Drafting Up Innovation

Getty Images

Israel is a country of eight million people that at its narrowest point is 9 miles wide. It is surrounded on all sides by enemies who would like to see it wiped off the map: Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south, plus Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Islamic State and Iran to the east. It wouldn’t take a particularly pessimistic person to bet against this besieged slice of desert. Yet this tiny nation has also built an air force, anti-missile defense system and intelligence apparatus that is revered around the world—and relied on by the U.S. military, among many others. And it’s done it with a minuscule fraction of the budget available to larger nations.

How has Israel pulled it off? In “The Weapon Wizards” Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot tell the story of how the Jewish state’s military and defense sector became one of the most cutting-edge in the world. In chapters focused on particular technologies and weapons, such as drones, satellites and cyber warfare, the authors make the case that the same factors that have made Israel a tech giant have also allowed it to become a “high-tech military superpower.” The country’s military, its schools and its extracurricular institutions inculcate in its young people tenacity, insatiable questioning of authority, determined informality, cross-disciplinary creativity and tolerance of failure.

Because of its hostile neighborhood, Israel has had the unlucky distinction of being the first target of the newest terrorist innovations—which has forced it to become a kind of laboratory for militaries across the globe. Israeli commercial airline passengers, for example, were among the world’s first victims of international hijacking campaigns. But elite Israeli commando units conducted the first successful airline hostage rescue in 1972, and then again at Entebbe in 1976. America’s Delta Force was founded partly in response to what the U.S. learned from the IDF’s operation in Uganda.

Two decades later, in the 1990s, Palestinian terror groups began deploying suicide bombers against civilians. By the time of the Second Intifada, the bombings were an almost daily occurrence. Israel responded by adapting: It built a security fence along the West Bank, equipped with sophisticated surveillance technology, which, alongside stepped-up security operations, helped drastically curtail the frequency of the bombings. It also boosted its focus on human intelligence, redeveloping sophisticated networks to track and apprehend planners and perpetrators inside the West Bank.

The Pentagon studied the IDF tactics used during the Intifada and applied lessons about effective urban warfare and the use of dogs in combat to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel also pioneered the use of attack helicopters and UAVs, both of which have been critical in America’s targeting of terror cells in Pakistan and Yemen.

The authors, both longtime national-security reporters and IDF veterans, are particularly interested in the army’s system of reserves and how it has bolstered the country’s military innovations. Many other countries have reserve forces that augment the standing army, but because Israel is so territorially small and its population so outmanned by its adversaries, no standing army could ever be large enough to defend the country. Thus in the IDF reservists not only man whole units but also serve as commanders.

Messrs. Katz and Bohbot argue that a straight line can be drawn from this unique reserves system to the success of Israel’s defense industry. “Israeli engineers’ experiences from the battlefield, as well as their continued training and combat in the reserves, help them better understand what the IDF requires for the next war as well as how to develop it,” they write. This is different from the U.S., where, the authors explain, the Pentagon “installs military officers in development teams at defense contractors, but they are often viewed as outsiders.” In Israel, “the outsiders are the insiders. Military experiences become lifelong experiences. This dual identity is a national asset.”

This was a big factor in the rapid development and deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, designed to intercept rockets launched by Hezbollah from Lebanon and by Hamas from Gaza. Iron Dome was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems; the company’s missile factory is in the Galilee, not far from Israel’s border with Lebanon. Many of Rafael’s engineers live in northern Israel, fought in reserves during Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah or spent 34 days in bomb shelters during that war. In other words, they had far more than an academic understanding of the threat that they were developing technologies to defend against.

Israel’s defense industry also has a unique, export-oriented business model. For the past 30 years, for example, the country has been the world’s No. 1 exporter of drones, responsible for 60% of the global market (the U.S. share of global exports is less than half that).

For its willingness to sell its drones and many other defense technology products abroad, including to China, the country has been criticized. But Israel argues that this is an existential matter. The IDF has never been a sufficiently large buyer on its own to incentivize local companies to develop new weapons or technologies, write Messrs. Katz and Bohbot. This means Israeli defense tech start-ups and larger companies need the economies of scale that can only come from selling into foreign markets to “keep production lines open and prices down for the IDF.”

While “The Weapon Wizards” can be a bit technical for the lay reader, the authors have skillfully conveyed a key component of the dynamic innovation culture that has made the Jewish state one of the most important entrepreneurial and technology-driven economies in the world. Not bad for a country 9 miles wide.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More