How can a $60 toy drone infiltrate the Iron Dome?Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images


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October 18, 2023   6 mins
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October 18, 2023   6 mins

Peter Drucker, the Austrian-American management guru, once said: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it’s acting with yesterday’s logic.” The unfolding events in Israel are a sharp reminder that we keep making our future a hostage to yesterday’s logic. This is because we are overconfident in our dazzling technological prowess. The belief persists that big armies and expensive high-tech weapons are always the solution — even though the world keeps being destabilised by small armies with cheap low-tech weapons.

On 9/11, we learned that trillions of dollars of American defence spending could be overwhelmed by $5 boxcutters for sale in any hardware store. On Israel’s 9/11, we learned that a $60 toy drone, a $600 rocket and a $6,000 paramotor could overwhelm the world’s most formidable defences, including Israel’s billion-dollar Iron Dome. Hamas managed to evade detection by Israel’s multibillion dollar intelligence capability simply by turning its electronics off and by not deviating from its daily routine. Going dark beat going high-tech; analogue beat digital.

As Israel’s tanks mass on Gaza’s border, the world awaits the start of a chain reaction to the massacre of Israeli civilians. This is like witnessing a Jujitsu match where leverage matters more than size. Hamas wanted to provoke Israel into deploying old-fashioned, highly symbolic weapons, such as tanks. Are tanks the best tech for rescuing the many Israeli hostages? For imposing the greatest damage on the perpetrators? No. But Israel will use them because it wants to create a visual show of force. Hamas is betting on this, knowing that in an Instagram world, Israel’s tanks will generate endless images appearing to show Israel’s brute force, which Hamas believes will increase support for the relatively defenceless occupants of Gaza.

Hamas, however, is far from defenceless: it has 3D printers, laser-sintering devices, and manufacturing facilities in their tunnels, which churn out guns, bullets and more. Perhaps this is why Israel’s surveillance systems didn’t pick up on the drones, ammunition and paramotors that Hamas used to transport humans across the border: they weren’t imported, but were manufactured underground in Gaza. Their essential components, after all, are not hard to come by. As Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib has observed, Hamas uses unexploded ordnance, rubble, and discarded or damaged metal and wiring to recycle materials and parts into new weapons. “The irony here,” he wrote, “is that the IDF’s operation indirectly provided Hamas with materials that are otherwise strictly monitored or forbidden altogether in Gaza.” Hamas, it seems, has brought new meaning to the term “circular economy”.

For the West and Israel, the deeper problem here is that we cannot unlearn our faith in technological prowess. We still believe that having nuclear weapons is always the answer, even though we’ve already discovered that it is impossible to use them in response to Putin’s old-fashioned ground war in Ukraine, or even to his direct nuclear threats. The game is not worth the candle.

At the heart of our cognitive dissonance is the fact that an old mathematical formula has been disrupted by modern technology. Harald led the first study on Anti-Ballistic Missiles for the Joint Chiefs under President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. This project was later popularised by President Ronald Reagan as the Star Wars Initiative. When Harald began his study, his task was to determine what it would cost to build an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system that could counter an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from the Soviet Union before it reached American airspace. The question was this: would an ABM system alter how the Soviets calculated the cost of Mutual Assured Destruction? In other words, could it make it too expensive for the Soviets to keep up? Drawing on the ideas of his associate, Tom Schelling — who later won the Nobel Prize for his idea of game theory — Harald concluded that for each dollar spent on a hypothetical ABM system, it would cost the adversary roughly seven dollars to penetrate it.

Of course, it would not matter whether the ABM system actually worked. It is incredibly mathematically difficult to successfully target and hit a super-fast moving inbound ICBM mid-air. The leverage math was easy, though. The Russians understood the 7:1 calculation. When Reagan announced the Star Wars Initiative, the Soviets understood that they’d be forced to spend far more than the country could possibly afford. The overwhelming cost played no small part in bankrupting the Soviet Union, though its demise came from the fear of running out of the cash needed to keep up with Star Wars, not from the damage inflicted by Star Wars itself. This brought the Cold War and the Soviet Union to an end, and left a lasting impression on America’s leading military thinkers including Richard Perle, Caspar Weinberger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, who deployed the ratio everywhere from their various powerful roles in American defence policy.

Today, Harald’s ratio has inverted. It’s at least 1:7 now, and probably much more. This is evident not only from 9/11, but also from the events in Israel. Hamas deployed absurdly cheap rockets against the Iron Dome. It did the maths: by one estimate, the Hamas missiles are 100 times less expensive than the $50,000 Tamir receptors in the Iron Dome, which can defend Israel against 96% of the projectiles thrown at them. So Hamas simply launched many more rockets — and they got through the 4% window because many more were fired. Simple.

None of this means we can rule out that Hamas didn’t have the support of advanced technology. Days before the massacre in Israel, on 27 September, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard successfully placed a third Noor satellite into orbit. Was this a total coincidence? The Noor-3, with vastly better cameras than Noor-1 and Noor-2, gave Iran the ability to monitor events on the ground in Israel and Gaza with much greater accuracy and coverage than before. It allowed Iran 24/7 coverage. What if that camera footage was made available to Hamas? And if facial recognition technology was used on that live feed or video? The aim of that tech is not so much to recognise a particular person but to determine the emotional state of groups of people. Could this have been used to determine that the Israelis on the ground were relaxed and obviously not expecting a problem? Such tech is certainly capable of this — and while it isn’t cheap, it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be.

Nor are its uses simply defensive. Over the past year, the Ukrainians have been forced to become experts in drone warfare. On the one hand, they have learned that holding a $5 yoga mat over your head blinds satellites to the human heat signature, allowing them to sneak up on Russian assets and destroy them. On the other, they have also developed their offensive capacity, making not just drones but underwater drones. In the Black Sea, for instance, the Russians had to move their fleet after Ukrainian “experimental” and unmanned “Sea Baby” drones wreaked havoc, damaging subs and the undersides of sizeable superpower vessels.

If Ukraine can operate this kind of technology, Hamas probably can too. This week, the US moved two aircraft carriers into range of Israel. This raises the risk of another USS Cole situation. In 2000, two suicide pilots in a cheap rubber Zodiac-type boat ripped a 40-foot-wide hole in the Cole, killing 17 American naval personnel and injuring another 40.

For now, though, Hamas’s use of drones will continue to be associated with its recent reliance on paramotors with parafoils. These are usually found at beach resorts and so appear perfectly innocent. No doubt Israel has every airport and landing strip around under observation, but modern drone tech no longer requires such assets. In 2014, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel’s Intelligence Service, Shin Bet, had discovered that Hamas was receiving paragliding training in Malaysia. But it never seemed to have occurred to anyone that paramotors and parafoils could be used to transport an armed human over the heavily surveilled Gaza border.

Elsewhere, cheap toy drones played a large part in disabling and destroying Israel’s expensive surveillance system on the Gaza border. Hamas used them to dazzle, damage or destroy the expensive optical sensors that Israel relied upon to detect inbound threats. The Israelis should have understood this technology. After all, Israeli-made drones helped Azerbaijan retake Nagorno-Karabakh just last month, while Turkish drones have profoundly shifted the balance of power in the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. People are clearly understanding the tech but are yet to realise the inversion of the leverage ratio.

Closer to home, we can see this in the US’s continued enforcement of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime, in the mistaken belief that all or most valuable tech originates in America and must not fall into the hands of opponents. Awkwardly, it seems that many of the guns Hamas used in the siege had been lifted from the piles of weaponry the US left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq. Failing to consider their intellectual property value, the US ditched them because they were too expensive to destroy and too old to bother returning home. The US saw old broken guns without enough usable ammo. Did Hamas see an opportunity to create CAD (Computer Aided Design) models, which would let them 3D print or laser-sinter parts to repair and even replicate these weapons? Perhaps.

Meanwhile, those who want to change or damage the balance of power in the world at an already fragile moment will continue to deploy technologies that we ignore or laugh at. And this dangerous form of complacency is not just a problem for Israel. Once those tanks drive into Gaza and the conflict metastasises further afield, it will be a threat to the entire West.


Harald Malmgren is a geopolitical strategist, negotiator and former aide to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford
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