Israeli Army Buying Local Cannons to Sidestep International Ban on Cluster Bombs

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A researcher examines a cluster bomb that Israel fired on a village in Lebanon in 2006.
A researcher examines a cluster bomb that Israel fired on a village in Lebanon in 2006.Credit: AP

The Israeli army will soon put into use new artillery cannons purchased from local defense company Elbit rather than a German firm over concerns that the latter would restrict the cannons from firing cluster bombs.

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The use of cluster bombs is banned by an international treaty signed by more than 100 countries, including Germany, because of the high rate of civilian casualties and injuries associated with them. According to a now-retired Israel Defense Forces officer familiar with the matter, Israel was concerned that the Germans would not give the army the “complete independence” it sought in the use of the cannons. In light of this, the Defense Ministry recommended purchasing Israeli cannons, without inviting bids.

The South Korean firm Hanwha Techwin was also approached but ultimately rejected because the cannons it manufactures are semi-automatic, while the Artillery Corps wants an automatic weapon that has a faster firing rate and requires a smaller team to operate.

Cluster bombs cause extensive damage because they release a large number of bomblets and unexploded ordnance. Israel’s wide-ranging use of cluster bombs in the Second Lebanon War drew international criticism. After the war, 46 people were killed by bomblets and some 300 were injured according to figures published in Haaretz at the time.

The treaty banning the use, manufacture and possession of cluster bombs went into effect four years later. Russia, the United States, India, China and Pakistan also opposed the ban.

Although it is not a signatory to the treaty, Israel was affected by the change in policy regarding cluster bombs. After the United States passed a law banning the export and use of cluster bombs with more than 1 percent unexploded bomblets, the IDF ordered the development of bombs that would conform to that law. Over the past year, Israel has purchased hundreds of rockets with cluster munitions which have a rate of only 0.01 percent unexploded bomblets, according to various statements.

The German firm KMW was Elbit’s main competitor in providing the cannons, and Elbit’s selection without a bidding process was made possible because it was declared a “sole supplier.” The cost of the weapons system is $1.5 billion dollars.

A source in the defense industry said the German cannons have advantages over the Israeli version because they have seen operational action. “The German cannon lives and breathes and kicks and shoots and the Elbit does not,” said a senior reserves officer familiar with the subject. “Elbit’s cannon doesn’t maneuver poorly, but there should be a competition ahead of the decision, and the best one should win. This didn’t happen.“

According to the senior officer, the American firm that manufactures the M109 howitzer cannons currently used by the IDF was approached, but the idea was subsequently dropped because the firm doesn't produce an automatic version. “We were left with one option. We would have been more than happy to have opened bidding because that brings down prices, but we wanted a cannon that would be operated without conditions, and that would not get,” the officer said.

Elbit is already dominant as a manufacturer of armaments for the IDF and it will become even more so after it acquires the assets of IMI, formerly known as Israel Military Industries. Elbit was the only firm to submit a bid for IMI's privatization.

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