Ro’im Rachok (translated as “looking ahead”), an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) program that recruits individuals on the Autism Spectrum, is one of the more thought-provoking initiatives within Israel’s military. Specifically, the program provokes discussion over its relevance to the policies of other world militaries. Is Ro’im Rachok a positive example, or is it laced with significant problems?
The greatest significance of Ro’im Rachok is that it reconsiders typical qualifying (or disqualifying) factors for service that exist among the militaries of the world. According to the program’s website, “Roim Rachok highlights the personal and collective significance of belonging for people on the autism spectrum.” In a country such as Israel that practices mandatory conscription, military service is an important aspect of cultural and national “belonging.” The Israeli government therefore recognizes that it is unwise to exclude a capable portion of the population from mandatory military service on the grounds solely of demographic factors. In terms of capabilities, Ro’im Rachok’s website states as its premise that it “is based on the idea that people on the autistic spectrum are very visually-oriented, and many of them are patient and have the ability to focus on details that this work requires”. As such, volunteers for this program engage in significant amounts of remote GEOINT (Geospatial Intelligence) collection and analysis.
This reflects an understanding on the part of the Israeli government that – contrary to the old adage of “war never changes” – war does indeed change, as does warfighting. Throughout the centuries and in different parts of the world, warriors have been drawn variously from aristocratic martial castes, bandits or mercenaries who gained legitimacy by serving various powerful individuals, all-volunteer armies, slaves raised as soldiers, and hapless conscripts thrown into the fray. Thus, the art and science of war are in a constant state of evolution.
At present, the major shift in progress is one from kinetic to non-kinetic forms of warfare. Israel as well as many other states have slowly begun to realize the cruciality of preparedness for non-kinetic warfare. This includes energy, cyber, and information warfare (including the abuse of deepfakes and AI content to spread propaganda and disinformation). As the definition of warfighting has changed, so the must the definition of a warfighter. In many other countries, neurodiverse military volunteers or potential recruits still face an uphill battle – or, in some cases, are excluded entirely from enlistment or commissioning as officers for their country of citizenship. This topic is addressed in a 2021 article on the website Knowledge Enabled Army, in which the author, a “Mr. J.G.” makes a case similar to that on the Ro’im Rachok website.
However, other countries, such as the United States, continue to ban neurodiverse individuals (such as those with Autism and ADHD) from any form of military service. According to a 2023 Military Times article on neurodiversity in national security career fields, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in the United States includes a blanket ban on Autistic individuals joining the military. This policy, however, exists in spite of examples in other world militaries of successful Autistic military personnel. One example would be the the British Naval Admiral Nick Hine, an Autistic man who remained “closeted” about his disability until he had risen through the ranks. Nick Hine, on revealing his diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, made an argument similar the premise presented by Ro’im Rachok: specifically, advocating for the military of the United Kingdom to recognize the value of neurodiversity among its troops.
There are some areas where a program like Ro’im Rachok may be subject to criticism. One is that personnel who leave the service and are generally known by peers or potential future employers to have served in a specialty unit may face the stigma that comes with being open about a non-visible, non-physical disability. As such, a program like Ro’im Rachok faces the unpleasant potential to ghettoize its volunteers and pigeonhole them based on their diagnosed disability.
Another, more cynical line of criticism, might come from those individuals who believe that Autistic military personnel are being exploited. This line of criticism is cynical in that it suggests a lack of autonomy or free will among neurodiverse individuals. Additionally, this narrative suggests a belief that neurodiverse individuals lack an inherent sense of patriotism, or that they are incapable of feeling a genuine call to serve their country. Such sentiments may in some cases be well-meaning, but express a strong and uninformed bias against individuals who might be considered neurodiverse. This sentiment, however, has precedent among world militaries in the U.S. Marine Corps vs. Private Joshua D. Frye legal case. The text of the legal proceedings describes a typical military recruitment, and establishes a discourse that must be unpacked when discussing the topic of neurodiversity in world militaries.
Specifically, the case addresses several disciplinary incidents involving the defendant that may be read as byproducts of bullying or manipulation among colleagues who did not share the defendant’s disability. The case, however, does not suggest how Private Joshua D. Frye would have fared in an American equivalent to Israel’s Ro’im Rachok, or had he been provided by the same path and opportunities as British Admiral Nicholas Hine. Much of the case is contextually dependent, and must be considered as such. However uncomfortable, it should be mandatory reading for individuals concerned with the topic of diversity (including, but not limited to, neurodiversity) in world militaries.
While Israel often receives criticism and protests for its military actions on its doorstep, it has at the very least taken steps to ensure that there is a broad range of skills, talents, backgrounds, and demographies reflected within the ranks of its military forces. Between a program like Ro’im Rachok and the significant numbers of foreigners who volunteer for the IDF either out of strong conviction or in hopes of Israeli citizenship, Israel’s military has taken significant steps toward the future – both in terms of how war is fought, and in terms of who is fighting it.