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Better Israeli defence ties will boost Australian hi-tech industries

By Anthony Bergin

Beersheba is a modern Israeli city and a burgeoning cyber-security hub in the Negev.

Sadly, last month it was the scene of a terrorist attack at its central bus station

I was recently in the city to attend commemorations for the 98th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. The 4th Australian Light Horse took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Beersheba, with 1000 Turkish soldiers taken prisoner.

The success of the attack relied on the daring and bravery of those soldiers commanded to charge directly on the heavily fortified town.

They did what no one, least of all the Turks, expected. Some 500 riders charged, short bayonets in hand, because they didn’t have swords. The Light Horse — mounted infantry who theoretically only used their horses to get from one place to another — dismounted to fight.

Their success was not only due to their courage and daring, but also to their ability to be disruptive and to take risks, the characteristics we need today in our national reform agenda.

Two Australian delegations attended the service for the Battle for Beersheba. I was with a group of defence experts who were in Israel to participate in a forum convened by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

The other delegation, of about 50 entrepreneurs, industry representatives and government envoys, led by assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy, was in Israel to seek inspiration for the Turnbull government’s innovation agenda.

The success of Israel’s hi-tech industry is remarkable. Israel generates more start-ups and venture-capital investment than Japan, China, the US, Canada and Britain.

Its success has spawned a burgeoning series of books and articles that is almost a start-up industry of its own.

Israel attracts the world’s leading technology companies, such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Intel, to establish R&D centres in the country.

The government offers safety net funding to young start-up companies to mitigate the risks for young people who are dedicating their best years to pushing technology into unknown territory.

Our exchange on strategic issues soon demonstrated a wide range of areas where our military forces could learn from one and other.

These ranged from defence industry co-operation (our army has purchased an Israeli battle management system) to counter- insurgency, urban intelligence gathering, coalition warfighting, countering improvised explosive devices, military education, the use of reservists, airpower developments (both countries are acquiring F-35 joint strike fighters), military procurement processes and maritime security (Israel is developing offshore gas fields). Issues related to counter-terrorism and societal resilience were highlighted as common interests of both states.

A lesser known aspect of Israel’s defence management is the policy links between the Israeli military establishment and the country’s innovation agenda.

The Israeli military is a lively ecosystem, spanning not just defence industry, but also its hi-tech sector, which feeds to and off the military.

Through an expanded defence dialogue with Israel, there’s potential to enjoy early access to new technologies and applications, especially in cyber security. Israel’s military is now in the process of establishing a dedicated Cyber Command to lead operational activities in this emerging field.

We can learn how the Israel Defence Forces have managed to position software engineering and cyber science as among the most elite units for new recruits.

These same elite military recruits go on to become the rock stars of Israel’s hi-tech industry.

While acknowledging here that Israel has the advantage of conscription, there’s aspects that we can adopt as we try and develop our crack troops in cyber operations.

The founders of Waze, the world’s largest community based traffic and navigation app, acquired by Google for more than $1 billion, made their start in technology units in the IDF.

At a time when the Middle East is convulsing, Australia can benefit from sharing learning with a key democratic player and put some flesh on the bone of our strategic relationship with Israel.

Establishing a defence attache position, as we’ve done in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would be a good start.

The US, Britain, Canada, Korea, Japan, China, India and EU nations such as the Dutch, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Finns and Norwegians have all seen the advantages of having defence representation in Israel.

Such a position would not just bring us military benefits, but by leveraging hi-tech connections with Israel also help us to develop as a start-up nation.

We need to be as innovative as Australia’s mounted infantry at the Battle of Beersheba if we’re to secure our prosperity.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published: The Australian - November 10, 2015