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‘We need to bring kids to science… I’ll build a robot that looks like a dinosaur and send it to space’

Ben-Yisrael, Military scientist and former politician, was in Delhi recently when he spoke to Sudeep Paul

Written by Sudeep Paul | New Delhi |
Updated: December 26, 2014 12:53:31 am
YITZHAK-BEN-759 YITZHAK BEN-YISRAEL Chairman, Israel Space Agency

Military scientist and former politician YITZHAK BEN-YISRAEL is currently the chairman of the Israel Space Agency and head of the security studies programme at Tel Aviv University. He was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s chief cybernetics advisor from 2010-12, when he established the National Cyber Bureau. The author of Dialogues on Science and Military Intelligence (1989) and The Philosophy of Military Intelligence (1999) among others, Ben-Yisrael was in Delhi recently when he spoke to Sudeep Paul:

You’ve been associated with the India-Israel bilateral relationship for a long time. How satisfied are you with the big picture right now?

We began cooperating in defence first, more than 20 years ago. After the fall of the Soviet Union, India found itself in a situation where its defence was based mainly on Soviet equipment. The West still didn’t trust India fully. Israel found itself in a unique situation. We had common interests and common values. And also, Israel had good technology that was not at that time available to India. So we started in that area. I was lucky to be one of the pioneers on the Israeli side and I found in India a very remarkable person who was then DRDO director — Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. We discovered a common language and interests and we launched this cooperation. We hoped it would involve commercial, civil and cultural cooperation as well, and not just defence. But at that time, because of political reasons, this didn’t succeed so much. There was progress, but the rate of progress was relatively slow, relative to defence. Today, I think we are back on the right track, and we have the ability to expand our collaboration to other fields as well.

Your position on Iran’s nuclear programme has evolved from thinking, long ago, that a strike was perhaps necessary to believing a strike would only accelerate it. Since an Iranian nuclear deal looks a near-term possibility, how would it impact the Middle East?

It depends very much on the details, which will determine whether it’s a good deal or a bad one. A deal by itself is not the goal. The strategic situation is this: in order to make a bomb, the most crucial element is the fissile material. For that, you can either produce plutonium, or enrich uranium. For the time being, the Iranians don’t know how to produce plutonium. So they put their emphasis on enriching uranium. They know how to do this and nothing will change it — neither a deal nor bombing. They know how to enrich uranium and make it weapons grade. But they are not doing it. Because of many reasons — sanctions, politics, the Iranian economy and the price of oil. So they want to reach a deal.
What is the ideal deal? Let’s say, they agree to destroy everything, all capabilities, all facilities. But then, one day, they start again. How long will it then take them to reach feasibility? They know how to build the facilities, and knowing how things are, these cannot come from outside. So they’ll have to build new facilities, like 4-5,000 centrifuges. With all this, they can produce one bomb in a year. So… three years! Currently, before the interim deal, they were some three months from the end. In the interim deal, they agreed to get rid of the 20 per cent enriched uranium. So the interim deal took them six to nine months from the endline. Ideally, you can go back up to three years. So the ideal deal will be in between three years and nine months. Time is important. If the deal is to take them back two years, that means, if they change their mind in future, the world will have two years to react — to warn, form a coalition, and perhaps undertake military action. If it’s only nine months, the time may not be enough to arrange all this. So, it’s all very dependent on two factors: one, the time period of the deal; two, the monitoring mechanisms to prevent Iran from doing something secretly. I think a deal is today a better strategy than military action, because they have already crossed the point of acquiring knowledge. But it depends very much on the deal.

From Iran and Syria to ISIS, the Middle East illustrates how governments have to work under ‘conditions of uncertainty’, to use your phrase. The world, from Ukraine to East Asia, is geopolitically precarious. India, for instance, worries about post-Nato Afghanistan. Under such circumstances, does a government just wait and watch, while minimising risk and damage?

It’s very difficult to give advise to a big country like India. Nevertheless, in Israel we’ve had experience in dealing with more severe situations. The Middle East, of course, for the last 100 years or so, has been the core of uncertainty in the world. No one really knows what will happen in the future. We can only assume. So a state would need the kind of security measures that will be flexible enough to deal with different scenarios. You can guess two or three possible scenarios here and there and prepare yourself. And a lot of countries feel they have prepared in vain — you invest money, etc, and then nothing happens! The philosophy of Israel is that, in such cases, it justifies the investment. One reason why Iran didn’t weaponise was because they could see the other side was prepared. This is called a deterrent. And that’s how we do business in Israel. We look at the future and we try to guess not what would happen, but a few reasonable scenarios. Then we prepare ourselves to meet the same. There is really no other way a government could act in such uncertain conditions. If you have an a priori assumption, you might be surprised by a different development.

The Yom Kippur War changed the way Israel prepared and alerted itself, including intelligence gathering?

In the Yom Kippur War, we had a different problem. We knew that Israel was born in a war and that war never stopped there. But in 1973, the failure was more an intelligence failure. The problem with Israel is that it is so small compared to its neighbours — if you take only those Arab countries that have borders with Israel, you get something like 20 times more people than in Israel. If you take the whole Arab world, it’s 60 times as much. We cannot have a military force that is suitable for defending Israel against such a huge hostile environment. So what we did instead was have a certain reasonable force and in case of an emergency called in the reserves. Everyone in Israel has to go through compulsory service for three years, and then until the age of 40-50, he still serves. The majority of the forces is reserves. Now, in order to call the reserves, you need some time. In 1973, it was 36 hours. In this case, you’d need a very good intelligence system that would alert you at least 36 hours before the other side attacks you. We failed to do that in 1973. If you don’t do it for the first two or three days, it gets very difficult, because we didn’t have enough force along the borders to meet all these invading divisions from Egypt and Syria. So this was a different type of surprise. It’s not that we didn’t know they were going to attack. We knew it, but we didn’t know they’d do it just at that moment. The geography of Israel doesn’t allow a big enough force 24 hours a day. We had to call in reserves and for this we needed an intelligence alert and we failed to do that. But since then, we also changed some of our priorities, giving more power to our intelligence services, more manpower, more money, so as not to surprised again.

Your theoretical proposition and explication are that intelligence gathering is like science.

That is so. People usually tend to lean on experience. You ask someone what will happen and he’ll tell you “You know, I’ve been working in this for 20-30 years. And if you ask me, judging from my experience, this will never happen.” This is human psychology and a human tendency when we make intelligence estimates. And it is wrong. Every time someone on the other side does something not done before, you’ll be surprised because there’s no previous “experience”. I have written two books and some articles on this — that this is not the right approach to making intelligence estimates. You have to do it like scientists. First, inventing, creating possible scenarios — in science what we call hypotheses. And then, eliminating the wrong ones by testing them in real life. In science, you test them in the laboratory; in intelligence, you test confront them with a piece of knowledge that’s been gathered.

In gathering intelligence on domestic terror threats, monitoring individuals and groups can be difficult — for both human and cyber intel — largely because of the dangerous and thin lines?

Cyber technology started as an extension of regular intelligence activities. Intelligence is interested in knowing what are your secrets. Therefore, if I am in the intelligence service, I have to go through your files and look for the information. For the last 20-30 years, information is stored in computers. In order to know what’s stored in your computer I have to use cyber technology. So cyber tech is usually associated with intelligence work, as with the NSA, etc. But now, there is a huge difference, and this is a problem not yet solved satisfactorily. The problem is, unlike conventional military intelligence that involves two defence forces, here we are talking about the internet and cyberspace used by civilians, not just by the military. Even if I want to penetrate a military computer, it is not like a missile that I launch and it hits the target! A cyber missile has to go through computers and servers which are usually civilian. Therefore, in order to protect yourself against cyber attacks, you need some monitoring of the civilian cyberspace. And this is a huge problem because by doing it, you might violate people’s privacy.
What is the right balance between the two? On one hand, we need to secure ourselves. On the other, privacy is important in any democracy like India or Israel. So you need the right balance and there is still no satisfactory solution to this problem. Two months ago, the Israeli government, after a year’s work that I had the honour to lead, accepted a kind of solution now being built and I hope it will work. It is to take this task of internal cyber monitoring from the intelligence services and set up a new civilian authority that we call the National Cyber Security Authority — a new civilian one, with nothing to do with intelligence or military business, with one task in hand only, and that is preserving the health of the cyberspace. They will monitor what’s going on in cyberspace to prevent malware from travelling. There’s no other task. I hope this will be the right balance between the two needs because you cannot really have one and — going for full security and monitor everything or no monitoring at all. This is part of the National Cyber Initiative that I launched four years ago. Then the government decided — and Israel became the first country to do so — to build within the prime minister’s office a new service we call now the National Cyber Bureau. It is a bureau of many players in cyberspace, cybersecurity, cyber intelligence and internal security and the NCB is the conductor of the orchestra. The new authority, NCSA, is different. It will get its policy from the NCB, but it will act on its own, as an independent body.

You’ve written about technology and the future of violence. A whole spectrum of extremists use the social media space. How do authorities deal with the interface between technology (cyber particularly) and violence, or rather the incitement to it, in a typical case like the Bangalore professional who ran an ISIS Twitter account?

There are some Israeli citizens who operate in the grey area between the legal and illegal. They sometimes hint at or encourage illegal actions, using one of the basic rights of every democracy — freedom of expression. They will always say this is a part of our rights, to express their opinions. It poses a very difficult problem for the government. Here again you have the tension between democratic rights and security. You cannot ignore one for the other. I don’t know how to solve this problem universally. Every state has to cope with it and find the right way to do it. When gangsters took over Chicago in the 1930s, when they got Al Capone in the end, they got him for tax evasion — not for the real reason. But they put him behind bars nevertheless. So you have to find the right ways to do it without sacrificing basic values, and that’s why it’s very difficult.
But the other side is that they abuse democracy and do so for wrong things, exploiting the values we have in place. They use our systems, based on certain assumptions, in order to destroy those systems, and this should not be permitted. We should find a way to secure ourselves without sacrificing freedom of expression. I don’t know how to do it, but I understand the problem. And they are very good at using the weaknesses of democracies for their purpose.

We hear about building an ‘ecosystem’ for bilateral collaboration in cyber security. India’s corporate sector looks particularly vulnerable, it reportedly lost about $4 billion to cyber attacks last year. This could be a very good space for India and Israel to collaborate?

That’s true. And I am not talking about traditional defence but larger things. The way we see the NCB’s task in Israel, it has two goals: one, to coordinate with players on cyber security. For this, you have to look at the threats to find ways to stop these threats from being carried out. The other goal is different altogether. It is to use the very fact that Israel is already more than 20 years in this business and that we have already put an emphasis on hi-tech generally and cyber-tech specifically — to use it as an opportunity to make Israel one of the world’s centres for cyber security technology. And this is the reason I am here, for a conference arranged by the CII to see what can be done in areas of academic cooperation, inter-industry cooperation (not defence). The purpose was to see what can be done in these areas and to enhance collaboration in especially two areas — cyber security and food security. The latter is also very important, and there are relations between the two. It turned out there’s a lot to be done between universities, etc and a large group from Indian industry will come to Israel next year for our annual international cyber conference in which all members of the Israeli ecosystem — start-ups, industry, government, academy, etc meet. We had 5,000 people last year, and next year I hope to see 100 Indians.

You’ve advocated constant advancement and evolution of technology for military preparation and security. India saw both procurement and production almost come to a halt for almost a decade. Currently, there seem to be efforts to getting our defence back on track. How important would be the need for constant R&D in defence, while looking at evolving threats?

It is important because every country has its own unique requirements. Certain platforms are very flexible. You can buy them and adapt them. But many times, for example, if you have a situation in the Himalayas, nobody is developing weapons to deal with such high altitude and such low pressure. In this case, the only one who can do so is yourself. Add to this the fact that India is not a small country. It should, therefore, behave like any big country. This means, among other things, being if not fully then highly independent in weapons and tech service. So, India should be able to develop and build by itself its main weapon systems. The question is, how do you accomplish this? You cannot say that because of this reason you will only go for indigenous development. That takes time. But it’s only a question of time since the goal should be independence.
Yet, if you go about only purchasing too aggressively, you will not gain insight, you won’t learn how to build and improve. In the end, you’ll be dependent on external developers and producers. If you proceed aggressively with indigenous production, you will find yourself without what you need for 20 years or so — military development on any weapon or system takes 10 to 20 years — and you will also lose out on technology. So you need a rational combination. And I mentioned to you that on the Israeli side I was one of the pioneers in building this relationship with Dr Kalam on your side. He was clever enough to understand that in order to improve DRDO capability, to meet the Indian forces’ needs in a hostile environment, you would need some cooperation to gradually build the indigenous capability. This is the right way to go about it.

India launches Israel’s satellites and Israel is reputed for a very pragmatic, quality over quantity, approach to space. What are we looking ahead to in space collaboration, in the wake of the Mars mission, etc?

This is one area in which India has taken a huge leap in the last 20 years or so. A huge leap. And I met the ISRO chief a few months ago in Toronto. I congratulated him on the Mars mission, which is fantastic. I have known Indian space for at least 20 years, and it’s progressing very fast. India today can do things that no more than three or four countries can do. I think they’re on the right track and I admire them.
Still, I think, there is some place for collaboration, especially in certain niches. I am not speaking about the big picture, but in certain niches we have capabilities, mainly in lighter satellites, etc. We can cooperate here, and it isn’t just India that has something to offer to this collaboration. We can also offer something.

Apart from using space for ‘strategic depth’ and intel gathering, we are also debating ‘space sustainability’ today, with so many states looking at space aggressively.

Well, people usually criticise anything that involves big money. That’s a human tendency. Space is no exception. Still, if you ask me, this is one of the most fascinating areas. Why do we invest in space? First of all, to promote science. Science is something that’s not so concrete. At the end of the day, because of science there will be better technology and the people in the street too will benefit. But you don’t feel or realise that benefit right now. Now it feels that instead of investing here to improve our roads, houses and markets, etc you are investing in space, which is very far away.
Second, and this is a very crucial reason for a state like Israel and I guess it’s the same also here in India, it’s very difficult to convince kids to study science and mathematics. We have to find the right ways to attract them to these subjects. Space is a wonderful tool for this. It attracts kids much more than other things. We did some research and found three things that attract kids to mathematics and the physical sciences: space, because it does something to their imagination; robots are another; and, don’t ask me why but, dinosaurs! I always tell my colleagues at the Israel Space Agency that we will build a robot that looks like a dinosaur and send it to the moon. Then we will get the whole globe’s attention.

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