Book Review

The Weapon Wizards

- How Israel Became A High-Tech Military Superpower

Author — Yaakov Katz & Amir Bohbot

Introduction

1. The book celebrates how the tiny nation of Israel with only 8 million people learned to adapt to the changes in warfare and in the defense industry to become the new prototype of a 21st century superpower, not in size, but rather in innovation and efficiency. The book is written by consummate journalists, who have not only covered Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) operations from up-close but also participated in IDF operations as members of the elite force. They complement their journalistic flair with meticulous research and provide an interesting account which not only maintains an exciting tempo but also imparts authenticity to the Israeli story of resurgent dominance in weapon development and export. Whilst the book labours to bring out the almost cliched success mantra of all things Israeli, viz. its fight for survival, it also gives perspectives which challenges many other stereotypes.

2. The authors describe the challenging path taken for each prized possession viz. the Drones, Tanks, Satellites, Cyber warfare and unravel the underlying issues, viz. lack of foreign support, budget constraints, selection of programs and tough decision making at the highest political levels. layer by layer. Each of these factors have been supported not only by anecdotal references but also by data & rigorous research. Thus, the authors inadvertently do offer solutions to the central issue of ‘Self-reliance’ that the Indian Defence Establishment is currently seized of and that is what makes this book relevant and applicable to countries across the world.

About the Authors

3. Yaakov Katz is a lawyer by education and a journalist by profession. His journalistic journey includes the military correspondent/defense analyst roles for The Jerusalem Post, Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, USA Today etc. He was also selected as one of 12 international fellows to spend a year at Harvard. In 2013, Katz became a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs and in 2016 he became the Editor-in-Chief at The Jerusalem Post. His first book viz. Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War, was a bestseller whilst “The Weapons Wizards” is his second book and has been translated in Czech, Polish, Hebrew and Chinese. His most recent book is “Shadow Strike — Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power” which was published in May 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. An eloquent speaker, he has lectured at dozens of college campuses across the US and is a frequent speaker on issues relating to Israeli security and Middle East politics.

4. Amir Bohbot is the military editor and senior defense analyst for Walla, Israel’s leading news website. Bohbot is a popular lecturer on security and defense issues in Israel and is often interviewed by local radio and TV news stations. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Ben-Gurion University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Intelligence Studies at Bar Ilan University.

Key Takeaways

4. From Oranges to Weapons — Israel’s Metamorphosis into a Weapon Exporter. Israel’s main exports underwent a metamorphosis in the last 60 years from oranges and false teeth to electronics, software, and advanced medical devices. Today, the country is one of the world’s top six arms exporters and since 2007, they have exported about $6.5 billion annually in arms. The book attempts to answer the question to “ How did Israel do it?”

through stories of how Israel developed its unique weapons and tactics. Unlike a strait-jacketed formula expected by the readers, the authors explain how each weapon came of age in a different era, under different circumstances, their inventors driven by different inspirations and motivations. The only common factor being that each of these weapons’ development programmes drew on the country’s national characteristics’, which together have created Israel’s unique culture of innovation.

5. Israel’s National Characteristics. Israel is often described as a culture of contradictions. It has compulsory military service for men and women, but instead of instituting social discipline, the military is believed to be the primary source of the country’s infamous casualness and informality. It is a country of only eight million people and without natural resources, but is the country with the third-largest number of companies, listed on the NASDAQ. It has been engaged in a military conflict every decade since its establishment but nonetheless draws approximately three million tourists a year. Whilst part of the explanation for Israel’s economic and military success is the threat matrix the country faces and its nonstop battle for survival since its very inception, it’s only part of the answer. The authors touch a raw nerve when they propagate the idea that Israel’s uniqueness is due to a complete lack of structure in the social hierarchy which helps spur innovation.

6. Military Conscription and Reservists. Another major contributor according to the authors is the fact that The IDF, whilst being a conscription force, is still largely dependent on reservists. Having a military based on a reserves force means that even after soldiers are discharged, go to university and enter the workforce, they continue to serve in the military every year. Pilots usually continue flying one day a week, while combat soldiers are drafted for a few stints each year both for training and for routine patrols/ border operations. This means that engineers who work for defense companies meet soldiers not just in boardroom meetings to look over new weapons designs, but also during 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. This ensures that “operational requirement” the military issues for a new weapon system is concise, clear and defined to the smallest detail. These people were in war, saw battle, and knew exactly what they needed.

7. R &D. Despite its small size, Israel invests more than any other country in Research and Development (R&D), about 4.5 percent of the country’s GDP and continually tops lists as the world’s most innovative country. Furthermore, 30 percent of this amount goes to products of a military nature. By comparison, only 2 percent of German R&D and 17 percent of US R&D is for the military.

8. Multidisciplinary Education. The IDF encourages its officers to get a “multidisciplinary education.” This stems from the limited resources Israel has at its disposal, in terms of not just raw materials but also people. In foreign aerospace companies, Israelis like to joke, there are experts for a single bolt or fuse. In Israel, engineers cross over to other fields and specialize in more than one task. That is why many senior officers and top executives in Israeli defense companies have different degrees in different fields. An IDF officer, for example, is encouraged to get a BA in electronics and then an MA in something else, like physics or public policy. A premier example of a unit that represents the IDF’s investment in manpower and the focus it puts on multidisciplinary education, is Talpiot, the place where Israel’s best and brightest serve. Talpiot — the word comes from a verse in the Song of Songs and refers to a castle fortification, is Israel’s premier technological unit. Every year, thousands try out but only about 30 get accepted, a privilege that entails signing on for nine years of service, three times the usual length.

9. Toy-Planes to Heron Drones. Whilst the world awakes to the capabilities and applications of Drones today, back in 1970s, the IDF badly needed some ways to undertake recon on the Egyptian side as inability of aircrafts to fly low due to Egypt’s SAM batteries meant that they were dependent on Israeli intelligence operatives for all reconnaissance. Some audacious, brave men, actually bought remote-controlled toy planes and fitted them with cameras and so the IDF flew in their first drone in 1969 over Egyptian positions over the Suez Canal. The rest as they say is history. Even at the cost of sacrificing their Aircraft programme ‘Lavi’, the IDF has continued its march to develop drones. It’s often said that the Israelis have succeeded due to the infusion of technology from the US. However, as far as drones go, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing had spent billions of dollars and were still nowhere till 1987, when the US decided to seek Israeli help, which eventually led to the development of the ‘ Predator’, the infamous drone which was America’s most lethal weapon in the global war on terror, responsible for countless strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. Since 1985, Israel has been the largest exporter of drones in the world, responsible for 60 percent of the global market, trailed by the US, whose market share is just 23.9 percent. In 2010, five NATO countries were flying Israeli drones in Afghanistan.

10. Upgraded Pattons to Merkava Mk IV Tanks. The Israelis realised after the 6 day war that armoured forces were the need of the hour. However, the West, including the British and French were only ready to provide them with older technology. So they went ahead and developed the Merkava tanks, with such armour that a Merkava 4 withstood assault from 3 Fire and Forget missiles in the 2nd Lebanon War and stood unbreached, the worst known attack in modern history that a tank has survived. As Israel’s enemies have lost armoured troops in recent times, there have been calls for cut-down in the Israeli armoured corps. However, the Israelis have constantly innovated by introducing Battlefield management systems, Aircraft-style Helmet-mounted Displays, smart munitions capable of attacking hidden terrorists in a building etc. to continue to keep the tanks relevant and at the forefront of guerrilla warfare also.

11. Chutzpadik Sattelites. In 1978, Israel was looking for historic peace agreement with the Egyptians but few Israelis weren’t ready to give up the significant Sinai territory without a chance to be able to monitor Egyptian military preparations. This was also extremely challenging due to the cost of satellite programmes being out of reach of small countries like Israel. Whilst US did help Israel often with satellite imagery, it was dependent on the incumbent CIA chief and this largesse stopped completely when Israel went ahead and used F16s to bomb Iraq’s nuclear facility. Thus, the Israelis resolved to find ingenious solutions to problems like funding, technological challenges, opposition within the country and abroad, unsuccessful launches and put satellites into orbits. Also like all other stories in the book, this one too has a silver lining, with Israeli reconnaissance satellites being the toast of the world today.

12. Iron Dome — Innovate or Disappear. With the Hezbollah rocket threat assuming unparalleled proportions wherein at one point in time they were firing rockets to the tune of 140 in nos daily on Israel, Northern Israel had become a ghost town. With ranges of their rockets increasing almost everyday, this was a true existential crisis for Israel. They needed to make a system which could shoot-down the rockets in the air without inviting war. Their initial success in BMD, wherein Arrow BMD systems had beaten the US in the race to THAAD was one of the options. As it turned out, the issue of finances reared its ugly head again. However, as it turned out Obama led the US to need a peace accord and they were willing to placate the Israelis monetarily. Thus, out of penury, strife, technological prowess, and survival instinct were born the incomparable Iron Dome. There is no other system that can shoot down such small targets as rockets with an accuracy of almost 90 %. The Israelis have not stopped though and are developing ‘David’s Sling’, even more, accurate than the Iron Dome.

13. Many more accounts of such products which are Israel’s export growth engine are provided in the book. Suffices to say that the central theme has always been the same. ‘A maverick with enough chutzpah to challenge every known hurdle of lack of technical support and finances dreams of an offensive or defensive weapon and even at the cost of antagonising own countrymen keeps at it and finally delivers to ensure not only protection but huge admiration and exports orders in return from the international community’.

Conclusion

14. The authors balanced presentation of various view points instead of jingoistic representations from a purely Israeli nationalist’ thought process, a problem often seen in today’s hyper-nationalistic environment, ensures that the reader appreciates the other factors apart from the existential threat that have led to the solution of Israel’s problems. Whilst the book is not written to suggest the right steps for a country like India to take for realising its dream of being Self-Reliant, the lessons from each story could be adopted to Indian problems and solve them. Whether, it is finding means to integrate DRDO closer to the forces without conscription, pumping enough money in R&D to burn-through existing military challenges like development of home-grown missile seekers and turbines, or its developing talent acquisition systems which could encourage the requisite talent in the country to go for the unsolved problems like putting humans on Mars, the prototypes are all there in this book. This, I believe, is the greatest asset of this book. Leaders in the top echelons may want this book to be read and suggestions therein debated at every level. The ensuing debate would itself be a precursor to most changes envisaged by the authors.

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