Hush-hush IDF intel unit takes on Covid-19

Dummy used for simulated ventilator testing / Photo: IDF

The normally top-secret Unit 81 allows a glimpse into its special culture and outside-the-box thinking.

Just a few weeks into the coronavirus emergency in Israel, it is clear that one of its outstanding features is the vindication of initiative and collaboration. Government agencies, security organizations, industry, academic institutions, and ordinary citizens have been breaking routine to produce solutions in one of the worst crises the country has ever faced.

The IDF's Intelligence Corps too is contributing to the effort to gather the information needed by decision makers, and to the development of technological means of combating the Covid-19 virus. In these extraordinary circumstances, the IDF has lifted a little the cloak of secrecy that normally surrounds some of its intelligence units and allowed a rare glimpse into the work of one of the units that in recent weeks has made a substantial contribution to the effort against the disease - the Intelligence Corps technology unit, Unit 81.

The unit, which can be described as the IDF's research and development laboratory, was set up in 1948, and until 2012 was directly subordinate to the head of Military Intelligence. Since then, it has reported to the commander of special operations. Former members of the unit are in high demand in Israel's technology industry, no less than their comrades in the better-known 8200 signals intelligence unit, and some of them lead companies whose technological developments are among the most creative in the local high-tech scene.

"The unit's mission is to deal with the complex challenges facing the State of Israel as presented to us by our commanders," is how Lieutenant Colonel A, deputy commander of the unit, cautiously tries to explain what it's about. Lieutenant Colonel A, who was meant to be on discharge leave after twenty-four years of service in the IDF, is coordinating the unit's efforts in the campaign to deal with the virus and with the health and economic crisis it has precipitated.

"If it's possible to purchase innovative developments and they meet our needs, then we'll buy them off the shelf," he says. "Mostly, however, they don't precisely match the operational requirement. We deal in breakthrough developments in short to very short periods of time, in a range of fields, mainly software, hardware, mechanics, materials, and cyber, that serve intelligence and operational purposes in the security challenges that Israel faces."

The unit took upon itself the task of finding creative solutions to the problem of equipping Israel with ventilators. The way it dealt with the challenge provides a glimpse into the way it thinks and operates.

"Even at an early stage we understood the challenge posed by the shortage of ventilators. There was a real fear, which did not materialize, that we would find ourselves in a situation similar to that of Italy, and would have to decide whom to put on a ventilator and whom not. It was also feared that it would be very difficult to import ventilators from overseas, because everyone is fighting over the same equipment. We also knew that producing a ventilator from scratch, with the challenge of obtaining approvals from the health regulators in Israel, would be liable to make it a project that did not just depend on us, and that would make it hard for us to work."

The scale of the challenge and its importance were such that it was decided to be flexible and in an exceptional measure to reveal the unit's involvement. Lieutenant Colonel A relates that the result was not long in coming. "A second after the item was published, many former members of the unit started calling us to share their capabilities. Factories offered to let us take what we needed and put production lines at our disposal, and hospital managers came to us with suggestions, and with requests for help."

The unit knows how to do more complicated things than this from a technological point of view, A explains, but the complexity here arose from the time pressure, and from the fact that "health-related tasks are challenging because of the regulation and the norms in the field."

The unit hit upon an initial direction for a solution thanks to one of its former members, who since leaving the army has worked in medical technology. "We reached the conclusion at the beginning that it would be best to take home breathing apparatuses with no monitoring and warning systems, such as breathing aids originally intended for people who suffer from sleep apnea (for example BiPAP machines), and to add to them monitoring and warning capabilities.

"You can't attach a breathing machine if you don't know how much oxygen you are introducing into the patient's body, or if you have no graphic display of his or her breathing, no warning of a drop in pressure, and no indication of the concentration of oxygen in the blood," says A. "Sheba Hospital, the Ministry of Health, and pulmonologists and anesthetists advised the unit right from the initial stages and guided the unit 81 personnel as to their precise needs."

All these efforts began about a month ago. "That's how the unit works," says A. "It doesn't wait to hit a wall, but looks a long way in advance for ways of getting round the wall when it appears on the horizon. We don't wait to come up against it and then look for a ladder. That's the approach in the unit, and that's how we approached the coronavirus challenge."

A says that the ventilators project is about to bear fruit. "We are in the final stages, at the assembly stage, and looking towards handing over our closed boxes that will become breathing aids. Inside the devices is a circuit board attached to a collection of sensors for measuring such things as oxygen supply and differential pressure. These are processed through the circuit board and from there go to a display that beeps if anything is anything is abnormal in the parameters. The medical team controls the system via a touch screen on which it can change parameters and control them. We later added warnings in the event of problems and the ability to transmit performance measures.

"Essentially, we took a home device and upgraded it to make it into something that facilitates artificial respiration with intubation. It is not a substitute for a proper ventilator, but it does make it possible to bridge the gap if health organizations run short of equipment."

We don't look for the best professionals

Predictably enough, A attributes this ability to carry out high-quality projects in a short time to the quality of the unit's manpower. Somewhat less predictably, he says that Unit 81 actually doesn't look for the best people from a professional point of view. "Rather we look for the most suitable people, people capable of changing fast. They can become expert on a subject in a short time, delve into it, read academic papers, and talk to former members of the unit and to people in industry. This requires people who know how to tell their commanders 'You're wrong' without getting their heads chopped off."

The ventilators project is just one of dozens in which the unit is involved. Another is the development of protective installations in Magen David Adom ambulances. "When the crisis began, we had people who needed to go into isolation. We added a partition in one of our military vehicles so that the driver would not be worried, but at the same time would not have to wear excessive protective clothing that would make it hard for him to do his job," says A.

"After we did that, we thought, wait a minute, we transport a soldier here and a soldier there, but who transports patients all the time? We called the director-general of Magen David Adom and offered our assistance a long time before the army became involved on a large scale. We were the harbingers. The director-general was astounded that the IDF was calling and offering help, but he immediately asked if we could supply 150 partitions. A few days later, we started installing them in the ambulances, and we have already installed more than 100." Among other things, the partitions are equipped with a window, a communication system for the driver so that he will not be cut off from the paramedic, and a sealing solution for the aeration system so that it will be stable and quiet even while the vehicle is in motion.

"One of the good things that has come out of the coronavirus crisis is the cooperation, within the Intelligence Corps, and with the military community in general , including the Directorate of Defense Research and Development, the defense companies, and the Mossad. On the medical side, we have become project coordinators for Sheba Hospital in many initiatives; I'm on the phone all day with the managers of the pulmonology departments," says A, who does not neglect to mention one of the secrets of any prestigious organization's strength - its network of former members.

The unit was asked to think of a solution for the production of a facemask that people could make at home, or that could be produced cheaply by existing sewing workshops. The unit issued a call for proposals to former members and their families via WhatsApp. "It was like a reality show. They were given 24 hours to pass the challenge on," says A. In the end, the suggestion that was accepted came from a young lieutenant in the unit who sent a pattern and pictures describing how he proposed going about the task.

The mask is now on the way to being mass produced all over Israel, with a Ministry of Health label. "I have one of these masks hanging in front of me in my office, produced in the Druze village of Beit Jann," says A. The unit is also involved in a project, together with the Israel Air Force, to locate faulty ventilators, repair them, and return them to stock.

The army's involvement in the crisis comes from below, A says. "We don’t wait in expectation of a phone call telling us what to do, because if you wait, the phone won’t ring. We understand by ourselves. We have smart people who can read the situation, who can be disruptive, who ask all the questions, and no rank blocks the rank below it from raising an appropriate question, and that's the culture. In this respect, the coronavirus created a great opportunity, because pretty quickly we spotted the needs and understood where the gaps were, and where it was necessary to lend a hand, we did."

Unit 8200: the Health Ministry's eyes and ears

When those in charge of Israel's health system defend themselves against criticism and try to explain how information is gathered and studied by the day, even by the hour, among those who can smile to themselves are those who serve in the Hatzav OSINT (open source intelligence) unit, part of the Intelligence Corps 8200 signals intelligence unit. Major A, the Hatzav unit's commander, and Captain M explained to "Globes" how they assist the campaign against the pandemic by gathering information on how other countries are responding.

Hatzav covers everything published in the press and media around the world, and has to deal with the challenge of selecting relevant information in an era of information overload and fake news. Hatzav's data analysts sift the mountains of information for what is relevant to the tasks set for the unit by Military Intelligence.

"In these latest events, right from the start we realized that the Internet and media were flooded with information that was vital to the Ministry of Health and to the country's leaders, and they understand that we are qualified to gather it, put it in order, and present it in the right way, while striving to discern which information is reliable and which is liable to be fake," says Major A.

As an example of the unit's success, Captain M mentions a drug about which there was uncertainty whether it could be useful in treating respiratory distress. "Two and half weeks ago, we saw a research recommendation in Europe to treat patients in severe condition with this drug. Subsequently, a recommendation to start using the drug was formulated in Israel as well. We shortened the research time, and it became possible to use it a great deal earlier than it would have been without that intelligence," M says.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 20, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Dummy used for simulated ventilator testing / Photo: IDF
Dummy used for simulated ventilator testing / Photo: IDF
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