A month ago, Ben and Mike sat down in a California diner to discuss their times in the armed forces, agriculture, and the sometimes surprising intersection of the two. The original audio version of the podcast is available at the end of the article, but here’s the first of three installments of its transcription:
Mike DeSa: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Veterans In Ag Podcast brought to you by AGD Consulting. I’m your host, Mike DeSa. And here we explore the stories and insights from the military veteran and supporter communities who are leading the way for Vets in agribusiness, ag tech, and agripreneurship. We swap stories, talk ag, and show how the grassroots nature of the ag community can be a natural fit for the military veteran. Our guest this week is Ben Alfi, a veteran of the Israeli Air Force, and managing founder for Blue White Robotics, an Israeli-based agtech company providing what they call Robots as a Service. Blue White’s software platform plans and operates multiple tasks for autonomous air and ground fleets, integrating aftermarket autonomous capabilities into a variety of OEM ag equipment. Over the course of his military career, Ben spent 25 years in the Israeli Air Force, flying a variety of F-16s and unmanned systems. The last 10 years of his service were spent developing and managing the Israeli Air Force’s unmanned systems – anything from two pounds up to 60 tons. You’ll hear throughout this episode, how influential that time was to the founding of Blue White, and their decision to tackle the agricultural space first. His conversation comes at a great time, as much of the talk today and autonomous vehicle operations is around John Deere’s recent acquisition of Bear Flag robotics, and what it means for the industry. We get into Ben’s thoughts on this as well as how Blue White is differentiated. We begin our conversation with Ben at a diner in California, as Blue White is currently seeking to build out a footprint in the US. We’ll go anywhere to get our listeners a great story, including a restaurant with some background noise, our apologies for that. But I think you’ll find this conversation so fascinating that it won’t be an issue.
Ben Alfi: I was 25 years in the Air Force, serving full-time and flying as an F-16 pilot for all types of F-16s over the years. And the last 10 years of my service was developing and being in charge of developing unmanned systems – anything from two pounds to six tons, and [since] 2017 anything from strategic unmanned systems, to tactical, and all the things that you can think of. And, unmanned systems in Israel are quite huge in the development and in the strategy. It’s something that was announced around 30 years ago when we decided to go to a small and smart army in a way. And, all the development of unmanned systems is made in Israel – by Blue White, by the industries, and the other way through DARPA and DARPA-like institutes that we have in Israel.
MD: What was it like for you growing up in Israel?
BA: I remember myself as a 17-year-old guy in 1991, January. And I guess people that are hearing this, they know that what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the Gulf War. And, it was the first time that I understood that I needed to be part of really giving service and being part of it and saying, “okay.” And the only way to be effective is to be an aviator because you need to work not only near borders but also far away from home. So that was my goal. And this is how things happened on that side. And the other thing is, I think the mentality is of an entrepreneur all the way. Everybody’s an entrepreneur – good or bad, trying to solve problems all the time. Trying to, I don’t want to say survive, but the DNA is under survival. You need to invent yourself all the time, and all the time, you need to adjust. And things are happening quite fast. So this is the background. What is it to be a young Israeli guy growing up in Israel in the Mediterranean? What happens there is that you fast forward when growing up – really, really, really fast. Sometimes it’s too fast for people. And in that area, you’re also a human resource. This is what we have. We’re not as rich a country as needed. And, the only way to create effectiveness is by really working very hard with the young 18-year-old boys and girls and making them amazingly capable in a few months. My daughter, she’s now 20 years old. She’s finishing a two-year service. And, she learned physics in high school. She never touched a computer. She finished a four-and-a-half-month course for cybersecurity, and now she’s a crazy cybersecurity girl. After just two years she’s doing things that I cannot even imagine. They are pushing into three, four months – a full degree. They don’t sleep night and day, and this is how it looks like. So everything is fast forward. You need to learn things very fast. You have tools and you need to solve problems.
MD: Do you get an opportunity to determine what you’d like to do in the service? Or is it based on some kind of merit?
BA: There is a draft-style, like in the NBA. So you get your test and then you get your results and then there is a first choice. Usually, an air force aviator is the first choice. And then you go to a screening test. And if you keep on moving, you will become an aviator. If not, you go to other places. Usually, it will be for either Special Forces, aviators, or the computer units – cyber units. These are the areas that are in high demand.
MD: 17 years old, the Gulf War is in ’91. You joined shortly thereafter – 18 years old. What was that pipeline like for you for aviation training? And then at what point were you finished with that and actually, you know, out in what we call the fleet or the operating forces?
BA: In Israel, it’s a three-year course with the first degree, with the flying – all together. Everything is doable. So you don’t have four years to do your college, then two-year officers school. You do everything in three years. You have no life in these three years. Everything is crazy condensed. Then, if you are a fighter pilot, you have another year of OTU, Operation Training Unit. In that, you are training to be operational. Then, you will be operational as a young number two or number four in the squadron. And then, depending on your skills, you will keep on going on the operational side – become an Excel CO – and also do headquarters jobs, etc. So you have your flying skills, and you have your headquarters officers skills.
MD: By the time you’re done with four years of training at 23 years old or 24, do you get a duty station? Do you end up at a different part of Israel for a couple of years? Do they station you somewhere else? What was that first part of your early career like?
BA: Israel is quite small. We’re talking about less than the size of Bakersfield or Sacramento in California. So everything is quite small. But, you get your squadron, and you get your type of aircraft. And, usually, it will be either an F-15 or -16 in the fighter areas or the F-35. These are the fleets that you will work with over the years. You will also be an instructor in the cadet school while you’re in the operational squadron. So we have dual jobs all the time. So either fly two types of aircraft or you’re doing a headquarter job and flying operationally. And then that will be for 10 years from the end of the course. That’s mandatory, and then you can decide if you stay for 25 years. Then, you’re like the National Guard Reserves. So after 25 years, if you are not really an old geezer, you still keep on flying.
MD: What kind of operational flights were you doing in the early part of your career – the mid-’90s? Into the 2000s? What did that operational time look like for you?
BA: Most of the operations will be border protection and scrambling. They had so many things during those years. I don’t know who is to blame, but the neighborhood was hot. We’re talking about working in different types of areas and different types of countries and different types of operation modes because we are not an air force that you can have the ability to say “this is the Marine squadron, this is the Army squadron, this is the Air Force squadron.” You’re doing a multi-role. And, I think also, when we talk about the agriculture idea, having the ability to perform a multi-mission is something that you always have. So you can go and have something that the rules of engagement have precision attacks. When we started, we didn’t even have GPS. A good, accurate bombing would be, I don’t know, 50 meters or 150 yards away, or something like that. And today, if a bomb is more than three feet away from where it was supposed to be, there is a big debrief. “Okay, what the hell happened?” So things are really changing. At the time, it was okay to throw one bomb from each vehicle. And today, on the F-15s, in one vehicle, you can throw – I don’t know – 64 SDBs or something like that. So everything is really about how to extract the maximum from a single aviator.
MD: Can you give us a story from any point in the last 25 years of your service that you experienced something that you still carry with you today? It can be an operational experience or a particular flight or incident that instilled something in you that you still have with you today.
BA: I had a great experience that I still cherish today. It’s when I met other aviators for the first time. It was when we met the US Air Force. Until 1999, we didn’t train with anybody – maybe 1997. We didn’t train with anybody else. We did everything internally. And, I think one of the key factors that started to change after the Gulf War is working in a coalition. Prior to that, people really didn’t talk about coalition work. And, I found myself with six other guys coming to Tucson, Arizona, flying in a US squadron with the National Guard and the Air Force. And, we flew together on US aircraft. And then, we went together to fly in Red Flag in Nellis. And, it was amazing for me to see – first of all, how easy it is to communicate. How easy was it to win together? We weren’t split. You could be number one, US; number two, Israeli; number three, Israeli; number four, US; and vice versa. And we were doing crazy stuff – the biggest and the most demanding training that the western world can create. In Nellis, Nevada. And, we succeeded – both during the missions themselves and also at the pub after. For me, that was mind-blowing. And you say okay, “everything is just the same.” The ideas, the values, the way we’re working – for me it just opened the idea that, “okay, we can go worldwide with lots of things.” That’s the best lesson that I learned.