Israeli Army's Innovation Chief on Tech, Revolution and Losing to Kasparov

Brig. Gen. Eran Niv, one of the most interesting voices in the Israeli army, says failure can be key to success: Look at Iron Dome, he says

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Brig. Gen. Eran Niv, in September.
Brig. Gen. Eran Niv, in September. Credit: IDF spokesperson
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Somewhere in his teens, Brig. Gen. Eran Niv was a member of Israel’s national youth team in chess and, as a member of Kibbutz Erez, also chess champion of the Labor Settlement Movement – back when it still existed. Being drafted into the Nahal paramilitary brigade compelled Niv to abandon his intensive occupation with the game. In the past two years, he has returned to his old hobby and discovered a whole new world for himself: “Everything is done via computers and smartphones, and the computer is the God of the game.”

When Niv this month concluded his term as head of the General Staff’s Combat Methods and Innovation Unit, his officers organized a surprise for him: a meeting with an idol. Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and today a leading international voice in issues relating to both innovation and the struggle for democracy, was visiting Israel. A meeting with Kasparov was arranged for Niv, that included a conversation and of course a chess game, that Niv of course lost. “I held my own against him for 18 minutes,” he relates, “and then my fortifications collapsed and within two more minutes he wrapped up his victory. He was nice enough afterward to reconstruct the moves and show me where I had gone wrong.”

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I’ve written here in the past that for the past two decades or so I’ve tried to meet with Niv every year or two because I find him to be one of the most interesting voices in the army. Next month he will be promoted to the rank of major general and be appointed head of the Cyber Defense Unit in the General Staff. The last position he held was exceptional: the chief of staff invented the function after discerning a deep need to accelerate processes of change and innovation in the Israel Defense Forces, many of which involve developing and assimilating new technologies. Along with this, Niv headed a directorate that was established in order to improve the army’s response to steep-trajectory fire – the rockets and missiles that are launched at the Israeli home front.

In the past two years, Niv says, “I have learned how much I didn’t learn in the preceding 30 years. I didn’t imagine how large and complex the army is, and all the multiple realms it engages in.” Leaders of innovation and transformation can expect a painful encounter with reality, certainly in armed forces, which by nature tend to be conservative. 

“Conservatism is a trait of every person and every society – and for the most part is justified,” Niv notes. “People are not necessarily waiting for you. Sometimes you’re perceived as a threat, sometimes as an opportunity. The bodies [branches and units] are far better and far more experienced than you thought. They thought of most of the ideas at one time or another. And if you have already come up with an original, promising idea, the distance from it to realization is very great. Sometimes you need to know how to fail while trying out things.”

Why make an effort, then? “Because the great transformations of organizations and of the whole of human society stem from those same disruptive ideas. And a very small number of them, 1.5 percent approximately, shape the world.” Niv mentions three revolutions that changed the face of warfare: the rail lines about 150 years ago, the development of integrated fire and intelligence about 20 years ago (in which the United States and to some extent Israel played a historic role), and the digital revolution, that is now underway.

Illustrating his point, Niv cites the lengthy Israeli experience in developing defensive systems against missiles and rockets. “We tried to develop interception via chemical lasers and we failed, but it wasn’t for nothing, because that’s how we arrived at the development of Iron Dome. It provided a suitable response for more than a decade, and now Israel is starting to advance to the next, supplementary layer of interception via electrical lasers. The technology is changing, the political-diplomatic situation is changing, the enemy – and us, too. It is impossible to hope that we will remain in the same place and yet keep up with the pace. It’s far from certain that what worked in the last war will work in the next war.”

The work of the unit that Niv established fits in with another central aspect of the IDF's Momentum Multi-Year Plan: the establishment of a multidimensional unit that serves as a kind of hothouse to examine capabilities that Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi hopes will gradually be replicated in other units. Niv has also inaugurated projects that characterize high-tech firms more than army units. They include an entrepreneurship and innovations center that addresses difficult but basic problems for which no response was found in the regular channels, the creation of an academic-military college for innovation, and the awarding of the chief of staff’s prize or innovation.

In his farewell speech to his unit, Niv said that he doesn’t yet feel that “we have crossed to the other side. We haven’t yet succeeded in cracking the military system for change, and we haven’t yet implanted the systematic and orderly path for renewal and initiative.”

To Haaretz, he said: “Innovation needs to be disconnected from a feeling of hocus pocus. Processes like these cost money and take a great deal of time – and in the end, they have to reach the operational edge, the combat units. Otherwise, we haven’t done our job.”

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