Small Wars Journal

Hamas’ Attack on Israel – an “Improvised Everything” Case Study

Mon, 02/12/2024 - 8:22pm

Hamas’ Attack on Israel – an “Improvised Everything” Case Study

By David G. Smith, Ph.D. and Allan O. Steinhardt, Ph.D.


            During the Cold War and afterwards, some Pentagon strategists used to contemplate how much destruction ten men could do, as a barometer for how dangerous the world was becoming. The sages chose ten men because that was roughly the size of the core group of radicals behind the Russia Revolution.

            Overthrowing a nation demonstrates an impressive amount of capability, but Pentagon analysts liked to think in terms of military, destructive capability. Since 2000, events have illustrated the power easily wielded by a small group has grown significantly. 9/11 showed how much devastation a group of 19 terrorists, albeit with offshore support, could wreak. Since then, mass killings have proliferated. The power of automatic weaponry is such that just one gunman, firing multiple automatic weapons, could kill 60 individuals and wound 413 in the Las Vegas shootings in 2021.

            The rising destruction able to be wreaked by a small group of people has been abetted by another trend – the rising use of commercial technologies for destructive purposes. Writing from 2008 to 2015, Dr. Allan Steinhardt and I introduced the concept of “improvised everything,” a way to alert readers to the proliferation of military capability available from leveraging commercial products and technology.[1]  We called the concept “Improvised Everything” as a way of warning that the phenomenon extended far beyond just the development of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which were a major focus at the time. Using both current events and select historical examples, we showed that non-state actors, terrorists, and rogue states could assemble an impressive range of at least rudimentary military capabilities by leveraging commercial technology. In fact, while sometimes primitive, capabilities could be developed in every major military branch of service – army, air force, and navy. Planning, training, tactics, intelligence and logistics capabilities could be developed or aided as well. These improvised capabilities often do not stand alone, but are combined with widely available military technologies such as automatic weapons, explosives, and mortars to create a dangerous new threat environment. This military equipment is often available from rogue states or the black market.

There are a number of global trends that are making improvised everything (IE) an increasing threat. Consider the following two trends: 

(i) The global commercial R&D budget in 2022 was $2.5 Trillion, 2.5% of the global GDP last year ($105T). In 1960, US defense-related R&D represented 36% of global R&D.[2] Today, global research expenditure is roughly 30 times US DoD R&D (roughly $80B DoD spending on R&D and R&D plant in 2022).[3] Global commercial R&D is almost the proverbial dog wagging the US defense R&D tail.


(ii) The intersection of commercial and military technology is growing, increasing the percentage of global R&D that is relevant for defense. 


A grim illustration of the destructive capabilities able to be created from commercial technology is the October 7 attack on Israel.

Hamas’ October 7 Attack on Israel

Recently, and tragically, a case study has unfolded illustrating this modern variant of warfare: Hamas’ attack on Israel. While Hamas certainly used conventional military capabilities in the attack, it was also able to innovate and greatly undercut traditional military development cycle times by using commercial technologies.

On October 7, Hamas launched a horrific attack across the Israeli border. The attack contradicted Hamas’ earlier claims that it did not deliberately target civilians.[4] A key part of this attack was based on commercial technology – commercially available drones, pickup trucks, bulldozers, motorcycles, and ATVs – or improvised technology like homemade rockets, combined with widely available military munitions, explosives, and firearms. 

Improvised Army                                                                                                                                 

            In 2015, we highlighted the ability of non-traditional militaries to rapidly muster volunteers or crowds using conventional means such as mobile phones, text messages, blogs or social media. When those are not available, asymmetric adversaries can resort to improvised communications or preset rules (improvised CONOPS) like “gather every night at the town square” or “grab a gun and head towards the shooting.” This points back to conflicts in the past, such as the French Revolution, where planning and recruiting took place by word of mouth in taverns that royal agents could not penetrate. Communications between groups can also leverage other simple, low bandwidth means – such as motorcycle or bicycle messengers. During the American Revolution, some American spies even communicated through how they hung up their laundry (improvised semaphores).[5] 

In 2023, Hamas added a new dimension of “Improvised Airborne” to the “Improvised Army” – using soldiers with hang gliders and motorized power gliders to sail over the border wall. By flying “low and slow” they were difficult to counter.[6] They also added “improvised combat engineers,” with Hamas using tractors and bulldozers to expand breaches in the Gaza border fence.

            A key element of 2015’s “Improvised Army” was “Improvised artillery.”  In 2015, we commented how non-state groups around Israel were stockpiling rockets, some crudely fashioned from lampposts, sometimes with parts transported by self-guided donkeys. One Israeli official grumbled, “[T]he only way to knock out the threat would be to kill every donkey in Lebanon.”[7] In 2023, the similar tactics were also used, with lamppost bodies and plumbing pipe used as launching tubes or rocket bodies. Recent high-rise construction in Gaza gave the terrorists plenty of access to material, and if an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building, it was promptly scavenged for electronics and plumbing parts. An Israeli study in 2021 remarked of Hamas, “They collect unexploded Israeli ordnance for the explosives contained within, recycle streetlight poles or war detritus from the deserted Israeli communities in Gaza for launch tubes, and make projectile tubes from plumbing pipes. The destruction of several hi-rise buildings in May 2021 left much more wiring, pipes, rebar, cement, and metal available for ‘recycling.’” The report also quoted Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar boasting in 2019, “[We have] enough [plumbing pipes] to manufacture rockets for the coming 10 years.”[8]

To these improvised devices are added traditional rockets, smuggled into Gaza, and mortars, widely available on the black market. Hybrid warfare is becoming a very destructive, combining strictly military technologies with widely available commercial ones. Hamas has also benefitted from support and clandestine allies, including possibly Iran. Without that support, its improvised forces would not be as effective.[9]

“Improvised Everything” ordnance can be difficult to recognize. In “classic” warfare, the presence of a weapon is easily discerned by its unique signatures. Indeed, it is easy to differentiate an Abrams tank from a Vladimir tank. Improvised weapons, assembled as they are from a global supply chain, have limited ‘fingerprints’, i.e., no “smoking gun” signature to identify the device’s intent). In some cases the material weaponized are plumbing pipes or commercial or even toy drones.

Improvised Air Force                                              

            Non-state actors (as well as states such as Russia and Ukraine) are weaponizing drones (UAVs). Hamas used commercially-produced quadcopter drones armed with grenades to destroy surveillance towers, blinding Israeli intelligence to details about the initial attack.  Other weaponized drones were also used to crash into targets. While rockets are impressive, slower moving drones are easier to guide with GPS, have a smaller effective radar cross-section, and can become a precision weapon – Russia and Ukraine have both used drones in this way, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen.[10]  According to an Israeli defense report from 2021, “Drones can fly low to avoid radar, fly a complex route to a target, and can be used swarm-like with other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missiles to overwhelm defenses to hit a strategic target, as seen in the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility. The attack in September 2019 shut down 50 percent of the Saudi oil industry.”[11]

            In World War II, dive bombers and level attack aircraft were used to attack command and communications. The planes had to be large to carry a pilot and non-precision ordnance and armor to give the crew some chance of surviving. Today, small, light miniature drones can carry out those attacks, as did the quadcopters that took out the communications for Israel’s surveillance system. And they can be flown right on top of surveillance cameras or communications systems to drop small, but effective munitions. They can be challenging to spot optically, hard to detect on radar, and difficult to counter.  As we said back in 2015, “Small is the poor man’s stealth.”[12]          

Improvised Navy

            The attack on the USS Cole in 2000 had shown the devastating capability of rubber dinghies packed with explosives. Iran is a state actor who has built a significant naval capability in part through commercial speedboats. In 2014, five Hamas terrorists, armed with rifles, grenades, explosives, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), attempted to infiltrate Israel through a beach near Zikim, 5 km north of Gaza. They donned scuba gear and swam to the beach. In 2021, divers were stopped again, and terrorists were caught trying to launch an improvised submarine. In 2023, Hamas attempted to attack Israel with unmanned speedboats packed with explosives and through swimmers infiltrating over the beaches. Hamas is also suspected of using commercial fishing boats to move underwater weapons caches closer to shore where swimmers and divers could recover it. Hamas’s “naval” capabilities are still rudimentary, but they try to exploit the vulnerability of Israel to from-the-sea attack. Hamas is believed to now own several models of the autonomous submarine that was captured in 2021.[13]

Improvised C4I, Counterintelligence and Cyber

            One new capability that we did not highlight in 2015 is improvised jamming. With the increasing dependence of modern armies on anytime, anywhere communications for rapid, flexible operations, there is a strong reliance on orders, especially in a new conflict situation. Hamas has used large server farms to try to jam Israeli communications on the southern border, and to keep Israeli outposts from reporting on the initial swarm attack across the border, in addition to trying to disrupt the tower’s communications with physical attacks.

            In the category of expanding Improvised Everything, we included satellite imagery and cyber capabilities. Cyber capabilities are easy to generate through training computer savvy youth or simply offering to pay hackers to work on your behalf.  There are reports that Hamas has used its cyber capabilities to target Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system with its cyber capabilities. With Iranian help, Hamas has also been improving its defensive cyber, trying to keep Israel from surveilling its planning.[14]  In the 1970s, various terrorist groups from around the world like the IRA and the PLO became “strange bedfellows,” collaborating on developing small bombs and terror attacks. Today various shady entities are exchanging cyberattack expertise.[15] 

A hallmark of Hamas’ recent assault is the targeting of Israeli intelligence capabilities. As mentioned, quadcopter drones dropped grenades repeatedly on Israeli surveillance cameras along the border. Snipers also took out surveillance cameras. Hamas also gathered intelligence on the location of Israeli server farms supporting the border cameras and other border intelligence. These locations were targeted for attack and destruction. 

Before Hamas drones were used to target Israeli communication towers and surveillance equipment, they were apparently used to fly a large number of surveys over southern Israel.  Captured maps indicated that the drones may have flown as low as 150 feet. Hamas attackers also had commercial satellite photographs of key locations and targets.[16]

Swarm techniques

            Another aspect of this new improvised warfare is the adoption of swarm techniques, which attempt to mimic emergent behaviors of complex adaptive systems to overwhelm defenses. Hamas uses swarms to try to increase the capability of its improvised army, navy, and air force. The US military has long been studying the adversarial use of swarm techniques.  In the 2005 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah fired antitank weapons en masse in salvos, hoping to defeat the active protection systems of Israeli tanks. In 2023, salvos of Hamas rockets exploited swarm techniques to try and overcome Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. Some believe that the rocket attack – over 5000 rockets were fired over a short time – was designed to distract Israeli attention from the breaching of the southern border.

The overland attack on Israel, with explosives blowing holes in the border fence to enable commandos on motorcycles and foot soldiers to enter, could also be thought of a swarm attack.  The breaches were later widened by bulldozers to allow the entrance of larger vehicles. Motorcycles and pickup trucks were used to add speed to the swarm. 


            The diabolical use that many types of commercial technology are being put to reminds us of the benefits of close cooperation between cutting edge scientists and engineers familiar with commercial technology and the military. In Britain during World War II, corvettes – basically small destroyer escorts – were rapidly fielded because the fundamental design was not based on the military requirements process, but specs for commercial whaling vessels (even in wartime it was recognized using the traditional military procurement route would be too slow to meet the U-Boat challenge).[17] Again, during World War II, scientists also worked to rapidly develop and deploy jamming countermeasures to defeat German precision bombs – weapons that could have otherwise stopped the D-Day invasion.[18] During the 1970s, the then Director of Defense Research & Engineering, DDR&E, Johnny Foster (1965-1973), and DoD innovator Don Srull were able to give early UAV development a vital push because of their experience designing and flying powered model aircraft. Srull, who became Deputy Assistant Director of Defense (Systems Analysis), went on to help develop the Marine Corps’ Dragonfly UAV, one of the first useful small UAVs – because of his expertise in a niche commercial technology, rather than a military one. Foster continued the advocacy for UAVs as a member and later chair of the Defense Science Board.[19] One of us (Smith) remembers scientists studying Coca-Cola bottling techniques for insights into how an armored vehicle guns might be loaded more rapidly and reliably. For years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has fostered cooperation between science and technology and the military to achieve paradigm-shifting military breakthroughs. So has the CIA’s Office of Weapons and Development, and later, In-Q-Tel, designed specifically to leverage commercial IT developments.  In recent years, the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office has also pushed rapid capability development and fielding.

            Monitoring commercial developments to understand their military implications is also important and not a new idea. In the 19th century, the British designed their navy to be larger than any other two nation’s navies. Given this advantage, they realized that what they had most to fear was a technological breakthrough that would make some of their navy obsolete. British intelligence had a project to monitor militarily-relevant technology development. Reportedly, this was highly effective, although they missed the development of motors to power undersea submarines (the U-Boat threat).  In the 2000s, the National Research Council’s Technology Insight, Guage, Evaluate and Respond (TIGER) committee monitored technology developments for the military and intelligence community.  Now, more than ever, military planners need to be aware of both the capabilities and the implications of emerging technology. 

In today’s world, see for example the list of controlled technology in the controlled munitions list, 22 CFR Parts 120-130 ( Items 11-14 have very strong commercial and defense overlap. Biology, computers, sensors, all have broad application in commercial markets. As recently as the year 2000 the controlled munitions list had no breakdown of chemical compositions, biologics, or laser sensors and transmitters. We estimate the commercial/defense overlap has grown from 3% of commercial sectors to 30% of commercial sectors. This is in large part due to the internet of things as well as 3D printing. It follows that dual use technology, once a rare exception, is becoming increasingly the norm.


            By leveraging commercial technology, then, advanced capabilities can be developed by terrorists and non-state actors. An improvised military may never have sufficient capability to stand up to a modern one. But as the recent Hamas incursion into Israel has shown, it can have the capability to do tremendous damage, especially to civilians. The amount of destruction a relatively small group of people can do, some Pentagon strategists’ litmus test for the security of the world, has increased again.

            In a sense, “Improvised Everything” is a reflection of today’s world of rapid change, which Peter Vaill has called “permanent white water.”[20] It is vital that the U.S. and other Western states be nimble at their own improvisation, and to thoroughly understand the implications of new commercial technologies. Fanatics, terrorists, hate groups, and non-state actors will continue to leverage commercial technology. Even nation states will. Regrettably, the world situation has not improved since we wrote in 2015 – in fact, it has gotten worse.  The words of W. B. Yeats, describing modernity’s fanaticism and loss of innocence, are still regrettably apropos in the world of “Improvised Everything:”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

– W.B. Yeats, 1921[21]





[1] D. Smith & A. Steinhardt, “The Blood Dimmed Tide: Technology and the Dangerous New “Improvised Everything” International Security Environment,” Small Wars Journal, December 12, 2015. The Blood-Dimmed Tide: Technology and the Dangerous New “Improvised Everything” International Security Environment | Small Wars Journal. A. Steinhardt, D. G. Smith.  “Improvised Everything:  Taking a Page from the Adversary’s Playbook.” Defense News, August 12, 2013. D. Smith and A. Steinhardt, “‘Improvised Everything’ Challenges Acquisition,” Defense News, lead editorial, May 18, 2009 (reprinted at Federal under different title). [c4ISR Journal]. We gratefully acknowledge the important role of Dr. Joseph Mancusi to the early development of the Improvised Everything concept. 

[2] Congressional Research Service, “The Global Research and Development Landscape and Implications for the Department of Defense,” updated June 28, 2021,

[3] For DoD statistic, see NSF publication Federal R&D Spending, by Budget Function, 2021-2023,

[4] Devorah Margolin, “A Major Pivot in Hamas Strategy,” War on the Rocks, October 16, 2023,

[5] Smith and Steinhardt, “The Blood-Dimmed Tide.” See “The Spy Who Hung Out Her Laundry,” History Daily website, July 25, 2019,

[6] Vincent Carchidi, Middle East Institute, “The October 7 Hamas Attack: An Israeli overreliance on Technology?” October 23, 2023,


[7] Karby Leggett, “Key Issue in Lebanon Fighting:  How to Stop Hezbollah Rockets,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2006.  Karby Leggett and Jay Solomon, “Why Hezbollah is Proving So Tough on the Battlefield,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2006.

[8] Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Report 2021, “Hamas’ Advanced Weaponry: Rockets, Artillery, Drones, Cyber”

[9] Jerusalem Report 2021, “Hamas’ Advanced Weaponry”

[10] Oded Yaron, “Hamas Drone Assault Surprised Israel, Using Russia Ukraine War Tactics,“ Ha’aretz, October 9, 2023, For an account downplaying the effectiveness of Hamas’ drones, see WIRED, “The Dangerous Mystery of Hamas’ Missing “Suicide Drones,” October 21, 2023, David Ingram, “How Yemen’s Houthi Rebels have leveraged cheap drones into military success for years,” How Yemen’s Houthi rebels have leveraged cheap drones into military success for years (

[11] Jerusalem Report 2021, “Hamas’ Advanced Weaponry”

[12] Smith and Steinhardt, “The Blood-Dimmed Tide.”

[13] Jerusalem Report 2021, “Hamas Advanced Weaponry,” Joby Warrick, “Observers fear that Hamas weapon reserves may contain more surprises,” Washington Post, October 20, 2023, p. A1. Jerusalem Report, 2021.

[14] Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Hamas’ October 7 Attack: The Tactics, Targets, and Strategies of Terrorists,” November 7, 2023.

[15] R.A. Oppenheimer, The IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets, A History of Deadly Ingenuity (Newbridge: Irish Academic Press, 2008)

[16]Shira Rubin and Joby Warrick, “Hamas envisioned deeper attacks, aiming to provoke an Israeli war,” Washington Post, November 12, 2023,

[17] “Corvette,” Wikipedia,

[18] Martin J. Bollinger, Warriors and Wizards: The Development and Defeat of Radio-Controlled Glide Bobs of the Third Reich (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010)

[19] Don Srull, personal communication, c. 2010. See also Diane Tedeschi, “From Models to Military Drones, Don Srull has built them all,” Smithsonian, December 2015, Despite the headline, the article does not actually discuss Srull’s military drone work. Stephen J. Balut, et. al., Institute for Defense Analyses, IDA 2004 Cost Research Symposium, p. 14.

[20] Peter Vaill, Managing as a performing art: New ideas for a world of chaotic change. (San Franscico: Jossey-Bass, 1989). Peter B. Vaill, Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996), pp. 1-21.

[21] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1989),

About the Author(s)

David G. Smith has worked for 25 years as a consultant supporting Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and logistics technology clients. He has a doctorate in American History from Penn State University, a Master’s of Science in Science, Technology and Society from Virginia Tech, and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrews. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in American Government and a Master’s in History from the University of Virginia.

Allan O. Steinhardt is the chief scientist for AEye, Inc. He has a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, has published over 200 articles in academic and defense strategy journals, and co-authored a book on adaptive radar. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his contributions to radar and radar processing.