Israel’s Motion Offense

REVIEW: ‘The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces’ by Edward N. Luttwak and Eitan Shamir

Israeli soldiers prepare shells near a mobile artillery unit (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
January 14, 2024

It was not easy to read a book about Israel’s military excellence in the wake of the worst military and intelligence failure in the country’s history since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was also hard to ignore that the book was published by Harvard University, which has been at the center of an anti-Semitism scandal that drags on to this day.

But in the wake of the October 7 slaughter perpetrated by the Iran-backed Hamas terrorist organization, the story of Israel’s military innovations must not be forgotten. This is the country that made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) a staple on every battlefield. It’s the country that developed the rear-engine Merkava tank that has forever changed armored warfare. Israel developed the Trophy active protection system that has protected those tanks, as well as tanks operated by the United States’ soldiers. Similarly, the Israelis developed the helmet-mounted display used in the F-35 multirole fighter flown by the United States and other Western allies. The Israelis also developed the remarkable Iron Dome missile defense system that has knocked thousands of threatening rockets out of the sky.

In a sense, it is the success of these and other systems that paved the way for the Hamas assault. The Israelis had negated the group’s threat from the skies with Iron Dome. They negated the group’s ability to dig commando tunnels into Israel through technology deployed deep beneath the Gaza border. The complex yet streamlined system for gathering signals and geospatial intelligence in Gaza gave Israel yet another edge. But in the end, it was brute force and a long disinformation operation that enabled Hamas to invade southern Israel, slaughter more than 1,200 Israelis, and take another 240 of them hostage.

This does not mean that Israel’s culture of military innovation is now no longer relevant. The opposite is true. The challenges and failures that Israel has endured are what historically inspired some of Israel’s most remarkable innovations.

The small population of Israel forced the country to adopt a reserve-center military force that continues to draw upon the human resources of men and women committed to Israel’s defense in ways not seen among other countries. The Israel Defense Forces are truly the "people’s army." And the morale of that army right now is soaring, despite the tough war it is fighting.

As Edward Luttwak and Eitan Shamir note in The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces, the agile nature of Israel’s armed forces derives from the fact that "large responsibilities are often assigned to low-ranking officers because of the chronic shortage of senior officers." This has led inexorably to rapid and innovative problem-solving on the battlefield in real time, including right now in Gaza.

The necessary reliance upon younger commanders to solve problems in battle fed into the Start-Up Nation phenomenon, first made famous by authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer. As Luttwak and Shamir observe, it all comes down to a "mentality that tolerates insubordinate applications of the principle of officer responsibility, and positively encourages the seizing of the initiative, must also favor innovation—even disruptive innovation that forces uncomfortable changes."

Such changes occur rapidly in Israel. The authors correctly observe that the timetable from concept to production in Israel is almost alarmingly quick. Iron Dome went from concept in 2006 to successful interception in 2011. As we know, the system has since downed thousands of rockets in the subsequent Hamas wars of 2012, 2014, 2021, and the current war. Indeed, it’s hard to remember a time when Israel was not able to defend its skies.

Israel, however, lacks the ability to scale that we enjoy here in the United States. The country is simply too small with too few financial resources (despite the 4.5 percent of GDP it spends on defense). This gave birth to the Operations Technology Working Group, now enshrined in American law. This laudable initiative pairs Israeli innovation with America’s ability to produce the systems that help the Pentagon prepare for the challenges ahead.

The working group is now just one element of the "special relationship" between our countries that is both wide and deep. The relationship transcends partisanship, even as political tensions have flared in recent years. Indeed, the Biden administration has voiced its support for Israel, despite a well-organized campaign by the progressive left and its international allies to weaken U.S. backing for the war that Israel calls "Swords of Iron."

The challenging optics of this war, however, have started to have an impact. The United States is calling for Israel to dial back on its intensity. And that could be a sign of tension to come. It could also be the impetus for domestic production of weapons that Washington may soon be reluctant to provide over the long haul.

Here it is informative to remember the IDF slogan, "plans are merely a basis for changes." This is not just a refrain. It is a philosophy for a military that was forged under fire in 1948 and has not stopped innovating since. Indeed, the IDF is prepared to adapt, whatever comes next.

Of course, Israel’s culture of innovation can sometimes backfire. Some weapons ultimately find their way into the hands of Israel’s enemies. Israel was the pioneer of the UAV, having deployed it for the first time in combat in 1980 in the Sinai Peninsula (by then-brigadier general Ehud Barak). This technology is now being used by Iranian terrorist groups like Hezbollah to attack Israel. This means Israel must not only constantly create new weapons of war. There must also be solutions for when those weapons fall into the wrong hands.

As the Jewish state fights yet another tough battle for the safety and security of its citizens, the innovation is constant. Reports from officers and private sector technologists suggest that we will soon see the unveiling of new systems that were developed within the first three months of the war, with timelines that shattered even some of the country’s most impressive records in years past.

As Luttwak and Shamir point out, it’s all about the ability to "remove the most obvious obstacle to innovation, the authority of the old over the new."

The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces
by Edward N. Luttwak and Eitan Shamir
Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $35

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.