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Israel’s disastrous love affair with military tech

Reliance on shiny new surveillance toys put humans in the back seat and left gaping security holes for Hamas to exploit
Soldiers are seen monitoring surveillance cameras at a command center at the IDF’s Re’im camp in southern Israel, November 5, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)
Soldiers are seen monitoring surveillance cameras at a command center at the IDF’s Re’im camp in southern Israel, November 5, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

The similarities between the massacre of October 7, 2023 and the Yom Kippur War are chilling. Now, as then, several layers of interwoven assumptions were held by the prime minister, the political leadership and the heads of the defense establishment.

Today, Israel conceives of itself as a regional power and the entities surrounding it as weak, a conceptual framework according to which the threat Hamas posed could be contained and attention should instead be directed toward the West Bank and Lebanon. That set of assumptions held that even if an attack were to come, our technological superiority – the Gaza border fence, the cameras, the sensors, the control centers, and the digital intelligence gathering – would consign it to failure.

This last assumption must be reexamined in light of Oct. 7, just as the assumption that “the regular troops will hold the line” was reconsidered after the Yom Kippur War.

Until then, it was an article of faith that even if Egypt were to launch a war, the regular army and air force would be able to withstand an attack on two fronts until the reserves were called up.

Today’s concept that “technology will hold the line” is the 2023 equivalent of that failed idea.

It is too soon to draw firm conclusions, and it may be that this disaster would have occurred anyway. But there are several initial lessons that can be learned now to improve the management of the war from this point on.

Over the last twenty years, the IDF has undergone an extensive process of technologization as part of the global technological revolution. This has suited the political class well, allowing every new security challenge to be met with a new technological solution to protect against and deter attacks, rather than hands-on, strategic leadership. It has given Israeli leaders a false sense of confidence that has allowed them to focus their political capital elsewhere, like on developing ties with the Arab world.

At the same time, changes in Israeli society, like the preference to enlist in technological units over combat units, has made it almost essential to replace soldiers with machines.

As a result, the army turned the Gaza border into a “smart” border, employing camera and drone systems and unmanned vehicles, not to mention developments currently in the implementation stage, from unmanned tanks to bulldozers and miniature drones with weapon capabilities. 

But when technology replaces humans, it comes at the cost of dulling human intuition and research capabilities and a disconnection between human soldiers and the battlefield. All of these factors played some part in the disaster of October 7, 2023, as did the government and military’s addiction to the feeling of technological superiority.

Armed with the latest buzzwords like AI, Netanyahu claimed the halo of technological capability, innovation, and superiority not only as a weapon of deterrence against our enemies, but as a geopolitical and strategic asset. He rode the Pegasus steed all the way to the Abraham Accords, doling out the export of military drones and surveillance technology like gifts to friends around the world.

This feeling has seeped into the IDF itself. One can’t help but wonder whether the goal of such military technologization is to find real solutions that have an advantage over humans, or if it simply signifies a “techno-euphoria” and a passion for shiny new toys simply because they are, well, shiny and new. 

Technologically-induced euphoria is a troubling condition that leads to a preference for technological solutions even when there is no basis for their preferability nor proof of their efficacy.

To make matters worse, those who suffer from techno-euphoria tend to ignore the problems caused by new technology.

The construction of and boasting about the technologically enhanced ground barrier on the border with Gaza forced Hamas to adopt a different offensive approach, one that proved to be extremely effective. The very existence of the barrier on the ground and the declarations about Israel’s technological vision, with all its creativity and innovation, led to heightened complacency in the government and blinded the army to the possibilities that Hamas might explore in order to bypass the barrier.

More than anything, techno-euphoria results in partial, imprecise, or insufficient implementation of technological solutions. Examples of this have become glaringly evident in recent weeks, and it is worth thinking about them ahead of the coming stages of the war, and also ahead of future review and learning processes.

The following must be top priorities for the security establishment moving forward:

The principle of redundancy

Reports indicate that snipers were able to neutralize border observation equipment, and three observation balloons went down and were not replaced in the weeks leading up to the war. This led to almost total blindness at the border. Redundancy, which is essential when depending on sensitive technology, ensures that if one means of defense fails, the others can cover for it without creating a blind spot. 

Breaking through the noise of intelligence data

The intelligence establishment has undergone its own technologization in recent years in terms of accessible information (for example, from social media platforms), intelligence-gathering capabilities, and machine-based analysis. How then to explain the enormous failure to interpret events on the ground, given such a huge quantity of information? Perhaps we neglected to notice that as the quantity of “signals” grew, so did the noise, and that having such a huge mass of data at our disposal created an illusion of knowledge, while what we lacked was intelligence analysis and assessment by humans.

The Tower of Babel of systems and networks

When organizations adopt technological systems, they are supposed to challenge existing structures and blur boundaries between silos, fostering work organized around groups and networks rather than around a top-down hierarchy. Experience shows that this is not always the case. This was one of the painful lessons learned from the intelligence failure that preceded 9/11, and it is far from certain that we have learned the same lesson. Different arms have been created that were supposed to meet similar needs (such as monitoring and analysis of content on social media), which are not aware of each other’s existence and which certainly do not share information and insights. 

Cyber defense

Pictures of Hamas terrorists inside an IDF base pulling out a well labeled aerial photo of the base are hugely frustrating. Even worse are the pictures of terrorists going directly to locations containing a cluster of electricity, communications and antenna cables and cutting and burning them. Some of the intelligence needed for these actions came from human sources or from open digital information, while others presumably stemmed from flaws in cyber defenses. This is not a new phenomenon: the state comptroller has repeatedly warned of insufficient security for sensitive military databases, and this needs to be quickly addressed.

Protection of hardware

The “City of David” server farm, which was on the frontline of Hamas’s targets and is located geographically close to the fighting, was the subject of criticism in the past, due to this concentration of servers in a single location so close to the border. This issue must be addressed with greater diversity and redundancy by having different server farms.

Despite the infinite data points and technological tools at our disposal, Israel’s reliance on technology for security failed to protect its citizens from the Oct. 7 massacre. The political and military leadership must face up to the collapse of this paradigm.

Perhaps the development of new technology to handle low-tech threats like those we encountered on Oct. 7 is part of the solution. And it is of course essential to continue investing in technological superiority. But this needs to be done with a clearer head, taking into account the broader contexts, ensuring redundancy, and with humans at the helm.

One thing is clear: we cannot for a moment allow the conception of technological superiority to spellbind us again.

About the Author
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert in law and technology