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The October 7 Hamas attack: An Israeli overreliance on technology?

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Did the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) rely too heavily on advanced technologies in its effort to secure and fortify Israel’s border with Gaza?

That is one of many questions that have arisen in the days since Hamas’ Oct. 7 incursion into Israel and attacks on Israeli forces and civilians. The absence of early warnings from data collected via sensors, cameras, and surveillance drones along the border’s “smart fence,” as well as the penetration of the Iron Dome missile defense system, has led to a sense that Israel experienced a tragic “high-tech failure.” An “overreliance on border surveillance equipment” has emerged as one factor plausibly contributing to Hamas’ ability to overrun the border defenses.

The IDF’s overreliance on technology seems to have played a significant role in the attack’s success. However, this is not adequately described as a “high-tech failure” or a catastrophic failure of the technologies themselves. Rather, the role of technology in the IDF’s fortification of the border with Gaza — and its failure to prevent and mitigate Hamas’ attack — reflects human strategic error.

It would thus be a mistake to prematurely undervalue the use of advanced and emerging technologies in defense as a result of Hamas’ breaching of the border fence and incursion into Israel. The necessity before Israeli officials when they investigate this attack — and for analysts and practitioners elsewhere — is to instead pinpoint the origin of overreliance on advanced and emerging technologies and how the appropriate uses of technological innovation in defense remains a matter of indispensable human judgment and strategic thought.

What is critical, then, is to highlight the intrinsic dependence of the technologies employed in Israel’s defense on human personnel. This applies as much to vaunted emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) as it does to traditional software and more familiar technologies, like cellular communication. Recognizing this allows us to distinguish between catastrophic technological failures and the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of human choices that must grapple with pernicious assumptions and inevitable strategic considerations in defense.

The attack in perspective

The attack started at roughly 6:30 a.m., local time on Oct. 7. The initial phase began with a coordinated effort to disrupt the IDF’s surveillance and communications. It has been reported, based in part on footage released by the al-Qassam Brigades, that Hamas used uncrewed drones to drop explosive munitions into the generators of communications towers along the border — presumably to limit surveillance and communications by and between IDF personnel — as well as into some remote-controlled machine gun turrets (in a fashion similar to tactics employed in Ukraine). In addition, communications out of the IDF’s southern Gaza headquarters were jammed to prevent the issuing of an alert to other personnel as the attack began. Also during the initial stages of the attack, Hamas sniper fire concentrated on surveillance cameras as well as exposed machine gun ammunition boxes.

As the assault proceeded, Hamas fired approximately 3,000 rockets into Israel within a 20-minute window, exceeding the capacity of the Iron Dome missile defense system — with 10 batteries distributed across Israel — to respond effectively. As Hamas’ rocket barrage provided cover, bulldozers, motorbikes, pickup trucks, explosives, and paragliders were each used to breach the border fence while communications remained partially disrupted. Hamas may have, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Ben Barry observes, identified the weakest and most vulnerable points along the border and selected “breaching points” among them through which they would overwhelm Israeli soldiers by sheer force of numbers (200 attackers in the first wave, and then, later, 1,800).

The result of the coordinated assault combined with an ill-prepared IDF was hours of Israeli military confusion and dysfunction as Hamas fighters stormed through over 20 Israeli towns.

Why did the attack succeed?

The success of Hamas’ forces in breaching the barrier between Gaza and Israel while facing shockingly little military resistance (for a time) thereafter is a result of several, converging factors. As we will see, a picture emerges not of catastrophic technological failure but of human strategic error that failed to appropriately value the technologies employed in Israel’s defense (and the “low” technologies deployed against it) relative to the ongoing indispensable value of human presence and judgment in military affairs.

The data and footage collected by sensors and cameras along the border are monitored by IDF personnel remotely. Early information indicates, though, that members of Hamas did not move along the border in a manner that would arouse immediate suspicion by humans monitoring the data on the Israeli side, particularly given the dramatic and abrupt nature of the attack. Furthermore, Hamas flipped the value of these technologies’ ability to operate without directly relying on and risking human lives on its head: the use of uncrewed drones to sabotage communications and surveillance systems meant that, just as the machine guns could be operated remotely, they could be destroyed remotely, as well. As Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley report, IDF soldiers monitoring the border from behind were blinded by a lack of cellular signals and alarms that may have proved vitally useful as the attack began.

As for the evasion of sensors by paragliders, retired Marine Col. J.D. Williams observes that the paragliders remained low except when going over border fencing, noting that air and missile defense systems are not optimized to detect slow-moving, low-flying objects. Jeff Schogol suggests this is analogous to the “gaps” in NORAD’s warning systems, which are dependent on sensors and radars not geared toward identifying objects like the Chinese surveillance balloon detected over the United States earlier this year.

The movement of Hamas’ ground troops at specific points along the border fence, furthermore, critically benefitted from the shortage of military personnel along the border on the Israeli side to quell the onslaught. As a result of the IDF prioritizing the West Bank — and distributing personnel accordingly — there was “minimal” staffing of the border with Gaza. In the face of Hamas’ rapid, methodically planned, and brute force border incursion, Israeli forces were unable to mount a sufficiently rapid response as Hamas fighters poured through breached sections of the fence.

Finally, the Iron Dome system appears to have been simply overwhelmed by the massive number of missiles fired by Hamas. The system is designed, technically speaking, to carry out three core functions: detect, identify, and track missiles according to their estimated threat of impact, determine where to fire its own (limited quantity of) interceptor missiles and how many, and use heat-seeking sensors to self-destruct in close proximity to the incoming missile. It does not appear that any of these core functions collapsed in the moment (the interception rate of the Iron Dome has been given high marks in recent years, hovering at and above 90% over the period of a given conflict).

Instead, Hamas had tested the quantitative limits of Iron Dome’s capacity prior to the Oct. 7 barrage. The Oct. 7 attack was a marked departure from past rates of rocket launches into Israel. As the Modern War Institute’s Patrick Sullivan and John Amble observe, Hamas “dramatically” increased its missile barrage from a maximum of 470 rounds in one day to “several thousand in a fraction of an hour.” The result was decreased missile defense and increased cover for Hamas’ troops breaching the border fence. This limitation of the Iron Dome was predicted with foreboding undertones since at least the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis.

Of course, a full explanation for this attack’s success includes factors that go beyond the technological domain and the distribution of personnel on Oct. 7. These include intelligence failures, incorrect assumptions held by some Israeli officials about the continuity of deterrence over time, misjudgment on Oct. 6 about suspicious Hamas activity, and a possible lack of political will to act on internal or external warnings, among others. The role of technology does present its own, distinctive level of analysis in assessing the success of this attack, but the deployment of technology in defense necessarily relates to factors beyond its immediate nature. Indeed, reporting in recent days indicates not only that the attack was heavily planned and coordinated, but that Hamas knew, upon infiltrating Israeli border bases, “exactly where the communications servers were and destroyed them.”

A failure of human judgment

How do we account, then, for the technological picture painted above?

The first, and perhaps most obvious, implication of the above facts is that it is not clear that the Oct. 7 attack is best characterized as a technological (or “high-tech”) failure. More specifically, the failure does not appear to resemble the oft-feared “catastrophic failures” of emerging technologies deployed in adversarial conditions. In the context of, for example, AI-enabled or enhanced systems operating in real-world, adversarial circumstances, a catastrophic failure typically refers to such systems encountering out-of-context data (than what they were trained on) and subsequently experiencing a sharp drop in performance (this is, in the jargon, known as a “distributional shift”).

Catastrophic failure, in this sense, does not adequately capture the failure of Israeli defenses. The methods employed by Hamas soldiers, instead, circumvented the functions and scope of the technologies undergirding Israeli defenses, exploiting a lack of redundancies in the latter’s border security. The uses of snipers to destroy surveillance cameras, uncrewed quadcopter drones to sabotage communication towers, communication jamming to prevent early warnings, brute-force civilian equipment like bulldozers, a missile barrage of unprecedented scale, and low-flying paragliders all share one thing in common: They are the result of the identification of weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and opportunities by Hamas. None of them indicates that the technologies undergirding the data-collecting sensors, surveillance drones, the Iron Dome’s specialized missile detection, tracking, and interception systems, or even more familiar technologies like cellular communication failed to execute their core functions. This is, instead, a failure of strategizing and planning; of carefully matching capabilities with objectives, and understanding that technology is, for the foreseeable future, a means to these ends.

This all illustrates the difference between a technology failing to execute its functions at the level of performance for which it was designed and misunderstanding or underappreciating the appropriate scope of application of the technology’s functions.

Some have, nonetheless, emphasized an “overreliance” on technology and the need to begin a discussion on what this means for technology and defense. In this vein, though, the Middle East Institute’s Bilal Y. Saab is correct to note that, “Over reliance on tech always has its drawbacks. But the problem here wasn’t tech. There was a failure of imagination, first and foremost, and total disrespect of the opponent.” To be sure, this in no way neglects a vitally important discussion on the relationship between emerging and advanced technologies and defense, but instead forces us to ask a more specific question: What is the origin of overreliance on such technologies?

The IDF believed that its human presence along the border with Gaza could be scaled back due to the increased presence of technologically advanced systems, including an extensive network of surveillance drones, sensors, and cameras, remote-controlled machine guns, and the geographically distributed Iron Dome system, among others.

This belief can, in part, be traced to enthusiasm about the applications of emerging technologies like AI, with the IDF incorporating the idea that the mass collection and transformation of data will be vital to winning future conflicts into its AI strategy. The murkiness of answering our question comes into play when considering the broader threat landscape perceived by Israel, especially those perceived threats emanating from the West Bank.

Whether the IDF’s belief in the relative human-independence of technologies deployed in the defense of its border with Gaza was primarily a result of needing to re-prioritize according to perceived threats or primarily a result of belief in the efficacy of the technologies themselves is a complicated matter (and it could easily be both with, say, the latter stimulating the former). It is one that should be investigated as this discussion of technology and defense proceeds.

More decisively, this crisis serves as a potent reminder that framing adversarial dynamics as “low-tech” vs. “high-tech” has a way of neglecting the true nature of technological innovation in warfare. Not only does this ignore the increasing number of pathways for less-resourced actors to “create fairly advanced technological means to go up against high-tech nations,” as the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Security and Technology’s Audrey Kurth Cronin observes, but potentially misguides regional and other governments as they seek to adopt emerging technologies for defense purposes.

In this way, it reminds analysts and practitioners alike that “disruptive innovation” in military affairs has always been a more complicated subject, with a more mixed record, than current headlines about the integration of emerging technologies in defense systems and organizations suggest. The inflation or deflation of technological systems’ capabilities — and subsequent overreliance on them — results, at least in part, from non-technological assumptions.

Technological adoption and integration by militaries must be located within a broader strategic framework that links capabilities with desired, overarching goals. The over- or under-estimation of any given technology reflects human choices and the presence of human judgment remains essential even in the age of AI: Overestimate the capabilities of any one technologically advanced system relative to human personnel and the consequences can be severe. The same is true for the converse as well: Underestimating the potential uses of a seemingly-limited technology can take one’s forces by surprise. Israel appears, tragically, to have done both vis-à-vis its own defense technologies and Hamas’ offensive capabilities (without locating, by any stretch, the fault for this attack entirely within the technological domain). Care must now be taken by governments and militaries to ensure that advanced and emerging technologies are not suddenly undervalued; instead, they should properly assess the role of technology in this crisis and how human design choices impact its utility.

Vincent J. Carchidi is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program. His work focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies, defense, and international affairs.

Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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