The High-tech Future of Israel's Wars

Discussions during the 'war session' at Israel's Presidential Conference advise that although high-tech methods of modern warfare give results, 'they are ephemeral.'

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

Even war, sadly, has a tomorrow. For the "war session" at the President’s Conference on "Tomorrow," organizers gathered five experts – two former Israeli Brigadier Generals, an Israeli nuclear maven, and two American professors – to share their thoughts on what such future wars might look like, and what this could mean for our society.

“What might seem like fiction, already exists,” began Yair Cohen, a former commander of Unit 8200, the respected Central Military Intelligence and Cyber Unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, who opened the session. “We are living in a world where 500 million cyber-attacks occur per second –with many strategic and political consequences to consider.”

If the opening events of the 1967 Six Day War were to be played out again today, Cohen claimed – it would be even more unbelievable than a "mere" destruction of the entire Egyptian air force in three hours by Israeli jets. “We can presume today that cyber weapons would take over -- and the same events would transpire – but without seeing even one Israeli jet sent out on a mission and without risking one Israeli life,” he said.

Daniel Gold, head of the Israel National Committee for Commercial/Civilian Cyber R&D, who most famously played a leading role in inventing and managing the “Iron Dome” missile defense system, showed a series of short videos depicting unmanned automated weaponry: Robotic vehicles patrolling the Gaza border; robotic ships equipped with day and night vision systems approaching enemy vessels at sea; and robotic snakes slithering into enemy headquarters and sending pictures back home.

Military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argued that these sorts of high-tech advances, impressive though they may be, were no substitute, now or in the future, for boots on the ground. While it’s true that most wars being waged today – from Iraq to Afghanistan, to Israel’s war with Hezbollah – make use of high technology, he admitted, they also all bring in the infantry at the end of the day.

“High-tech seems to give you results, but they are ephemeral,” argued Luttwak, talking about how in each of those conflicts mentioned, stealth bombers and drones were soon replaced by armored vehicles, and finally, as things got worse, with infantrymen. The high-tech solutions, he said, might make for great openings of war on TV but they “do not deliver.”

“I predict that if there is a renewed big confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel will have to mobilize the infantry and go in with knives as well as machine guns to root them out house by house – otherwise people in Carmiel will continue to be disturbed at night,” he said.

But in any case, added Eli Levite, a highly respected former principal deputy director-general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, one thing is clear: The world of classic warfare has changed. “Conflicts will continue to be increasingly global and multidimensional,” he argued, and friction will be constant – but with varying intensity, “like a chronic disease which experiences occasional flare ups.”

With regards to the nuclear question, Levite said he does not expect a nuclear war, but this does not mean that nuclear powers will not, and should not, continue to play a big role in politics, deterrence and coercion in the future.

Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, who is considered one of America’s foremost political thinkers on the subject of "just" and "unjust" wars, turned his attention, as expected, to the moral issues relating to future warfare, focusing on drones.

While targeted killings might, in certain cases, be morally justifiable, Waltzer said, the increased use of drones brings with it various new moral questions. Does it matter, for example, that those operating the drones are thousands of miles away, taking no risks? Perhaps not, but he suggested “killing seems to be getting easier – which should make us uneasy.”

“Soon everyone will have drones, not only the U.S. and Israel,” he said, and as such it would be prudent to quickly establish constraints on how these drones are used. To the question of "why should we set and respect standards and constraints that others won’t live by?" Walzer responded that like in the case of terror, standards need to be made correctly and explicitly – so that those who do not stick by them are judged by the world's public opinion.

The Israeli army Heron TP drone, also known locally as the Eitan, flies during a display at the Palmahim Air Force Base.Credit: AP
An Iron Dome battery positioned in the Tel Aviv area, Nov. 17, 2012.Credit: IDF

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