answer lied in the months and years that followed Yom Kippur War.
Specifically the creation of the Talpiot Program within the IDF.
I just chanced upon Israel’s Edge: The Story of the IDF’s Most Elite Unit – Talpiot on Kindle and I was hooked on to the book from the very first chapter.
So what is the Talpiot Program?
Talpiot is this super elite, highly secretive unit within the Israeli Defence Force which hires geeks – the ones who have an unusual acumen in maths, science and computers. And not just any geeks, geeks who could work together to take on impossible challenges. The ones who have strong leadership skills and the mental and physical ability to endure even a paratroopers course.
And what does a Talpiot graduate do ?
Now, that’s a really bold claim by any measure.
But then again, its hard to imagine that the Iron Dome ( and its other avatars – David’s Sling, The Arrow) was first designed and proposed by a group of undergrad students to counter the threat of the incoming rocket attacks on the settlements.
The Program Highlights :
- The soldiers of Talpiot begin their military service at Hebrew University but are housed separately
- Study for their bachelor’s of science in physics, mathematics, and computer science,
- The courses are taught at an accelerated rate, almost 40 % faster
- Also trained in military strategy and complete an officer’s training course.
- They spend their summers doing 12 weeks of basic training – the one given to the paratroopers.
- Talpiot soldiers take special courses rotating with each force of the army: intelligence, navy, and air force – to learn about the weapon systems from the inside. They sit in cockpits of fighter jets and shoot off weaponry to gain a real understanding of its operational and technological needs.
- During the second year, they devise a project of their own choosing for three months. This is where a lot of early versions of innovative tech has come from. The professors who proposed the Talpiot program insisted that innovation was possible only by young minds !
Talpiot graduates undergo military training alongside their academics, they observe first hand the theater of war, the need for technology to create an edge and how and where they can help.
They master the art of problem solving.
A common theme emerging across multiple graduates that the book interviewed, is that the graduates learnt to take on the impossible projects. That they got trained to not be afraid.
Another Talpiot innovation came from Amir Beker, who turned down medical school to attend the program. During his military service under Talpiot in the late 1980s, Mr. Beker learned that Israeli helicopter pilots were suffering from severe back pain from vibrations during flight. To build a better seat, he first had to determine how to measure the effect of vibrations on the human vertebrae.
Together with a Talpiot classmate, Mr. Beker led a team that installed a custom seat in a helicopter simulator, cutting a hole in its backrest. Training a pen on a pilot’s back, the team used a high- speed camera to photograph the marks caused by a range of vibrations. The researchers analyzed the computerized data to come up with a way to redesign the seats.http://henwood.blogspace.com/
Why I am so impressed by the Talpiot program
- The story behind its creation – Post the debacle of the Yom Kippur war, it wasn’t just witch-hunting that happened, there was serious soul searching. And it was two profs who articulated what was needed – Israel needed to establish itself as the leader in advanced weaponry.
- The clarity of purpose – The Founding profs were clear, that the tech supremacy is not restricted to what weapons their traditional enemy forces have, but what they could get from the super powers. The USSR supplied weapons had led to significant tank losses for the IDF in the crucial war. Till then Israel had considered itself to be highly superior to the Arab armour. The conclusion was that Israel simply have to be better equipped with technology, better than anything else in the world.
- Willingness to experiment – Can you imagine two profs walking into a meeting with the defence minister of army chief and suggesting why they should hire geeks and create a new unit? In most countries the defence organization wouldn’t take them seriously. Not so in this case.
- Following through with the commitment to support the experiment – Getting access to the best talent was difficult in the early days of Talpiot, since no one knew about it. The young minds obviously wanted to go other elite units wherein the possibility of post army career benefits are much higher. The IDF stood by their commitment to see the program get what it needed – the best minds with most promising leadership skills
- Letting the program evolve – As with most new initiatives, the first version is just a rough template for the subsequent ones to follow. The Talpiot program also evolved on multiple fronts – what attributes to look for, how to structure the course, who the instructors should be (most courses now have ex Talpiot graduates mentoring the batch)
- Balancing military’s process-discipline with flexibility for nurturing innovation – The course does not prescribe missions or objectives for its graduates. They have the flexibility of choosing what appeals to them. Given that the course exposes them to the realities of each wing of the military, the graduates are able to identify problems on their own. This is probably how you stoke the passion of a young genius. Choose your own problem worth solving.
- Flexible career paths – the graduates are free to choose active combat roles or pursue PHDs specializing in their chosen fields or even venture out in the business world. This wide choice of career paths post the extensive Talpiot program ensures that the talent pool is out there creating multiple down-stream ripples. There are some who joined the Air Force and now teach dog-fights to pilots. There are others who have founded billion dollar worth ventures around security/cyber tech and many more went into research.
- Development of a feeder eco-system – As the Talpiot program grew in popularity many schools started focusing on training their students to qualify the rough entrance test. This is exactly how IIT coaching evolved, and creates a larger talent pool to tap into.
With so many bschools, governments and companies focused on innovation, am sure there is a lesson or two to be learnt from the Talpiot story.