October 18, 2018

On the front lines of Israel’s weaponry

The challenges of defending the Jewish state get very real in the pages of “The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot (St. Martin’s Press). Although Israel is already known and praised as “the startup nation” — the seedbed of high technology — the story of its weapons development and deployment is especially fascinating and highly consequential.

Both authors are Israeli journalists who specialize in military coverage, and they recognize that advanced weaponry is just one element of Israel’s defense strategy. “Israel relies heavily on the reputation of deterrence it has worked hard to create over the years,” they explain. “We believe that this deterrence rests on three key pillars — Israel’s purported nuclear weapons capability, its strategic alliance with the United States and the conventional capabilities of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces].” It is the third pillar that is the focus of “The Weapon Wizards.”

“Conventional,” of course, means non-nuclear, but the weaponry itself is cutting-edge. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, for example, acknowledges that Israel’s adversaries are well-armed and that fresh attacks are unpredictable but inevitable. “We will win though,” he tells the authors, “because our soldiers will be prepared and will have the best technology to assist them.”

The tradition is deeply rooted in Zionism. At a hilltop kibbutz near Rehovot in 1945, several years before statehood, a secret ammunition factory was established so that the Jewish fighters would be properly armed despite the ban on weaponry imposed by the British occupation of Palestine. It was literally an underground facility, buried deep underneath the laundry room of the kibbutz, and sunlamps were installed so that “the ‘kibbutzniks’ making the bullets looked tanned, as if they had been out in the fields all day.” The ruse was necessary because one of the customers of the laundry was the local British army base.

By the way, Southern California — and Los Angeles’ own Lou Lenart and Al Schwimmer — figure in the stories that are told here. During the War of Independence, Lenart flew combat missions in a Czech fighter, and Schwimmer participated in the smuggling of refurbished British warplanes from Burbank to Israel in crates marked “Refrigeration Equipment.” But the whole point of “The Weapon Wizards” is that Israel resolutely set out to become a weapons developer and manufacturer in its own right, starting before statehood and continuing with ever-greater sophistication to this day.

“To survive, the Jewish state could not rely solely on foreign assistance,” the authors write. “It needed to find a way to develop its own R&D and production capabilities. It was a matter of survival.”

As early as 1969, for example, an Israeli officer on the embattled Suez Canal longed for a way to conduct surveillance on the Egyptian positions. He had seen a newsreel that included a segment about a boy who received a remote-controled (RC) model airplane as a bar mitzvah gift, and the officer bought an RC plane of his own, installed a camera, and tested the new device by asking Israeli anti-aircraft gunners to try to shoot it down. The toy airplane survived its test flight, and the drone was born. When the United States later ran into serious problems with its own drone program, “the US finally decided to ask Israel for help,” the authors write.

Israel has long distinguished itself for its mastery of small arms. The American-made M-16, for example, has not only been replaced in the IDF with an Israeli-made assault rifle called the Tavor, but the same weapon is now exported to countries around the world, “from Colombia to Azerbaijan and Macedonia to Brazil.”  But much of its genius is applied to nonlethal technology that has come to be crucial in combat, including drones and spy satellites, and protective armor that has reinvented the tank as an effective battlefield weapon. There’s also the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and the cyber-weapon called Stuxnet, which was co-developed by Israel and the United States and reportedly destroyed some 1,000 centrifuges in Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.

Even more remarkable is the stroke of genius that inspired the IDF to recruit soldiers with autism to scrutinize the imagery collected by drones and satellites. Recognizing that individuals with autism often possess “remarkable visual and analytical capabilities,” they are trained to pore over the raw data and pick out the nuggets of intelligence. “If a bush moves a few feet or a building is slightly enlarged, they will pick up on it,” the authors explain. “To the average eye, these topographic changes might seem natural and be missed. But for [the autistic soldiers] they could mean that a rocket launcher or an arms cache is present but hidden.”

Israel’s accomplishments in weapons development can be explained by one of the hard facts of life in the Jewish state — almost everyone serves in the military, and the military is regularly called on to fight. “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 reserve stints, when they themselves put on uniforms and become soldiers again,” the authors write. As one weapons-maker puts it: “We know what it means to sit in a military vehicle, what it’s like to hit an explosive device or take a burst of gunfire.”