Israel’s Tech Advantage Created Complacency

Israel’s Tech Advantage Created Complacency

Hamas’ incursion into Israel shows that technology on its own is no guarantee of victory.

The massive Hamas attack on October 7 caught Israel off-guard and unprepared, leading to a massacre of 1,000 civilians in border communities near Gaza and the deaths of at least 300 soldiers and dozens of police and security guards. Many of Israel’s leading military and intelligence officials have taken responsibility for what happened. However, the attack, which involved three waves of attackers storming a security fence, penetrating twenty-nine locations, and overwhelming IDF bases and posts, will need to be analyzed and lead to tough lessons learned. 

One of the lessons may go to the core of the IDF’s current doctrine, which has focused on pushing technology to the frontline and making “sensor to shooter” times faster and more efficient. Militaries can be very efficient and precise when they choose the time and place of attack and when all the plans and timetables are in their favor. When they meet an enemy that does something unexpected, novel military technology and doctrines are tested and sometimes overturned. This is clear from military history, such as the U.S. army fighting in Vietnam or France’s Maginot line facing the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

In 2019, Israel unveiled a new multi-year plan dubbed “Momentum” or Tenufa in Hebrew. This came under former IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi. “In the northern and southern arenas the situation is tense and precarious and poised to deteriorate into a conflict despite the fact that our enemies are not interested in war. In light of this, the IDF has been in an accelerated process of preparation,” Kohavi said at the time.

The plan had many elements, such as a new “multi-dimensional unit,” a new air force unit that brought together special forces called the Seventh Wing, and investment in more drones and precision munitions. All this was geared toward a military in the model era of smartphones and technology, which Israel excels at. The goal was to combine the best technology of the civilian world with what the military needs. This could make forces move faster and make them more efficient at finding enemies and neutralizing threats.

Everything looked good on paper and in the field during exercises. For instance, forces worked on combined arms drills, with Golani troops and tanks working together. They practiced assaulting mock towns and villages. They also practiced combining helicopters, infantry, and other forces. Artificial intelligence and mobilizing dual-use technology from the civilian sector helped underpin this drive to make everything tech-heavy. Focus went to a new optionally-manned armored vehicle, “artillery of the future,” and a program dubbed “edge of tomorrow.” A new tank, loitering munitions, APCs, drones, and drone operators were announced. 

Not all of this technology was fielded in time for the Hamas attack on October 7. However, the Momentum plan had been running for years, and the IDF had incorporated more technology. This was supposed to make the battlefield more transparent for units to communicate and identify each other and see threats. It was supposed to knit together sensors and networks, harnessing data so that precision fires could go to work when dangers presented themselves. 

The threat that presented itself on October 7 should have been possible to overcome. It included hundreds of Hamas gunmen armed with AK-47s and RPGs, attacking a security fence that was supposed to be a “smart” fence with a billion dollars worth of technology embedded in it. A fence is only as good as those who maintain it, meaning that it requires not just observation towers and remote weapon stations to defend but also soldiers with M-4 rifles to stop penetrations. Peter Lerner, a Lt. Col. (res.), director-general of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut, wrote in the wake of the attack that “this war underscores the timeless lesson that no matter how advanced or prepared a nation believes itself to be, there’s always room for improvement, always a blind spot, and always an evolving threat lurking in the shadows. The cost of overlooking these lessons is tragically high.” 

The cost was immensely high for a small country like Israel. The infantry battalions along the fence were overwhelmed. They fought bravely but suffered high casualties. Some soldiers, home on leave for the holiday weekend, returned as fast as they could. However, hours of chaos on the border let Hamas gunmen enter civilian communities and massacre people. The terrorists also targeted a music festival, murdering 260 attendees.

The attackers were confronted. Quick reaction forces made up of a plethora of elite units, Israel’s version of Navy Seals, Commandos, paratroops, and the rest of the top-tier elite soldiers rushed to the south to fight. But it took time to mobilize men and more than a day to contain the attack. By then, an estimated 2,900 men had crossed from Gaza, some of them gunmen, some intent on looting and kidnapping. They documented their actions on their own cameras, broadcasting them to the world. After they were repulsed, they left behind mountains of evidence of their crimes and their weapons, including explosives and mines.

Israel’s army was capable of defeating this threat. Now mobilized, the IDF has some 300,000 reservists at the frontline near Gaza and on the northern border. However, the initial shock of October 7 must lead to internalized lessons. Technology, such as sensors, can be overwhelmed. All these systems require redundancy. That means that it requires people to back them up during unforeseen contingencies. AI and precision weapons, with a “man in the loop,” can do a lot when going after specific threats. Drone swarms can look for small changes in the rural environment. However, a drone swarm confronted by 1,000 armed men won’t have an answer to all those threats; it can’t close “sensor-to-shooter” times if there aren’t enough shooters. As such, all the sensors in the world need to be backed up with people to do the old-fashioned things that armies have done since time immemorial.

Historically, when armies went to war with too much doctrine and fancy jargon, along with too much technology and over-engineered systems, they were frustrated by circumstances beyond their control. Technology didn’t help the Maginot line. German jet airplanes didn’t stop masses of Allied bombers. Custer’s well-armed troopers were defeated at the Little Big Horn. The British army encountered similar problems at Spion Kop in South Africa, Lexington and Concord in the Americas, and other defeats. Intelligence failures are also well-known in history, whether at Pearl Harbor, the Tet Offensive, or Operation Barbarossa.

There is a lesson in all of this. Enemies must not be underestimated. In cases where adversaries threaten civilians, no chance can be taken to lose at the frontline because civilians will suffer in the rear. Israel’s investment in technology has made the IDF a unique fighting force, and Israeli defense technology is unrivaled around the world. However, as October 7 illustrates, technology alone cannot protect dozens of miles of frontline when facing off extremist adversaries.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: IDF/Creative Commons.