The Weapon Wizards
May 3, 2017
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I seldom write about books, but after reading The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower, I was so impressed that I wanted to share it with you.
Written by two veteran defense reporters, the newly released book provides remarkable insight into Israeli weapons development.
It is thoughtful and provocative, and a book that I encourage every decision-maker in America to read – including every member of Congress.
The authors, Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, have exceptional knowledge of – and contacts within – the Israeli defense establishment. Throughout the book, they thoroughly discuss how Israel uses innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and the application of technology to solve problems. Their descriptions will inspire you to think differently about your own business and career.
I suspect the book will also rightly cause some to rethink how innovation occurs in American national security. It personally left me convinced that we could innovate a lot faster and a lot cheaper than we currently do today. That’s because part of the problem in our national security system is structural, but part is cultural.
The American defense establishment is too expensive, slow, hierarchical, and concerned about the possibility of failure. Real innovation requires tolerance for failure – and a willingness to have smart subordinates be insubordinate in the pursuit of real breakthroughs.
The story of Israeli survival from its earliest days is a narrative about facing overwhelming odds and having to continuously innovate. Failure to innovate during the 1948 War of Independence would have led to Israel’s downfall. Coming in the shadow of the Holocaust, in which the Nazis had killed more than six million Jews, every Israeli understood that defeat and annihilation were possible. The almost unimaginable pressure of taking on six countries with regular armies while inventing the Israeli Army forced perpetual improvisation and new ideas.
The budding country’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established the principle that Israel must develop its mental strength even more than its physical strength. He understood and preached that Israel had to maintain a qualitative edge to overcome the numerical advantage of its enemies. This led to a military doctrine of investing heavily in human talent and encouraging that talent to constantly push for change and new achievement.
It was through this constant investment in education, cultivation of innovation and entrepreneurship, and willingness to risk failure to pursue breakthroughs that Israel gained enormous military capabilities. And, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer described it in their book, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, the aggressive success-seeking doctrine also created enormous economic growth opportunities.
Today, the number of scientific, technological, and engineering education programs sponsored by the Israeli military is astounding. The number of specialized units using this knowledge is equally impressive. After these well-educated, brilliant soldier-innovators serve in the military, most go into the private sector, where they help build the world class, high-tech industries that have made Israel a remarkable world player, despite being a country of a little more than eight million people.
So, innovation is ultimately about human beings. The best example of this principle in The Weapon Wizards is the involvement of people with autism in the intelligence community. It is so amazing, I want to share a passage with you:
“The ‘special’ soldiers were sent to a modified training course adapted for people with autism. In the beginning, the IDF was hesitant. While these are high-functioning autists, bringing them into a military unit still brought a risk. After a few months, though, the project’s success exceeded even some of the more optimistic expectations. The soldiers specialize in identifying changes to terrain. If a bush moves a few feet or a building is slightly enlarged, they will pick up on it. To the average eye, these topographic changes might seem natural and be missed. But for 9900 they could mean that a rocket launcher or an arms cache is present but hidden.
“This way of operating is unique. Most countries would automatically exempt autists from military service and would certainly not create a special training program for them. In Israel, though, this might have been expected. Autistic soldiers have unique capabilities, and Israel has limited resources.”
The rest of The Weapon Wizards is equally fascinating.
It is a truly remarkable story of innovation, decentralization, and a culture that recognizes that survival is at stake. Every American who cares about national security or innovation should read it.