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LEARNING FROM THE FUTURE:

HONORING THE UNSUNG HEROES WHO DEFEND OUR TOMORROWS

Avi Schnurr, CEO, EIS Council

Israel, Saturday night, April 13, 2024. 

From late at night on April 13 to the moonless, predawn hours on April 14, air raid sirens woke Israelis all across the nation. The largest missile salvo in history was on its way to our cities and homes: hundreds of supersonic ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAVs, carrying over 40 tons of high explosive warheads.  

Had they reached their targets, it would have been a heartbreaking mass casualty event.  But on that night the world witnessed a breathtaking display of resilience in the face of unprecedented danger, with almost all the missiles and UAVs destroyed, falling out of the sky before they even reached Israel’s borders. How was this possible?

Let us share a remarkable story with you. It is the tale of a small, determined group of individuals who came together, united by their horror at the devastation wrought by a heart-wrenching catastrophe. Witnessing cities across Israel laid waste and the ancient / modern dreams of a people shattered, they made a bold and audacious decision. They resolved to turn back the hands of time. To rewrite history. To prevent the rain of supersonic death from ever reaching their beloved homeland.

And incredibly, they succeeded.

This courageous collective came to be known as “IRON SHIELD.” Imagining, “witnessing” April 13’s attack in their mind’s eyes more than 30 years ago, this small, determined group devoted their lives to spearheading a campaign to build robust resilience for a nation that was decades in their future. And on April 13, they changed the course of history.

How did they do it?

In short, they were courageous enough to ask themselves a simple but terrifying question: “What if the unthinkable happens? What if, at some point years in the future, our enemies launch an extraordinary, massive missile attack? Do we wish, as a nation, to be capable of surviving?” That was the starting point, but what made all the difference was honestly, boldly asking themselves that question. And then, recognizing that Israel’s then-current path would lead to a tragic, unacceptable answer, they dedicated their lives and careers to campaigning and working for a change in course. 

They peered into their future – into our present – and envisioned a world where adversaries would wield devastating weapons against them, and set about the complex process of campaigning for developing robust capabilities against a threat that many believed would never materialize.

Existential resilience: Building hope for our civilization’s future

This feat was far from easy. It required unwavering dedication and a deep understanding of the likely shape of future large scale missile threats.  Because while learning from past disasters is meaningful for relatively small events, it would be far too late for catastrophic events. There is only one way to prepare for an existential disaster – imagining it, and preparing long before it happens.  Existential resilience: having the foresight to learn from a potentially catastrophic future and, crucially, the courage and dedication to begin acting to prevent it now.

The kind imagination and commitment this “Iron Shield” group achieved represents a singular example of such resilience for Israel, and for the world. Singular, because protection and prevention investments today are almost always based on conventional risk management: making decisions based on “probability” – essentially the frequency of past disasters. Depending exclusively on this kind of thinking is deeply flawed for a civilization facing growing, potentially existential threats. 

Existential threats that have never before happened can’t be stopped by keeping your eyes exclusively on the rear-view mirror. History is filled with examples of civilizations that collapsed when confronted with unprecedented, extreme challenges that could have been stopped, but were not. Challenges that were eventually overcome by a new civilization that rose from the ashes of the old.

Today, as our volatile world confronts a future filled with rapidly expanding global risks, Israel’s successful experiment with “existential resilience” provides a unique opportunity to change course. If we are to survive, we need to begin asking ourselves the kind of questions that are hard to simply file away under the heading of “low probability.” And when the answer to such a question reveals an inconvenient truth, we need to find the courage, like the “Iron Shield” group, to seriously confront it. 

“Prospective hindsight” – Learning from the future

The science behind “existential resilience” 

And there is science to this. The work of Gary Klien and Daniel Kahneman introduces the concepts of “pre-mortem” and “prospective hindsight.” By asking a group to “time travel” to the end of a scenario and imagine different approaches that could lead to either complete success or unmitigated disaster, a pre-mortem can build better insights than risk management alone. Crucially, Klein emphasizes that the group should not be afraid to raise concerns for fear of being impolite.  

What comes next? What does Israel’s — and the world’s —  future hold?

The missile defense capability Israel demonstrated on April 13 is unprecedented, and stands alone as a stellar success in stopping an unprecedented, brutal attack. Yet Israeli decision makers and their advisers are already looking into the future, and asking themselves the next set of hard questions, 

Like the US and its allies and partners, Israel confronts a world which long ago departed from the cold war days of bipolar nuclear confrontation. Strategic nuclear threats today are multi-polar, with a growing list of nations – including today’s and, potentially tomorrow’s adversaries – looking to go nuclear. For Israel, though excellent missile defenses are a critical asset against such threats, there is another concern. 

Like the United States, Europe and other modern nations, Israel is critically dependent on highly reliable, continuous electricity. Yet modern electric grids have been shown to be vulnerable to nuclear “electromagnetic pulse” – nuclear EMP. Without appropriate protection, detonation of a nuclear warhead in space, high above a nation could shut down its power grid – regardless of the nation’s size. 

Working with leading universities, government agencies and advanced corporations, the Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Council is working to lead and catalyze concrete, realistic protection against this threat. So that if and when such adversaries launch such an attack, we will, once again, be able to celebrate a stellar success.

Are other nations facing existential threats? What questions should we be asking?

In addition to expanding, extreme natural hazards, the world we inhabit today is fraught with geopolitical tensions and the looming specter of devastating weapons and potential climate catastrophe. And while the threats we face are expanding, our increasingly interconnected infrastructures have brought our world a new, collective vulnerability. Our tightly interconnected infrastructures, product and service supply chains today have brought us unprecedented efficiencies and capabilities, but at a price: unprecedented vulnerability. When operation of anything depends on operation of almost everything else, a failure in one sector can have cascading effects, much like a failing heart in a living organism.

To protect ourselves and our nations, we need to change course – to begin asking ourselves uncomfortable questions, reaching into the future to seek answers, and making the commitment – each in our own way – to plan, invest and prepare for that future. We must invest today in the systems and technologies that will shield us from tomorrow’s threats. 

We are going to need new heroes – individuals who will rise to the challenge of securing our tomorrows, even as they honor the lessons of our past.

Please pass this on. To learn more, visit eiscouncil.org

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