Israel, the world’s largest exporter of drones? The world’s leader in missile defense systems? On par with the United States and China in cyber security? It may be hard to believe, but it’s true, according to veteran reporters Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot in a new book, “The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” (St. Martin’s Press).
Katz, who recently spoke with The Jewish Press, is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post and a lecturer at Harvard University’s Extension School. Bohbot is military editor and senior defense analyst for Walla, Israel’s leading news website.
The Jewish Press: You write in The Weapon Wizards that Israel is one of the world’s top six arms exporters, selling weapons to such countries as China and India to the tune of $6.5 billion a year. What kind of weapons does it sell?
Katz: India is one of Israel’s biggest customers. Israel sells it anything from drones to missile defense systems to anti-ship missiles to radar systems. It’s a very close relationship.
As for China: Israel doesn’t sell it anything anymore. That was a decision made about 13 years ago after the United States basically presented Israel with an ultimatum: either sell to China or have an alliance with the United States. Israel decided to side with the U.S. Before that ultimatum, it sold billions of dollars of weapons to China – drones, missiles, artillery shells, etc.
You write that Israel is responsible for 60 percent of the drones exported worldwide since 1985. That’s a remarkable statistic. Who buys drones from Israel?
The United States, Australia, Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom, countries in Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and others. In 2010 you had five NATO countries flying Israeli drones in Afghanistan.
That Israel sells drones to so many superpowers must be a source of pride to Israelis and informed Jews worldwide. But isn’t there also a danger in selling advanced technology to other countries?
It’s a delicate balance. You have countries that are allies, so you can trust them. And then there are other countries that might be your friends but they’re also friends of your adversaries. So you have to be careful. For example, when Russia asked Israel to sell it drones in 2008, there was a big debate in Israel because there was concern that these drones would one day find their way into the hands of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas – as we’ve seen with other Russian technology. So Israel ultimately decided to sell Russia older model drones.
You write that Israel’s entire drone industry started with a toy airplane. Please explain.
After Israel conquered the Sinai in 1967, it wanted to be able to see what was happening on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal – to see if the Egyptians were preparing for another war. But Israel was having real difficulties. They tried to fly fighter jets high above the border and take pictures on an angle, but they were no good. Then they tried building towers on top of tanks to peer over the Suez, but one of them got shot at. Then they sent a spy, who went from Israel to Europe, from Europe to Cairo, drove up to the Suez Canal, took some photos, went back to Cairo, through Europe, back to Israel, and developed the film. But it just seemed crazy to do all this to see what was happening a few hundred feet away.
And then one officer remembered that he had seen a newsreel about a Jewish boy in America who received a toy airplane as a bar mitzvah gift. To make a long story short, Israel purchased three toy airplanes in a New York City toy store. The toy planes were sent to Israel in a diplomatic pouch, cameras were attached to their bellies, and they were flown over the Suez Canal in 1969. The pictures that came back were amazing, and that was basically the first drone flight in the world.
Another area in which Israel excels is cyber security and cyber warfare. You write that in 2009 it reportedly used its prowess in this area to derail both Iran’s and Syria’s nuclear ambitions. How so?
Israel and the United States developed a virus called Stuxnet which attacked Natanz, Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility. Basically, it infected the machines that controlled the centrifuges. Each centrifuge is like a metal canister that spins around at very high speeds to enrich uranium, which is what’s needed to build a nuclear weapon. What Stuxnet did was play with the engines so that they would go really fast and then suddenly really slow. Really fast and then really slow. And this eventually broke the engines because they’re very delicate.
At first the Iranians didn’t understand what was happening, but when a thousand, if not more, centrifuges were destroyed this way, they began to realize that it wasn’t a coincidence and discovered the virus.
What about Syria’s nuclear efforts?
Well, we’re all familiar with Israel’s attack in 2007 on the nuclear reactor that Syria was covertly building in northwest Syria. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is that Israel used a very sophisticated cyber weapon to basically blind Syrian radar systems [during its aerial raid on the facility]. So at one moment it seemed that there were no planes in the air and then at the next moment it seemed that there were hundreds. Israel [thus] disrupted Syria’s ability to intercept or shoot down its aircraft.
Israel is just one of a dozen countries that can independently launch a satellite in outer space. It perhaps is the only one, though, that – according to your book – recruits autistic teenagers to analyze its satellite imagery. Many people would be fascinated to learn more. Can you elaborate?
A few years ago, a non-profit organization wanted to integrate autistic Israelis into military service. It ran a bunch of tests and discovered that these 18-year-old autistic teenagers had the ability to see things on satellite imagery that no one else could detect. Remember, when you’re analyzing satellite photos of a potential underground Hizbullah launcher, for example, you need to be able to detect the slightest change in terrain.
In other countries, people would just write off autistic teenagers as ineligible to serve in the military, but because Israel has limited resources, these teenagers’ ability became an asset of national proportion, and Israel took advantage of it.
Although much of the material in The Weapon Wizards makes for good reading, could it not also be used against Israel by its enemies? Were you concerned about this?
We tried to be responsible and not reveal secrets that could potentially put Israel in grave danger. But also keep in mind that Israel has a military censor which this book had to go through. And both Amir and I are veteran defense reporters who have been covering the military for a long time, so we kind of understand the rules of what can be written and what can’t.
God is obviously watching over His people, but if you had to explain on a natural plane how a tiny country like Israel became such a military superpower, what would you say?
Israelis are very creative, and invention is the mother of necessity. Israel has been under constant threat from the beginning. When Israel was established, it had no resources – no oil, no gas, nothing. The only resource it had was the Jewish brain. So drawing on thousands of years of Jewish scholarship and a tradition of learning, Israelis used their brains to come up with solutions to the problems they faced.
We also have a military that gives us the ability to have a free flow of ideas and exchange of information – where questioning authority is not only tolerated, but encouraged, so that people talk openly with one another. When you can have an open conversation, you will be innovative.
And the third thing is that we have a country where everyone serves in the army. There are no degrees of separation. Engineers in an aerospace company know what it’s like to be in battle and can draw on those experiences. They can think, “What would have helped me as a soldier when I was invading southern Lebanon?” You don’t have that in other countries. The engineers are not the soldiers, and the soldiers are not the engineers. In Israel, that dual identity is a national asset.