The Weapons Wizards exchange, part 1: Behind Israel’s culture of military innovation


Yaakov Katz is an Israeli journalist who currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Post. He previously served for close to a decade as the paper’s military reporter and defense analyst. In 2012-2013 he was a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and is a faculty member at Harvard’s Extension School where he teaches an advanced course in journalism. Prior to taking up the role of Editor-in-Chief at The Jerusalem Post, Katz served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett.

The following exchange will focus on Katz’s recent book (co-written with Amir Bohbot) The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

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Dear Yaakov,

Let’s open this exchange with few impressive numbers mentioned early in your book (whose Hebrew version I am involved in publishing):

According to Jane’s, the British military trade publication, Israel is one of the world’s top six arms exporters. Weaponry alone constitutes about 10 percent of the country’s overall exports, and since 2007, Israel has exported about $6.5 billion annually in arms. In 2012, its 1,000 defense companies set a new record, exporting $7.5 billion worth of weaponry. 

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 gross domestic product (GDP)— and continually tops lists as the world’s most innovative country. While Israel’s investment in R&D is impressive on its own, about 30 percent 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.

Your book tells the story of a very important, yet often neglected, aspect of the Israeli success story – its innovative military industry. Our introductory question: what can the English-language readers of this book expect to find here? Beyond good stories and interesting facts, what does your narrative tell us about Israel and its nature?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for the question and the opportunity.

The book provides readers with an until-now untold story of how Israel became the high-tech military superpower that it is today. A lot has been written in recent years about Israel’s start-up culture and entrepreneurship, and about the success stories they have produced (Waze, Mobileye, etc…), but most people do not know the stories behind Israel’s drones, satellites, tanks, cyber capabilities and other weapons that the IDF and Israel excel in developing – the stories of how all of this sophisticated weaponry was created.

The book highlights some of the key technologies that Israel excels at developing and then provides readers with the stories of how they were invented while looking not just at the inventors themselves – the IDF soldiers, officers or scientists – but also at the unique culture that exists in Israel which enabled this success.

Overall, the book is meant to provide readers with another piece of Israel’s fascinating story – how it went from a country without resources, money or people to an economic and military superpower. We provide the answers through the people who are highlighted in the book.

A tiny nation of just 8 million, Israel has learned to adapt to the changes in modern warfare and become the new prototype of a 21st century superpower not in size but in innovation. Part of this was earned through the many wars it has fought. Israel was the first western country to fight in the 50s and 60s against Soviet military machines in Egypt and Syria and the first western state to face bombings on its streets, years before terror struck in Paris, London, New York and Madrid.

With the threats constantly evolving, Israel has learned how to develop not just new tactics, but also the right technology that can quickly adapt to changing scenarios and battlefields. Its weapons can one day be used to prevent a lone terrorist from attacking a city bus and a day later to stop an armoured column invading from Egypt.

We found that Israel’s success is not because of the size of its military – which is, in fact, much smaller than the militaries of countries which surround it – but the result of a culture of innovation, the emphasis the military puts on improvisation and the IDF’s ability to adapt.

The culture is the result of several factors. One is the fact that few other countries in the world have been embroiled in conflict for as long or as intensively as Israel has. There is little margin for error when the enemy you are fighting is just a few minutes’ drive from your front door – when the terror groups along your borders regularly fire rockets at your homes and schools and send suicide bombers onto your buses.

The second characteristic is the informality you find in the IDF – the fact that there is complete disregard for the rank on one’s shoulders and that low-level soldiers feel free to speak their mind even in the presence of senior officers. Think about this for a moment: the Israeli military, an entity expected to entrench structure and discipline in its soldiers, does the exact opposite.

Even so, this is a key ingredient to creating a culture of innovation. While a culture of informality that lacks hierarchy may appear on the surface to endanger a country’s or an organization’s ability to engage in long-term strategic thinking, it actually has the opposite effect. Breaking down barriers creates an atmosphere that encourages and enables the free exchange of ideas. When officers of various ranks can engage at the same level and speak freely with one another, new ideas are fostered.

It is important to keep in mind that while Israel’s development of weaponry is revolutionizing modern warfare, it has not taken place in a vacuum but, rather, in the Middle East, possibly the world’s most volatile region. You see this with drones. Israel was the country that invented drones but was also the first country to be attacked by a drone being used by a terrorist organization (Hezbollah in 2006).

There is an arms race in the Middle East. This book is critical for understanding its far-reaching implications.

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