Edward Luttwak is the author (with Eitan Shamir) of The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces. City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly spoke with him about the Hamas attack, Israel’s culture of innovation, and the Ukraine war.
What was the nature of Israel’s failure with respect to the Hamas attack? Was it an intelligence failure, overconfidence in technology, or something else?
It was a straight intelligence failure. The last news before the fighting broke out was that the Ministry of Defense in Israel had granted another 17,000 labor permits for Gazans to cross over into Israel. Israel had calculated that this would lift the standard of living of more than 100,000 people, with many more to come. This was based on the reality that Hamas was not launching rockets at the time. The theory was that Hamas was joining the other Sunni Muslims from Morocco to Saudi Arabia in making peace with Israel.
There was also a separate military planning mistake. Military planners are supposed to prepare for the worst case, but they didn’t. When the Hamas attack came, there were few soldiers in the area. In fact, armed civilians inflicted just about as many casualties on Hamas as the military.
Is the IDF currently equipped to handle the battlefield environment that they are likely to encounter in Gaza?
Yes. The operative part is “currently equipped” because they made an incursion into Gaza in 2014. They suffered casualties, because they still had the old U.S.-made M113 armored personnel carriers, which only protect against things like small arms and artillery splinters. But they learned a lesson from that, and between 2014 and today, they have developed a very heavily protected, high-tech armored-vehicle carrier, called Namer, which means “leopard.” Troops inside can view outside on television screens, and all the weapons are remotely operated, so they don’t have to stick their heads out of a turret to work the machine gun. It is the world’s most heavily armored vehicle, and it has active defense—a small radar that detects incoming anti-tank missiles and rockets and intercepts them.
Your new book explains why Israel has been so successful over the decades when it comes to military innovation and developing sophisticated technological systems. How do they do it?
Yes, the book is about how Israel, a small country which even now only has about 9.5 million people and very little industry to begin with, developed its weapons. The drones you now see everywhere, for instance, got their start in Israel; the idea was to have small, almost toy planes to take pictures instead of sending an expensive, two-engine, two-pilot, RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft. Israel also created Iron Dome, consisting of a radar, interceptor missiles, and software to see targets, launch missiles against them, and, above all, to prioritize threats based on a rocket’s predicted impact point—so if the rocket will land in an empty field, for example, they don’t intercept it. This is a very advanced system, and Israel developed it for a relative pittance.
How does this achievement contrast with the performance of the U.S. defense establishment? Are there lessons or warnings for America?
The American R&D system is governed by 5,000-plus rules designed to avoid waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Unfortunately, these rules make everything terrifically elaborate and costly, and they also seemingly make it impossible to do anything in less than 20 years’ time. When you do things slowly in the R&D world, it means that components and elements like microprocessors become obsolete while you’re still working on a system. Then you have to go back and bring all those obsolete systems up to date. This is how we end up taking years and years—decades, in fact—to develop new weapons, at a huge cost.
The Israeli method, in contrast, emphasizes high-speed development. You move fast, so the components don’t become obsolete before you finish. And you take risks along the way, but your goal is a working system, not perfection. Here in the United States, the job of an independent test and evaluation bureaucracy is not to develop anything but to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Let’s say you have a system, and it must fulfill 97 separate requirements. Not just kill the enemy, but all kinds of other things. It has to work on the hottest day ever recorded in the tropics, on the coldest day ever recorded in the Arctic, and so on. That’s how we end up spending billions and billions of dollars and waiting for decades to build any new system.
The Israelis do it completely differently, developing all kinds of advanced new weapons for a fraction of the cost. The reason is simple: they are not paralyzed by this obsessive fear of waste, fraud, and mismanagement. In fact, this is exactly how the United States used to do it. The U.S. developed the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile, featuring a brand-new missile and a new nuclear warhead, in only about six years. Today, it would take 27 years to do that, if we were lucky.
You were among the few experts who predicted early on that Russia’s war in Ukraine wouldn’t go according to plan. What are your thoughts on the future of that conflict?
The future will be based on present parameters. Parameter number one: the Ukrainians cannot go to Moscow and force the Russians to end the war. Parameter number two: the Russians cannot enter Kiev, which is now a city where every grandmother has two anti-tank rockets. So this war is simply going to continue until Putin changes his mind, or else the Russian Federation changes its president. It will just go on and on, because our big weapon against the Russians is sanctions, and sanctions don’t work against a country that is both a food exporter and an energy exporter, and that can make everything that it needs.
Thus, the war will go on, and everybody’s okay with that, because it’s a limited war. The problem is that limited wars can last a long time. At this point, there’s no reason to think that the war in Ukraine will end unless, of course, its allies abandon Ukraine, in which case it will end with a Russian victory. But that’s unacceptable to the allies, and I believe that they will continue to support Ukraine. Therefore, the war will simply not end.