Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Israeli Military Fires Up the Creative Side

Pierre Klochendler

NEAR TEL AVIV, Central Israel, Nov 11 2011 (IPS) - War brings economic development, we’re told at times. Like the cliché or not, in their case, Israelis have become a successful start-up nation by building a powerful start-up military.

A miniature capsule camera transmits images from inside a patient’s oesophagus, intestine or colon that’s seen by physicians around the world. Conceived by Given Imaging engineers, the ‘PillCam’ is a technological transfer from Rafael, the Israeli authority for development of weapons, to the medical sector.

The patient actually swallows something like a video-guided missile head equipped with state-of the-art optics, electronics, wireless data transmission, software, even a GPS (global positioning system). Instead of inflicting havoc, the device replaces say, the uncomfortable colonoscopy.

Another scientific transfer is the disposable pulmonary drug inhaler developed by Aespironics. The drug delivery tool is a hybrid between a credit card, a propeller, a gas turbine and a jet engine.

How does a military become a hi-tech force? “Pure necessity,” says David Lavenda, vice-president of Harmon.ie, a local software company. “A small country in a somewhat unfriendly neighbourhood must come up with pragmatic solutions. The army gives young people opportunities that they wouldn’t have elsewhere.”

Lavenda promotes a business-friendly product that transforms the e-mail into a collaborative workspace. A file sent to multiple recipients is integrated into one edited document with all incoming revisions combined within it. “Everybody’s on the same page” is the start-up motto. Its chief executives are ex-Navy buddies.

“The army is the place for high-tech education and interdisciplinary interaction. We could initiate ideas in an open environment,” recalls Eyal Alaluf. “More esprit de corps incentive than economic benefit,” cautions Yaakov Cohen.

Openness and informality are the last qualities that come to mind when characterising such structured and disciplined system.

Co-author (with Dan Senor) of the best-seller ‘Start-up Nation’, Saul Singer also tracks Israel’s hi-tech footprints in the military. “Every Israeli goes through it. What they get is leadership, teamwork, becoming mission-driven. When you perform a task which life depends on it, you simply get things done. That’s a very important skill for start-ups.”

Getting things done is so embedded in the army that working by the rules often goes against the rule. What matters is working according to… what works.

Set up to cope with chaos in an orderly manner, this army looks somewhat disorderly. Hierarchy is turned on its head; stifled attitudes are non-existent.

A chief-of-staff recently reviewing 18-year old conscripts at the Home Front Command administered resounding slaps on fresh shoulders and engaged in patriotic drivel as if they were his brothers, and sisters, in arms – which they actually are.

Twenty-year old Noam Wordman introduced himself rather unassumingly. “I’m the operation officer for the alert unit, a lieutenant, no more…” Not more than a junior officer, yet, “responsible for alerting the civilian population on time, 24/7, on multiple platforms – sirens, cellphones, the media,” Wordman declared matter-of-factly.

Early on, officers experience managerial positions. As in any top-down organisation faced with life-and- death situations, for the military start-up units, past failures often prove more instructive than accomplishments.

“If things don’t work out, you usually know why, try something else,” notes Lavenda. “When something does work, many times, you just don’t know why.”

Saul Singer delves on failures of others, like the NASA space missions Apollo 13 (1970) and Columbia (2003). The improvisation and audacity demonstrated by the Apollo mission got the crew back to earth. One view is that over preparedness, stubborn attachment to standard routine procedures, led to the Columbia Shuttle disaster.

“Either you predict and train for each eventuality or you train people to think for themselves and deal with the unpredictable,” he explains. “The second approach is more Israeli: get ready for anything; use your head; don’t follow orders blindly; improvise. Risk-taking brings the best solutions to problems.

“Someone tells you, ‘This is the way it’s done’; you say, ‘maybe not so, maybe there’s a better way’,” sums up Lavenda.

Unrelenting questioning replaces submission to authority. “That’s the strange thing about this army. In basic training, obedience is above all. But once you’re even a junior officer, you’re taught to accomplish your mission creatively,” assures Singer.

Then, there’s the constant dissatisfaction, a common trait here. “The Air Force will buy a warplane; they’ll try to improve it, put their own innovations on top of it,” Singer illustrates. “When you’re dissatisfied, you’re more inventive.”

And, there’s the “fear factor”. Last decade only, Israel went through three wars – against the Palestinians in 2000-2005 and 2009 and against Hezbollah in 2006. All involved civilians.

Fear means living as much as possible. It instils urgency and energy. Lavenda believes that “constant vigilance breeds inventiveness.”

Adds Singer: “The whole country is like a start-up. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t learn how to deal with adversity. It’s a matter of survival.”

During the latest tit-for-tat escalation across the Israel-Gaza border, the ‘Iron Dome’ anti-missile defence system successfully intercepted rockets fired by Islamic Jihad militants. In March, Israeli tanks foiled an incoming armoured-piercing missile attack with the Active Protection System ‘Windbreaker’.

Both devices could be compared to a bullet hitting another bullet. Developed by Rafael, they rely on the technology of the experimental ‘Arrow’ anti-ballistic missile project undertaken jointly by Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing.

Where does the knowhow come from? “The elite unit Talpioth,” explains Singer. “They scout for the most scientifically skilled 18-year olds and turn them into mission-oriented engineers by throwing mission after mission at them, exposing them to the best technologies. They come out ready to create start-ups themselves.”

Another crack unit is the C4I Corps which is responsible for all strategic areas of teleprocessing, encrypted communications, information technology and electronic warfare. Last year, the media was allowed brief access to devices such as a SNG (Satellite News Gathering) truck armed with cutting edge military applications.

For C4I’s Brig.-Gen. Ella Hakim, Israel’s hi-tech performance stems precisely from the incessant back-and- forth transferring of knowhow between civilian and military sectors: “We get the most out of our conscripts’ R&D and operating skills. They’re the next leaders of our hi-tech industry.”

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