Know your enemy: Inside IDF’s technological field teams

A dive into the team whose behind-the-scenes analysis of seized enemy weapons could potentially shift the course of the war.

By Hanan Greenwood, JNS

A long row of explosives was lined up at our feet. A few days after Oct. 7, chaos engulfed the Julis base.

In a large warehouse stood the combat equipment used by Nukhba terrorists in the massacre, including RPG launchers, Kalashnikov rifles and grenades, as well as the explosives Hamas had hoped to use against Israeli armored fighting vehicles. But that part of their plan failed.

“As early as 2019, we began hearing about these explosives and developing a plan to counteract them,” said Lt. Col. (res.) A., commander of the technological field teams within the Research Division of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate.

“We identified the threat and devised a straightforward solution, which we kept secret for years. On Oct. 7, the terrorists employed these explosives on vehicles, destroying them and their occupants. We realized this was our moment of truth and started equipping hundreds of tanks with new armor, which proved effective—Hamas’s supposed game-changer collapsed at the critical moment due to our simple yet effective solution.”

A drone-manufacturing lab in the central Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.

Back to the beginning

The unit is small and specialized, comprising both regular and reserve troops. Some are former combatants, operating in a highly classified manner.

During the 2006-Second Lebanon War, the unit made history by acquiring a Russian Kornet anti-tank missile launcher and its missiles, a first for the West.

I met the commanders of the field teams in the Gaza periphery, in a massive staging area where tanks awaited orders to move eastward toward Gaza.

A. guided us among the tanks, explaining the unit’s capabilities to the degree he could.

“We are essentially a technological unit whose mission is to learn about the equipment, explosives and ammunition from the battlefield,” explained Maj. B., head of the explosives department in the unit’s ground munitions testing branch.

“We collaborate with all units, receiving a lot of equipment, from which we learn extensively.”

A. emphasized that there were no surprises for the unit as far as the weapons and equipment used by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“We knew everything they had,” he said. However, he added, “there are always new lessons to be learned. For example, we discovered the terrorists’ use of 3D printers for field equipment. We found a clamp they used to attach a rocket to a drone. While we have been aware of the drone threat since 2018, we are continually learning new things.”

Israeli soldiers find missiles and explosives under a bed in a bedroom in Khan Yunis, Gaza, March 13, 2024. Source: YouTube screenshot/IDF.

A unique unit

The field teams are not a conventional unit. A., for instance, is a grandfather with a gray beard and a large kippah, armed with a rifle and a hearty laugh, who works in the defense industry daily.

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B. is a former Nahal Brigade officer who transferred to the Military Intelligence Directorate but still knows many reservists and officers currently fighting in the Strip.

“I know the Gaza periphery better than my neighborhood,” said A. “I’m here a lot.” The field teams regularly visit staging areas and the border fence to examine equipment, including damaged Israeli tanks and seized explosives.

They were behind decisions such as equipping tanks with anti-drone pergolas and 360-degree cameras to help drivers identify and neutralize threats.

“It’s not easy work,” B. admitted. “We often watch difficult videos, visit damaged vehicles, or debrief wounded soldiers. Some soldiers struggle with this, and we provide support, including mental health assistance. I explained to one soldier that our work with weapons of killing is to protect our soldiers. It’s crucial. Watching these videos is tough, but it’s necessary.”

The Israel Defense Forces discovered a new cache of weapons in Khan Yunis, in the central Gaza Strip, March 2024. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Addressing intelligence failures

When asked about the intelligence failure of Oct. 7, B. said, “Of course, it’s challenging, but we can’t lose heart. We are dealing with human lives. I know I’m contributing something significant to the State of Israel, even if the results may only be visible years later.”

Despite their technological focus, A.’s conclusions often relate to combat methods, which he says have not changed in decades.

“We need to return to basics. We saw on Oct. 7 how terrorists used archaic combat methods to kill us. Technology is valuable, but soldiers need to identify explosive devices in real time, just as they did 30 years ago in Lebanon,” he said.

Seven months into the Swords of Iron war, the possibility is looming that Israeli troops will once again be called upon to go into Lebanon.

“We’re paying close attention to the northern arena, examining missile fragments and other equipment. We can’t afford surprises there either,” said A.

Israeli forces on patrol in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 4, 2024. Credit: IDF.

Preserving equipment for the historical record

Some of the equipment seized from Hamas is preserved not for IDF use but for its historical significance.

“Some items, like a tractor used by terrorists to breach the fence, will be preserved for heritage purposes,” explained Lt. Col. Idan Sharon-Kettler, deputy commander of the IDF’s enemy equipment collection unit.

According to Sharon-Kettler, one of the most sobering aspects of the current war is the evidence of Hamas’s advancing capabilities.

“We see significant development—from dangerous, poorly-safety-equipped items in 2014 to more sophisticated equipment now,” he said. However, he noted, Hamas “also disable safety mechanisms for immediate impact despite the risk to themselves.”

The field teams’ work is “highly significant,” said Sharon-Kettler. “The fact that they analyze the equipment already in the field helps a great deal in understanding the threat.”

The teams provide the IDF with intelligence and technical data “that cannot be brought into the lab,” he added. “Our unit is not an intelligence one, but it’s clear to us as well that a technical analysis of a tank that was targeted by explosives cannot be done remotely, only in the field.”