Israel Turning to Other Arms Sources Amid Uncertainty of U.S., EU Sales

Israel’s Western weapons sources are no longer a sure thing; Haaretz found that former Soviet republics are pitching in.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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Israel's Iron Dome defense system firing to intercept incoming missiles.
Israel's Iron Dome defense system firing to intercept incoming missiles.Credit: AP
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

With the recent halt of a U.S. shipment of Hellfire missiles, and Spain and Britain announcing they were reconsidering their arms sales to Israel, are Israeli weapons supplies in danger? A probe by Haaretz shows that most of Israel’s arms imports are from the United States and a few other states. In recent years, however, Israel acquired hundreds of Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles. Defense experts warn that Washington held up the Hellfire shipment in order to send a warning to Jerusalem, which depends on U.S. weapons and munitions for its military operations.

Neither the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of military imports and exports, nor other state agencies regularly publish information on the topic. Most of the arms used by the Israel Defense Forces are manufactured locally or acquired with American aid funds. For the past several years U.S. aid to Israel has come to $3.1 billion a year. According to Defense Ministry projections, Israel’s use of U.S. aid for arms sales is expected to remain steady.

According to Defense Ministry figures, around one-quarter of the output of the Israeli defense industry is intended for IDF use. The rest is exported.

Despite official Israel’s reluctance to get specific about its arms trade, reports submitted by various states to the UN’s Register of Conventional Arms shed some light on the matter. For example, Ukraine’s official reports state that two years ago, Ukraine sold Israel 193 missiles and 32 launchers. According to reports made as part of the voluntary disclosure mechanism, in 2010 Ukraine sold Israel four Strella (SA-7) missiles and two launchers, about 75 Igla missiles of various models and 10 launchers for them. It is not clear why Israel purchased so many Russian-made shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The assumption is that they are being acquired as part of Israel’s development of systems to counter them, such as the aircraft-defense system. As recently as February, Defense Ministry officials and Elbit Systems announced the successful completion of tests of the Sky Shield system, which is intended to protects civilian aircraft from shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Arms experts have said it likely that Russian-made missiles were used in the test. Still, the number of missiles Ukraine reported selling to Israel is relatively large even for that purpose. Defense Ministry officials declined to comment for this report.

Reports in the UN Register that were examined in recent years point to some more interesting acquisitions, mainly for Soviet-made arms that are not considered at the forefront of technology. For example, in 2008 Ukraine reported that it sold Israel a launcher for BM-21 rockets — a launcher that the Israeli army used in the past after it was captured as booty in the Yom Kippur War and used during the first Lebanon War. Hezbollah uses it to fire Grad rockets. In 2006, the Czech Republic sold Tochka tactical missile systems to Israel. Two years previously, Bulgaria sold Israel six 130 mm artillery systems about which no further details were provided.

Against the backdrop of reports about Britain and Spain examining their arms sales to Israel, an expert characterized the amount of arms that Israel purchases from countries other than the United States as “negligible.”

The Guardian reported that contracts worth eight billion pounds were at stake in London’s reevaluation of its military sales to Israel, most of it for encryption technology and communications equipment. Spain, which also announced a temporary freeze on arms sales to Israel, sold about five million euros in military equipment to Israel last year, according to The Independent.

Yiftah Shapir, the head of the Middle East Military Balance Project at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, says that while no large arms deal has been signed either with Spain or with Britain, Israel is acquiring various components for its arms from European countries and organizations. Shapir added that all the big companies from which Israel purchases technological components are multinational firms with manufacturing facilities throughout Europe. The British and Spanish announcements have led to concern that in the future Israel will be restricted by arms limitations imposed by European states.

The United States is Israel’s most prominent defense trading partner. U.S. military aid to Israel is earmarked for the acquisition of weapons systems and defense needs. In July the United States announced the sale of 600 air-to-air AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, together with about 50 training missiles, replacement parts and technical support, in a deal valued at around $544 million. Also reported this year was the sale of six V-22 aircraft-to-aircraft missiles at a cost of more than $1.1 billion. The report noted that Israel also sought to acquire U.S.-made engines as well as radar and other systems. Israel also uses U.S. aid funds to buys aircraft fuel and vehicle fuel.

German submarines

Israel has signed several significant defense contracts with other countries in recent years. Germany provides Israel with submarines from its HDW shipyards in Kiel. Israel has purchased six submarines so far, three of which are in use by the Israel navy. The IDF has taken delivery of two submarines, with additional deliveries scheduled through the end of 2019.

Italy last year arranged to sell 30 M-346 training aircraft to Israel. The first of these are already making their first flights. As part of the deal, Israel sold Italy several defense products, an Israeli-made satellite and a deterrent aircraft produced by Israel Aerospace Industries in a deal estimated at $2 billion dollars.

Last month, the Defense Ministry issued an international tender for the purchase of “defense ships,” which will be used to protect the offshore natural-gas drilling rigs in the Mediterranean Sea. According to an Israeli Navy plan for the protection of the rigs that the defense minister and the chief of staff approved about two years ago, four more large vessels will be required to secure the area properly, at a cost of roughly 100 million dollars per ship. The names of several foreign shipyards — in Germany, Italy, the United States and South Korea — were mentioned in the past as possible makers of the ships that would protect the natural-gas fields.

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