Book Review: The Weapon Wizards by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot

Jerusalem Post, 10/2

Israel’s success over many decades  in the field of military endeavor has long fascinated observers.  The focus on this area was imposed on Israel and the early Zionist movement out of necessity.  But defense industries have today become one of the key drivers  of Israeli economic activity.  In many of the developmental areas constituting the cutting edge of the modern battlefield, the Israeli presence and influence is in vast disproportion to the country’s small size and population.

In ‘The Weapon Wizards,’ Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, two of Israel’s veteran defense reporters set out both to trace and investigate key elements and episodes of this success, and to discover the reasons for it.

The authors 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.

The book makes its case early on regarding the key factor underlying Israel’s 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.’  (p.11).

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 – namely, the willingness to ‘accept failure.’  This is meant not in the sense of fatalism or resignation.  Rather, the contention is that an excessive dread of failure is likely to reduce the willingness to take risks, which in turn will reduce the likelihood of innovation.

The authors then go on to show how this norm is reflected in a system designed to reward originality and out of the box thinking, and how these factors have served Israel well in a number of key sectors and pivotal moments in the country’s history.

The second key contention of the authors is that Israel’s unique circumstances have led to a reality in which many of the most notable examples of Israeli success are in specific areas of particular centrality to the developing and 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.  Regarding drones, 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 UAVs.

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.

Regarding 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 interesting 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 re the Phalcon sales to China demonstrates, as the authors show, what happens when the diplomatic context is not taken into account.

I would like to have seen perhaps a little more discussion of the ways that Israel can or should seek to use the centers of excellence described here to raise the general level of the broader structures of defense.  Perhaps the authors could have addressed the possibility that the culture of improvisation and non-hierarchy might also 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 are not. Turkey is also in the Middle East).

But none of this is to detract from the overall value of this book.  Katz and Bohbot have succeeded in presenting a 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.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Weapon Wizards by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Worth remembering that Tsahal (the IDF), the Ministry of Defence and the large military industries, eg. IAI and Elbit, are very large organisations with bureaucracy and the inertia that comes with it. They will generally prefer expensive solutions offered by familiar suppliers to potentially much more cost-effective options from less familiar sources. The method(s) chosen to detect tunnels are one example.

    Also, the IDF sometimes fails to adopt even simple measures to reduce casualties. It didn’t learn from the Kfar Giladi tragedy in 2006, when twelve soldiers at a border marshalling point were killed by a Katyusha. In Protective Edge 2014 nine soldiers were killed by mortar fire that hit staging areas near the Gaza Strip. Some basic and inexpensive protective measures would have saved those lives. So the Israelis aren’t quite as smart as they think they are.

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