Drone Wars: The Poor Man’s Air Force

A few years ago, I was intrigued to read that President Barack Obama ordered 10 times more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Since their appearance, drones have become omnipresent on the battlefield and not a week goes by without a news article about their feats.

Incidentally, drones have played a role in the war of aggression launched against Ukraine by Russia in the last few weeks. They are also used in several theaters around the world. In a nutshell, “the drones developed by Israel and then revolutionized by America have now proliferated everywhere”, writes Seth J. Frantzman in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier Books).

The author writes that everyone wants drones, notably because they are cheaper than airplanes and reduce the potential for human casualties. They have become the “poor man’s air force”. Hence, their use by Houthi rebels in Yemen in the cross-fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia.About this conflict, the Jerusalem Post correspondent and analyst reminds us of a chilling episode when Houthi drones attacked an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia – “some 1,000 kilometers from Houthi frontlines in Yemen” – in August 2019. The kingdom which ranked in 6th place in terms of military expenditures in the world in 2020 was defenseless in front of this incursion. A real military representation of the biblical tale of David versus Goliath and a manifestation that superpowers are not immune from an attack performed by a “poor man’s air force”.

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Turkish Drones Over Ukraine

Seth J. Frantzman (source ANF News)

Seth J. Frantzman is a senior correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post, one of the world’s leading newspapers. He’s also a defence expert on anything related to drones in warfare. He recently published an insightful book on the subject, Drones Wars. Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russians forces on 24 February, drones have played a role on the frontline as videos have circulated about their performance or the devastation and atrocities they permit to observe first-hand. Despite a grueling schedule, Mr. Frantzman, whose book I will review here soon, has kindly accepted to answer a few questions for me. I am sincerely grateful for that.

Here is the content of our exchange.

It does not seem the drones are playing a major role, but if they can show that Ukraine can still operate in their airspace, even when contested by Russian air defense and Russian warplanes, it will be an important accomplishment for armed drones.

Mr. Frantzman, I have watched with amazement the images of the Turkish-made drone attacking the Russian military in Ukraine. What place are the drones occupying in this conflict? 

There is a lot we don’t know about how Ukraine is using the Bayraktar drones it has acquired from Turkey. Basic information about how many are still flying and where they are operating appears to be lacking from most reports. Nevertheless, there have been several videos claiming to show the UAVs targeting the Russian military. It does not seem the drones are playing a major role, but if they can show that Ukraine can still operate in their airspace, even when contested by Russian air defense and Russian warplanes, it will be an important accomplishment for armed drones. 

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Fighting Covid-19 with “The Weapon Wizards”

WeaponWizards“The most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” – James N. Mattis

Israeli soldiers have always impressed me. Because they know how to use their brains.

Few years ago, I was impressed to observe several young Israeli soldiers carrying their Tavor assault rifle – which was selected by the IDF to replace the M-16 – a weapon better adapted to urban warfare, which is a necessity for the Israel’s Defense Force (IDF).

In itself, the apparition of the Tavor is a vignette of Israel’s legendary capacity to find a solution to a challenging situation.

Few weeks ago, I reviewed Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power by Yaakov Katz. After finishing that excellent book, I decided to read the first book he wrote with Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower.

And that proved to be a delightful read.  

The authors recount how, in the days preceding the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the leaders of the Yishuv understood that they could not only count on others to build up and develop their military and defense infrastructure. The kibbutzim who fabricated ammunition clandestinely paved the way to a country that is now the 8th largest arms exporter in the world and became “[…] the world’s largest exporter of drones”, while also developing discreet relations with China at the height of the Cold War.

Barack Obama is the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

It is therefore enthralling to learn how drones – a common feature in current military operations nowadays – were invented in the late 1960s by an Israeli innovator who had to surmount lots of opposition. Or how President Barack Obama’s intervention represented a lifesaver for the Iron Dome, after one of his advisors “[…] was struck by Israel’s lack of strategic depth and how close towns and cities were to the threats brewing in the North and South. When Kahl returned to Washington, he drafted a memo recommending that the White House immediately authorize $200 million in Iron Dome funding.”

I might ruffle a few feathers here, but I think that Barack Obama therefore became the godfather of a military invention that is “the world’s most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2000 interceptions and a success rate greater that 90%.

Autistic people serve in the IDF in a subunit of highly qualified people.

Thanks to Katz and Bohbot, the reader understands that, while Israel lacks geographical strategic depth, this feature is largely compensated by the resourcefulness of its people. The most interesting passage of the book is when the authors write about a special form of recruitment in Israel’s Armed Forces. “Gathering the intelligence is only half the job. The other half is analyzing the imagery. For that, the IDF created a subunit of highly qualified soldiers who have remarkable visual and analytical capabilities. The common denominator among its members is just as remarkable: they all have autism.”

I can think of no other country that does this.

In the IDF, a noncommissioned officer can argue with a general.

In terms of uniqueness, there is another aspect that struck me in the form of “[…] the country’s infamous casualness and informality.” They give the examples of a noncommissioned officer who argued with a general or the reservists who complained directly to the Prime Minister’s Office about a commander who lacked leadership, therefore blocking his promotion. In most of the military structures, an argument and / or a complaint represents the end of one’s advancement. Katz and Bohot write that “creativity can only happen when people come together and exchange ideas. To do that, they need to know each other and share the same language and culture. In Israel, they do that in the army.”

ChutzpahDefinitionAnyone who spent some time in Israel understands the notion that Israelis have no difficulties bending the rules. Oftentimes, the book refers to an occasion when an inventor or innovator used what we call “chutzpah” (a word that is often used between the covers) to progress, violating regulations or bypassing the chain of command to get in touch directly with the Minister of defense. These innovators know that the battlefield is only a few kilometers away and that “[…] if Israel is not creative in its thinking, there is a chance it will not survive.”

Israel’s military capabilities depend on its capacity to adapt and embrace technological and scientific innovation. Those who wear a lab coat and annoy the top brass with their disruptive ideas are responsible for giving the men and women in uniform the edge they need on the battleground to carry the day.

The brains of Israeli’s innovators represents the strategic depth of the country’s defense.

The Weapon Wizards is not only a brilliant exposé of Israel’s military technology. It’s also a colourful account of what makes the IDF so unique and forward-thinking, the brilliance of its people, which is the best possible insurance policy for the future.

All of this said, I have only one regret about The Weapon Wizards: not having read it before. And I’ll be very curious to read anything that I’ll be able to put my hands on about the Rafael defense technology company – a fascinating ambassador of Israel’s capacity to develop effective military solutions against all odds.

In this difficult period where many of us are called to stay home to better fight the Covid-19 pandemic, many are finding themselves with more time to read. All those who nourish an interest in military history will love this book. Trust me.

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Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower,New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 304 pages.

I would like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi of St. Martin’s Press for his kind and precious assistance.