Meet the Weapons Wizards
Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, authors of The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin's Press 2017), prove themselves to be far more than experienced and skilled military journalists. (Mr. Katz is now the editor of The Jerusalem Post). They keep readers engrossed with prideful descriptions about Israel's arsenal of masterful weapons of war and defense. Most captivating are accounts about the ingenuity and chutzpah of the wizards creating the weapons, and the Israeli culture that nourishes ingenuity and imagination. The package is wrapped in a sorrowful but realistic fixation on impending doom and annihilation.
The book is an important contribution to modern anthropological literature written by social researchers. The authors convey the point that first and foremost, Israel's weapons wizards consider the group (Jews)'s destiny beyond the importance of any individual. A former Defense Ministry director general told the authors, "We have innovative people, combat experience to know what we need and immediate operational use for what we develop since we are almost always in a state of conflict." Another wizard describes how living in "the shadow of the guillotine sharpens the mind."
Israel relies on science, military technology, engineering, mathematics, and psychology for two reasons. First, it is a military program of deterrence with nuclear capabilities, America the superpower as its "go-to" defensive backup, and Israel's enormously successful conventional military capabilities. University of Chicago professor Hans Morgenthau called it maintaining a "balance of terror" during the Cold War.
Second, Israel lacks allies and defense pacts guaranteeing its existence, as NATO countries do, though it is more a democracy, more stable, and better friend to the West than, for example, Turkey. Knesset member Yair Shamir told me in 2015 that Israel must be weapons independent, with a homemade high-tech arms industry, because it cannot rely on vacillating allies. Their interests are not always Israel's best interests. The whims and agendas of others have resulted in loan freezes, arms embargoes, withholding of intelligence, and most recently temporarily terminating domestic airplane flights into Ben Gurion Airport to punish Israel.
Key to Israel's success is a deep and abiding nationalism, and a culture that accepts and even encourages breaking rules. Twenty-three-year-olds are officers in the IDF; they are ten years younger than those with equal rank in other militaries, "leaving the young soldiers with no choice but to make key decisions on their own." That's exactly what an American Marine officer visiting an Israel Defense Force base told my nephew with a tone of wonderment when he asked the age of the Israeli officer leading the tour.
Several factors incubate IDF wizards. The General Electric motto, "Imagination at work," is a meme taken to heart throughout Israeli society. The IDF is a melting pot for youths from a dozen different cultures and countries. Multi-disciplinary education is encouraged. Criticizing authority and decisions is accepted. The wizard behind the Iron Dome rocket defense system made a career in the air force but took a leave to earn a doctorate in business management and electrical engineering. The story behind Iron Dome is his story. The highly successful rocket defense system is a product.
The authors share a feel-good story how Israel's reliance and respect for all citizens serves Israel so well. Every citizen has the potential to contribute, and military leaders are on the hunt to find and harness the contributors. Gathering intelligence relayed from satellites requires unusual patience and persistence as images are beamed to command headquarters. "The IDF created a subunit of highly qualified soldiers who have remarkable visual and analytical capabilities. The common denominator among its members is just as remarkable: they all have autism."
The stories behind other weapons told in the book are not at all different. There is the story of an ingenious wizard who solved an existential problem confronting the IDF: inadequate intelligence about Egyptian military Suez deployments in the 1960s. He adapted a toy airplane for longer flight with a camera attached, thus building the first military-use spy drone. The U.S. military ordered 175 Pioneer drones for use in 1991 against Saddam Hussein's army invading Kuwait. Thinking the drones were going to drop bombs on an Iraqi unit, they waved their white shirts skyward. "It was the first time in history that a military unit surrendered to a robot."
The wizards adapted armor for tanks against enemy rockets. An Istanbul-born (1939) officer came up with tech solutions like satellites for operational strategies. They designed new tactics to warn civilians of impending attacks other militaries later adopted in urban warfare. Wizards created worms and cyber-viruses used against Iran's nuclear arms development program, and sabotaged key component parts. Meir Dagan kept a picture in his Mossad office, where many imaginative super-secret intelligence actions were birthed. The picture is of his father kneeling, about to be killed by Nazis. "I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again." That promise motivates an entire nation having suffered so long and cruelly by others.
The Weapon Wizards is a great companion read to the 2009 Senor and Singer book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. The latter describes how Israel established itself as a major worldwide player in high-tech and biotech, with many of the business founders being former military technology wizards. Katz and Bohbot discuss this military-industrial partnership, and how it underpins Israel's economy through foreign sales.
The most important message Katz and Bohbot deliver in The Weapon Wizards is not about Israel's admirable technological achievements. Israel's current war is not going to be won or lost with weapons technology, warfare strategies, or military intelligence. Israel must win on the diplomatic front. She faces an onslaught of delegitimization by leftists, Muslim cabals, and world leaders with other agendas.
Weapons are "meaningless if Israel's operations lack the international stamp of legitimacy." Katz and Bohbot infer geopolitical implications that forefend a blissful future. Rather than bask in the glow of a supportive administration in the White House, as Israel's government leaders and sycophant pundits are doing, hopefully Israel's leaders can employ the same chutzpah, ingenuity, and penchant for improvisation to win peace with her neighbors during these next four years. "For a country like Israel, legitimacy is not trivial ... [nor is] particularly American support."