Daniel Schreiber
CEO and Cofounder, Lemonade (NYSE: LMND)

Bytes, Bots & Bombers

Exponential technologies are upending Israel’s defense doctrine, and ‘day after’ plans must account for that
AI generated picture

Technology: Leveling The Playing Field

The astronomical cost of advanced military kit puts cutting edge weaponry beyond the reach of most countries. The latest F-35 fighter jets, for example, will cost the USA about two trillion dollars over the platform’s lifetime, while their nuclear weapons platform has already cost an estimated 10 trillion

Israel’s doctrine of Qualitative Military Edge (QME) calls for staying at the cutting edge of such weapons systems. Yet, while Israel can afford this strategy – its GDP per capita is more than 10x that of any of its neighbors, or Iran – there’s reason to question whether QME will be as advantageous in the future as it was in the past. 

Here’s one portent: Israel has plenty of F-35s and nuclear warheads, yet it increasingly turns to drones to deliver lethal force at a distance. Drones are affordable, disposable, accurate, and they keep humans out of harm’s way. All of which is wonderful news until you clock this: unlike nukes and 5th-generation fighter jets – drones are now cheap enough for our enemies too. 

Israel has always dominated the skies, making the democratization of drone technology a worrying development. More importantly, the drones case study offers a glimpse into a far broader, deeper and fast accelerating dynamic that may weaken the QME doctrine itself. 

Because the very forces that are propelling drones – making them cheaper even as it makes them more capable – are exerting the same pressures on many domains in which rich militaries like Israel’s seek a marked advantage: AI, cyber, bioweapons, robotics, communications, intelligence, psyops and much more besides. 

Two examples of tech-democratization to get us started:

  • In 2011 Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, pointed out “there’s more technology in your mobile phone than President Clinton had access to just 15 years ago.” To which I’d add this: there is no such thing as a million-dollar mobile phone. The richest and most powerful people on earth – from Elon Musk to the US President – have the same smartphone in their pocket as you have in yours. Or Sinwar has in his.

    That fact is so familiar that we take it for granted, but properly conceived it is revolutionary and entirely unprecedented. You could not say the same about
    any high value item in world history prior to modern times.  Technology is uniquely democratizing. 
  • ChatGPT is the most advanced AI in the world. It represents a stunning leap in artificial intelligence, and it comes in two flavors: free and $20 a month. There’s no million-dollar tier. Similarly, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all sell budget-friendly access to the most advanced machine learning, voice analysis, computer vision, and document parsing AIs on the planet. No organization on earth – not the Fortune 100 and not Israel’s Unit 8200 – has access to more advanced AI than you – or Nasrallah – can access for a few bucks a month. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I’m not sure it is, and I’m quite sure it won’t be for long.

The unstoppable democratization of technology doesn’t stop there. Anyone with a modest budget and immodest ambition, can already 3D print guns, access near-real-time high-resolution satellite images, synthesize pathogens at home, engineer psyops campaigns from their phone, or launch a swarm of GPS guided quadcopters from their laptop.

Technology’s power to level the playing field makes it a godsend for combating societal inequality, but when it comes to combating enemies, inequality is a feature, not a bug. It’s what the ‘E’ in QME is all about. 

And so it should be worrying that capabilities that were once the preserve of the Pentagon and sci-fi movies, are now within ready reach of malcontents everywhere – and that there’s reason to expect that this trend will accelerate. 

To understand why this is happening, consider the impact of four forces inherent in many emerging technologies: (i) exponentiality (ii) convergence (iii) decentralization (iv) dematerialization. As we will see, these four horsemen combine to massively democratize technology, to the detriment of QME.

1. Exponential: The Shortening Life of Technological Advantage

Both Valium and the Valkyrie bomber hail from the ’60s, and each cost over a billion dollars to develop. But the marginal cost of a Valium pill dropped to pennies, while the marginal cost of a Valkyrie ran to hundreds of millions.

The rationale for QME is predicated on weaponry behaving like the Valkyrie – expensive projects that are expensive for others to replicate. Yet many military technologies are increasingly behaving like Valium – expensive projects that are inexpensive for others to replicate. That’s not good.

One root cause is the accelerating, or ‘exponential’, rate of technological advances. The cost of 1GB of digital storage, for example, dropped a staggering 8 billion fold in 50 years. The first sequencing of a human genome took 13 years and $2.7B, while today it takes 24 hours and a few hundred bucks. Similar lightning progressions were displayed by processing power, communications, AI, and much besides. This escalating rate of technological advances collapses time, to the detriment of whomever is at the cutting edge. 

Consider this: Roche invested in developing Valium because their patent gave them a twenty year monopoly over the drug – which became the most frequently prescribed medication in the world. But if their exclusivity contracted to just two years, let alone two months, they’d have less to gain, and more to lose, by investing massively in cutting edge technology. That’s a helpful metaphor for what’s happening in some military arenas.

2. Convergence: Threat of Multi Purpose Tech

A handful of countries enjoy an oligopoly over advanced fighter jets and thermonuclear weapons, but countless companies are pushing the boundaries of AI, drones, social networks, robotics, cyber security, advanced communications, satellite imagery and so much more. Unlike nukes or F-35s, these are all multi-use technologies with mass appeal, and so they are being advanced not just by militaries, but by profit-seekers worldwide. That changes everything.

Convergence is about how distinct technologies that are each progressing at an exponential pace converge to produce supercharged innovations. The power and affordability of consumer drones, for example, stems from the convergence of miniaturization of electronics + precision GPS + AI-driven gyroscopic stabilization + advances in computer vision + growing resolution of optical sensors + longer-lasting batteries + advances in material science + rapid data transfer capabilities of 5G network. In the blink of an eye, these combined to transform drones from top secret, costly and uniquely military systems, to an 8 year old’s plaything.

The point is, that while Israel can out-R&D Hamas and Hezbollah, it cannot out-R&D Amazon, Google, Baidu or the thousands of other companies driving down the costs, and driving up the capabilities of all these technologies. At twenty billion dollars, Israel spends more of its GDP on R&D than almost any other country – yet Amazon alone spends 4x more

The upshot is that strategically important technologies are increasingly available for purchase online, in their state-of-the-art embodiments, for a tiny fraction of what they cost to develop. 

3. Decentralization of Power

Beyond the collapsing timelines of technology, lies its increasingly decentralized nature. Three examples should drive home this point and its poignancy:

  • Blockchain: Banking systems were built on a  hub and spoke architecture: a chokehold on the hub (SWIFT, for example) meant significant control over the entire economy. But blockchains cannot be blocked, and so no government or agency can stop the transfer of cryptocurrencies from anyone, anywhere to anyone, anywhere. Blockchains are massively democratizing.
  • Open Source: Open source software is similarly indomitable. Meta has spent ten billion dollars on computing infrastructure in order to train AI models that it then open-sources. Once someone downloads that code – or the code of multiple competing initiatives – they are off the grid and off to the races. The upshot is that anyone, rich or poor, can harness the most advanced artificial intelligence, for free, unrestricted and unobserved. The AI systems offered by OpenAI, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have controls to minimize their misuse – but their open source alternatives do the bidding of their malevolent masters no questions asked, and no one is any the wiser.
  • OSINT: The CIA is the central intelligence agency – being ‘centralized’ is in the name. Whereas OSINT stands for open-source-intelligence, and it is increasingly outperforming the centralized kind. When flight MH17 was downed over Ukraine in 2014, a distributed network of amateur sleuths pieced together snippets of information from myriad social media posts, to convincingly demonstrate Putin’s culpability far beyond what any spy agency could muster. OSINT has demonstrated such superiority many times since.

Once the flow of money, artificial intelligence and military intelligence are thus decentralized, the advantages of powerful states and their militaries are eroded.

4. Dematerialization: Redefining Military Strength

To the exponential, convergent and decentralized nature of technology, we should add its power to dematerialize. Kinetic weapons – things that go boom – remain central to warfare, but the balance is shifting towards things that require less or no physical incarnation. 

Online satellite imagery shrinks the advantage once enjoyed by militaries with U2 spy planes; GPS obviates the need for special forces crossing borders with Laser Target Designation Systems; cyber warfare can destroy infrastructure and disrupt civilian life as only bombs and bombers once could; and bots can harness social media to spin anything that does go boom, to the detriment of whomever pressed its button. Dematerialization democratizes technology.

This shift, from atoms to bits, is a worldwide phenomena – affecting industries from medicine to farming – and it shows no signs of letting up. Dematerialization is generally good for humanity (lowering the costs and environmental impact of many things we consume) but it does weaken the doctrine of QME. Unlike atoms, bits are easy to replicate and distribute, hard to own or control, and their marginal cost is zero. All of which means that dematerialization, too, helps level the playing field.

A Symmetric Threat

Asymmetric warfare is nothing new. Al Qaeda brought down the twin towers using box cutters, and military strategists from Sun Tzu onwards have written of it. But the four horsemen we surveyed don’t lead to the rise of asymmetry, but to its demise. Herein lies the problem. The barbarians at the gate will increasingly be armed not with box cutters, but with disturbingly advanced tech, and all indications are that the QME will continue to be eroded by these forces.

Israel’s enemies have already weaponized TikTok, quadcopters, and messaging apps. How long before some antisemite with a biology degree engineers a pathogen that targets Jews (identified by a combination of mitochondrial haplogroups, SNPs, Autosomal DNA, and LD)? Or some terrorist group uses AI to swarm ten thousand quadcopters into Israel, programmed to loiter until they lock in on cars with military number plates, or faces they’ve been trained to target, or mothers with babies? How long before deep fakes and social engineering at scale are deployed to disrupt what’s left of Israel’s political standing in the world, or its social cohesion at home? Or coordinated cyber attacks bring down Israel’s power grids, water supply, airports or communications?

To be absolutely clear: F-35s continue to be powerful difference-makers, and they will continue to fly many missions the likes of which no swarm of off-the-shelf quadcopters will ever be capable of. Something similar can be said of Israel’s fleet of Dolphin-class submarines, 5th-generation Merkava tanks, multi-layered missile defenses, unrivaled special forces, and its world class HUMINT and SIGINT (human and signal intelligence), for which OSINT is no substitute.

My central point, then, is not that Israel’s QME is over, or ever will be. To state the obvious, there will always be critical tools of war that cannot be bought on AliExpress. The point is rather that Israel’s QME has been eroded, and will continue to be. And that’s because the range of tools of war that can be bought on AliExpress is growing.

A Strategic Rethink Is Coming

This piece doesn’t have a happy ending. The forces represented by the four horsemen are relentless and undeniable. To make things worse, in a phenomenon known as “creeping normality”, people tend to deny undeniable threats, so long as their emergence doesn’t produce dramatic changes from one day to the next. The relentless democratization of technology is such an insidious threat, compounding in the background, but not generating a sudden, triggering, jolt.

The hell unleashed on October 7th, in contrast, sent sudden and profound shockwaves throughout the land. Everything changed from one day to the next, and a strategic rethink will now be inevitable and welcome. My hope is that the themes outlined above will loom large for Israel’s leaders and planners. The coming strategic reassessment must consider not only the threats exposed on October 7th, but the forces acting to reshape the threat matrix itself.  

What might such a broad strategic rethink look like? I don’t have a pat answer. My aim is more to kick off a discussion by highlighting the problem, than to end the discussion by offering a solution.

But I can’t help thinking that one strategic complement to QME worthy of serious exploration is for Israel to (re)prioritize winning over the hearts and minds of would be insurgence in the years and generations to come. If until now Israel was content that it can use military power to quash unrest, it should, perhaps, increasingly look to soft power to change the threat landscape itself. It is a massive undertaking, which will require sustained investments over a very long time, backed by strong regional and local alliances, but strategic advantages are seldom cheaply gained.

For Israel not only has F-35s and nuclear weapons, it also has a vibrant economy, and a young, educated, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan populace. Are there ways Israel could harness these non-military assets – diplomatic, social, educational, economic – to effectuate a long term shift in its standing among its Arab neighbors? Could these be channeled to bolster moderate forces vying for influence within its Arab neighbors? If the answer is ‘yes’, investing in these vectors would go a long way towards redressing some of the challenges outlined above. 

Something vaguely similar has been done before. In the waning days of WWII Germany lay in ruins: its major cities reduced to rubble, 10% of its population dead, and not a semblance of governance anywhere. Keen to break the militarism and expansionism that begot two world wars, the Allies’ ‘Day After’ plan focused on denazification, demilitarization, and reconstruction. Their efforts changed the very character of the German state, delivering 80 years (and counting) of peace and prosperity throughout the region. As a result, Germany’s neighbors today needn’t worry about drone strikes or cyber attacks from their erstwhile enemy. A similar ‘Day After’ plan produced similar outcomes in Japan. That’s what changing the threat matrix looks like.

2024 is not 1945, and the middle-east isn’t Europe. I get all that. But while we can’t draw a direct comparison, we can draw inspiration. Like Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. 

Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, said in 1945 that the results of their Day After plan “can only be judged 50 years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded.” Something rhyming with that might serve Israel well right now.

In this final section I’ve offered little more than a ‘thought starter’, I know. And you may think the very direction is dangerously naive, and I get that too. But I’d counter that so does thinking that Qualitative Military Edge will provide in the next 50 years, as it did in the past 50. It probably won’t.

So whether you subscribe to my ‘thought starter’ or not, my central point remains this: big changes are coming to our world, and these require changes in Israel’s defense doctrine. A Qualitative Military Edge must remain a pillar in Israel’s defense posture, but it mustn’t be the only one.

About the Author
Daniel is CEO and cofounder of Lemonade (NYSE: LMND), the insurance carrier powered by artificial intelligence. His previous roles include President of Powermat, the pioneer of wireless charging, and SVP Global Marketing and General Manager at SanDisk, the Fortune 500 global leader in flash memory chips. Daniel began his career as a corporate-commercial attorney.
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