Books: Risks and rewards

Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot explore the incredible advances Israel has made to the modern battlefield.

Israeli soldiers watch as an Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the southern city of Ashdod in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers watch as an Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the southern city of Ashdod in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s military success over many decades has long fascinated observers. Israel and the early Zionist movement had to focus on this area out of necessity, but today defense industries have become one of the key drivers of Israeli economic activity. Israel has an outsized presence and influence on the cutting-edge technologies found on the modern battlefield.
In The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower, Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, two of Israel’s veteran defense reporters, take an inside look at the key elements of this success and the reasons behind it.
Katz, now the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, and Bohbot, the military editor and senior defense analyst for Walla, begin their account at the moment of birth of the modern State of Israel. They describe the innovative tactics adopted by the Jewish paramilitary organizations in creating facilities for weapons and ammunition production under the noses of the British Mandate authorities. The book then looks at the efforts and the sometimes ingenious methods used by the young state to acquire the hardware needed on the ground and in the air to prevent the early extinguishing of the Jewish state.
Early on in the book, the authors make their case as to why Israel has seen such astounding success in this field: “What makes Israel unique is the complete lack of structure,” the authors contend. “While this seems strange to cite as an advantage, it is exactly this breakdown in social hierarchy that helps spur innovation.”
The central thesis of The Weapon Wizards is that Israel has been able – and continues – to “punch above its weight” in the field of military innovation because of a societally encouraged norm of challenging authority and not deferring to hierarchies. Later, the authors note an additional, related factor: the willingness to “accept failure.” They do not mean fatalism or resignation, rather the ability to take risks, even in the face of low odds or likely defeat.
Throughout the fast-paced read, the authors showcase how this norm is reflected in a system designed to reward originality and out-of-the-box thinking, which has served Israel well in a number of key sectors and pivotal moments in the country’s history.
The authors’ second key contention is that Israel’s unique circumstances have led to many of its most notable successes being won on the transformed battlefield of the 21st century.
In this regard, The Weapon Wizards focuses on the development of drone/UAV technology, Israel’s continued focus on the future role of main battle tanks, satellite technology, cyber warfare, the development of anti-rocket and anti-missile systems, tunnel warfare and the role of targeted killings in counter-insurgency.
In each area, the case is concisely and effectively made. The authors note that Israel is currently the largest exporter of drones in the world, and was the first country to note the enormous tactical potential of unmanned aerial vehicles. In the current battlescape, in which hybrid, semi-regular forces are of particular importance, UAVs are growing in relevance.
Similarly, with regard to heavy armor, even in a time when high-speed clashes between regular armies remain unlikely, the emergence of hybrid forces have returned ground maneuver to relevance (see the current wars in Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon 2006 for example). Israel’s pioneering investment in the Trophy system for tank protection is thus an example of significant foresight.
When discussing the success of the Iron Dome system and the development of the related Arrow and David’s Sling systems, the authors are on ground familiar to observers of Israeli defense matters, but their account manages to be both concise and thorough.
The book contains interesting insights and data on the enormous Israeli contribution to the development of cyber-warfare. The focus on Stuxnet, Operation ‘Olympic Games’ and the significance of this area in current and future conflicts is well-placed.
The authors also note the need for effective diplomacy to frame Israel’s military operations, and they include riveting accounts of both successes and failures in this regard: the decision to attack the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in September 2007 is an example of the former.
The decision to act when it became clear that the US would not do so, but also the determination to avoid publicity so as to give the Syrian regime the option of not retaliating – along with the effective performance of the actual operation itself – were all key ingredients.
The costly failure regarding the Phalcon sales to China demonstrates, as the authors show, what happens when the diplomatic context is not taken into account.
While the book covered much ground, it would have benefited from more discussion of the ways Israel can or should seek to use the centers of excellence described here to raise the general level of the broader structures of defense. The authors could also have addressed the possibility that the culture of improvisation and non-hierarchy might at times play a detrimental as well as a beneficial role – when it comes, for example, to the effective management of large units and structures. I also noted a minor factual error in the text – the authors describe Israel and Iran as the only two “non-Arab states in the Middle East.” They accidentally left out Turkey.
But none of this detracts from the overall value of this book. Katz and Bohbot have succeeded in presenting a scintillating picture of the way in which the particular culture of Israel has produced, and continues to produce, responses to security problems and challenges of a uniquely innovative, creative and (generally) effective form. The challenges show no signs of disappearing any time soon. The Weapon Wizards provides much evidence for confidence that Israel will continue to meet them.