How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower

How did a country smaller than El Salvador with a population of eight million and few natural resources become a military superpower within a few decades?

In The Weapon Wizards:  How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin's Press, 2017), authors Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot explain this remarkable phenomenon.  Calling on their experience as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans and seasoned national security analysts, they present an intriguing and engrossing account of Israel's defense capabilities development.  From a country lacking bullets and aircraft, Israel transformed itself into one of the most effective militaries in the world and the sixth-largest arms exporter globally.  Today, Western powers, including the U.S., France, the UK, Russia and China, all come to Israel to learn and establish joint ventures.

The Jewish State has several characteristics and realities that have contributed to its military prowess and technological leadership, the authors explain.  From inception on, Israel has been surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction.  The country was built by Jewish refugees forced from Arab countries that their families had inhabited since before the birth of Christ, and by Holocaust survivors, many smuggled past the British into the Jewish homeland.  Defense of the ancient homeland was, from the beginning, a survival mission with little room for error and miscalculation.  Creativity sprang from the adversity of a relentless enemy close at hand.

Constantly on the front lines of conflict, Israel was forced to break new ground and pursue unproven technologies that other countries may not have considered.  The authors say this explains why Israel, among the world’s nations, invests the highest percentage of gross domestic product on research and development: 4.5% with 30% of the total for military projects.  Additionally, Israel's entrepreneurial spirit and ability to innovate is demonstrated by the fact that the tiny country has the third-largest number of companies, behind the U.S. and China, listed on the NASDAQ exchange.

Further, Katz and Bohot explain, going it alone has been a necessity for Israel. Added to problematic regional politics with hostile, oil-rich Arab neighbors is the inability to consistently depend on support from reluctant allies dependent on Gulf oil.  The fledgling state responded with inventiveness and innovation to develop its weapons and defense capabilities in this hostile environment.

In The Weapon Wizards, Katz and Bohbot cite other significant factors that set the Israelis apart from other countries in matters of national security.  They cite the strong connection that exists between the Israeli populace and the military.  Military service is compulsory in Israel; men serve for three years with reserve duty to age 40-49 and women serve two years with varying reserve duty commitments.  Remarkably, at any given time, 5% of Israelis are active participants in the military.  After their initial commitment, Israeli veterans maintain close relationships with military buddies as they join the workforce and continue their reserve duty.

Another force for creativity and the constant generation of new ideas cited by the authors is the informality and lack of organizational structure in Israeli military culture, which encourages risk-taking and questioning at every level.  Within the Israeli military's egalitarian structure, it is permissible, even encouraged, for a 20-year-old soldier with limited experience to challenge a seasoned veteran and the decision-making process.

Katz and Bohbot highlight how education is prized in the Israeli military.  The best and brightest serve with their talents put to optimal use and a multidisciplinary education – two or more degrees in different fields – encouraged.  The rationale is that a military recruit with degrees in diverse fields is more likely to think outside the box to solve problems.  The authors present myriad examples of how an educated military has been an asset to Israel’s defense.

The authors also detail examples of necessity prompting invention. When Israel achieved independence, it needed weapons badly.  The British, with a tight grip on the country, tried to prevent immigration of Holocaust survivors and acquisition of arms.  Israelis circumvented the British by acquiring a hilltop community and functional farm and using it as a clandestine, underground bullet factory right under the watchful eyes of the British.                                                                        

When Israel needed to surveil military positions of hostile neighbors, the idea to attach cameras to remote-controlled, toy airplanes led to the birth of Israel's billion-dollar drone industry.  The first use of this new technology in 1969 produced photos of Egyptian military trenches built along the Suez Canal and the communication cables that connected various positions.  It provided valuable information about the Egyptian preparations for a future war and enabled the Israelis to plan accordingly.  Creation of the drone arose from Israel’s real, national security need for quality intelligence on military positions, radar and communication frequencies, and laser-target designations, as well as assistance for fighter jets.

The drone ultimately led to Israel's position as a global military supplier of this technology.  Since 1985, Israel has been the world’s largest exporter of drones with 60% of the global market.  Today, drones are used in every branch of the Israeli military and on all its various fronts.  They can be flown in line-of-sight mode within 250 miles or in satellite mode controlled by a satellite hook-up for distances limited only by fuel capacity.  Drones can have sensors, day or night cameras, infrared vision and laser targeting, as well as sensors to identify WMDs. They can also attack and destroy targets. They can detect changes in terrain that may indicate the location of underground rocket launchers.

Drones have far surpassed their original intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions. Today, drone flights account for close to half of all annual flight hours for the Israeli Air Force and have decreased the number of boots on the ground. Drones provide more accurate intelligence and better evaluation of targets, many undetectable by conventional radar.

The same capacity for innovation created vast improvements in armored tanks as well, Katz and Bohbot explain. They include improved shooting-on-the-move accuracy using an automatic tracking system combined with a video camera, and tanks that could drive and shoot faster with modular armor that could be replaced as needed on the battlefield. Other innovations included computerized battlefield management systems that enable all nearby forces to see enemy positions on a digital map and to recommend the type of ammunition for a specific target.  Israel also developed a system of hollow explosive belts installed around tanks to intercept ballistic missiles. A missile hitting this tank-intercept system explodes outside the tank without penetration. 

In their fascinating book, Katz and Bohbot explain how the Israeli satellite industry arose from an acute need for more accurate aerial views of enemy positions.  Poor-quality photos from reconnaissance flights over Egypt made missions dangerous for pilots.  In 1988, with successful launch of the Ofek-3 reconnaissance satellite, Israel became a satellite power, specializing in mini-satellites.  By 2014, Israel had seven satellites in space, most of which have electro-optical sensors taking high-resolution photos. Two satellites have radar systems that can see through fog and clouds.  Satellites have revolutionized the battlefield and provided Israel with unprecedented intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The authors describe the legendary development of the Iron Dome, unique in the world to Israel.  With constant rocket attacks, development of an anti-ballistic missile system was critical.  In 1991, during the First Gulf War when the forces of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel, Israelis fled into sealed rooms with gas masks.  The need for a missile defense system was made plain.

The Iron Dome was created with three components: a missile to intercept incoming rockets, radar to detect rocket launches and a battle-management system that predicts rocket trajectory and destination.  When the Iron Dome went operational in 2011, it was a game changer for Israel’s security, not only intercepting attacks but also providing Israeli leadership with more time to plan retaliation.

In another groundbreaking development cited by Katz and Bohbot, Israel was the first country to master targeted killings.  After Hamas terrorists embedded themselves within the civilian infrastructure for murderous, political ends, some skillful way to single them out was needed.  Since Israel adopted this strategy, targeted killings have become the global standard in the war on Islamic terrorism.

In cyber warfare, the Israeli military has also played a significant role, the authors say. Stuxnet, a computer worm developed in cooperation with the American military and billed as the world’s first digital weapon, was used in a 2010 attack on Iran's nuclear centrifuges.  A military cyber command in Israel now gathers and processes any intelligence transmitted over phones or the Internet.  Today, Israel is a global leader in cyber security, capturing 10% of the global cyber security market.

Israel is forever braced for uncertainty as it prepares for future wars of unknown dimensions.  Current projects include work on interoperability – the ability for military units from different disciplines to work together – and on continued development of robotic platforms, increasing the number of unmanned flights and integrating robots into unmanned vehicles and ships.

A statement from a senior IDF officer aptly exemplifies the current situation:  "The enemy today – whether Hezb’allah or Hamas – has a low signature, is slippery and operates inside an urban setting.  We need to know how to detect, identify and engage such targets quickly and accurately."

Israel has demonstrated that pursuit of that end led to advances in technology and weapons that have enabled it to survive and even thrive despite its small size, vast numbers of enemies surrounding it and uncertain allies. The adversities Israel faced and continues to face and the threats to its very existence gave birth to a spirit of innovation and a culture of creative thinking that has made the tiny country a major, global military power. In its dangerous part of the world where the unanticipated must always be part of the defense equation, Israel’s survival depends on this continued quest for military excellence and maintenance of its military superpower status.