How Israel’s Arms Manufacturers Won the Gaza War

Iron Dome may have been the star performer during Operation Protective Edge, but the big international sellers may be the Tamuz missile and the Windbreaker system.

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 9, 2014.
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 9, 2014.Credit: AP
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

The links between Israel’s three largest defense contractors – Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – and the Israel Defense Forces are very tight. The IDF needs the defense industries to develop weapons systems on its behalf, but since the IDF is a small army in international terms and the defense contractors need to make a profit and stand on their own two feet (even if they are government owned), they need to sell in the large international defense markets – where the products are scrutinized partly on the uses the IDF makes of them on the battlefield.

The more the contractors sell overseas, the cheaper they can sell to the IDF – and this is one of the defense establishment’s main goals in encouraging weapons exports. Estimates say that 80% of Israel’s defense production is for export, and the rest is bought by the IDF and other local security forces.

There is real competition between the Israeli defense contractors, just as in any other business where the companies want to expand and make money, although both Rafael and IAI are government-owned companies. Nonetheless, every few months, the heads of the defense industries meet with the director general of the Defense Ministry, Dan Harel, in what is termed the “forum of the five.”

“One of the main goals of the forum is to prevent bloody competition overseas,” says veteran military correspondent Amir Rapaport, the editor of Israel Defense, which covers the local defense industry. “There are quite a few cases in which the industries compete with each other until they cause heavy damage. The defense establishment, which is interested in defense exports, tries to encourage use of the forum for planning and regulation within the reality of competition,” he says.

The link between the IDF and the defense industry is also very personal. Most of those in the weapons industry in Israel are former senior military officers, who have appeared quite frequently over the past month during the fighting in Gaza as commentators on television and radio – for example, former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz. Many of the senior executives in the defense industries still hold senior positions in the reserves, i.e., Maj. Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben Reuven is deputy head of the Northern Command in the reserves, and was recently appointed head of the ground division at IAI.

“The connection between the army and the industry is a very, very tight loop. It is possible to see it as problematic when senior [executives] in the defense industries fill senior positions in the reserves, but everyone says they keep their position in the company and the military position separate,” says Rapaport.

But there are those who see the problem differently. “It is problematic that companies which the Defense Ministry oversees sit with the regulator for a meeting in which they also make decisions concerning purchasing,” one strategic adviser in the industry observes. “Problematic things can happen in such an situation; there is an inherent conflict of interests.”

Sometimes, though, these connections can result in cooperation. “One of the systems that was used in Protective Edge was developed by one of the defense companies as a result of a need raised by a reserve officer who participated in [Operation] Cast Lead,” says Rapaport. The officer convinced people in his company to invest in developing the system, and the product went operational during Protective Edge, Rapaport adds.

Peaceful times? Sales plummet

Since 2000, when the second intifada broke out, Israel has had some form of military operation lasting a few weeks every few years: Defensive Shield (in the West Bank) in 2002; the Second Lebanon War in 2006; Cast Lead in 2008-09; and Pillar of Defense in 2012. In almost every case, new military technology or weapons were used – which had a positive effect on overseas sales.

The numbers show that, after the initial period of criticism against Israel after the various operations quiet down, sales pick up. And there has been continuous growth in defense exports in recent years. In 2002, such exports were worth $2 billion, grew to $3.4 billion in 2006, and were $6 billion in 2012. In 2013, the three largest defense contractors all showed increases in sales: Elbit had annual revenues of $3 billion; IAI $2.65 billion; and Rafael $2 billion. At 15%, Rafael’s sales showed the highest growth rate.

The local defense industries provide jobs – directly and indirectly – for some 150,000 people in Israel. About 1,000 firms are registered with the Defense Ministry as arms suppliers, and 680 have export licenses. Some 320 marketers around the world are registered with the ministry, people who are located overseas and sell the wares supplied by Israeli defense firms.

The ministry refuses to reveal the overall figures on Israeli arms exports, but some of the data was revealed last year after a human-rights activist filed a suit here. It transpired that $3.83 billion-worth of deals were signed in 2012 with Asian countries; $1.73 billion with European nations; $1.1 billion with Canada and the United States; $604 million with Latin America; and $107 million in Africa.

Israel admitted to sales with only five countries – the United States, Spain, Britain, South Korea and Kenya – but Haaretz has found there were deals with at least 33 more countries, including many in the Third World.

While Israel is not going to war to improve the sales of weapons to foreign countries, it is clear that prolonged periods of peace negatively affect sales. One example is the case of Plasan from Kibbutz Sasa in northern Israel, which made plenty of money from selling protective armor for vehicles to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years, though, the business has fallen off and Plasan has had to fire workers as the Americans have left Iraq.

In addition to the weapons manufacturers, there are other Israelis who make their living providing military and security consulting and training services around the globe – and it is fair to assume that these businesses will also enjoy greater demand after Protective Edge.

Dozens of high-ranking officers and officials in the defense establishment provide foreign governments with advice on their military, and often even provide training. One of the areas that could see a big push after the latest campaign is in the area of defense against tunnels.

Iron Dome out, Tamuz in

The present operation turned a number of defense technologies into real stars. The most obvious is the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, which achieved an impressive 90% interception rate (according to IDF figures and U.S. observers). The biggest beneficiary of this success will be Rafael, the main contractor and manufacturer of Iron Dome, which was supported with almost $1 billion of U.S. military aid to finance the project. Most of the money came after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, when the system proved itself operationally for the first time.

The general consensus is that it will be almost impossible to export Iron Dome systems, even though the foreign press has had many reports on countries that might be interested in purchasing the system: for example, South Korea (earlier this week), India and Taiwan.

A major partner in the success of Iron Dome is IAI, which manufactures the system’s radar. Two weeks ago, IAI had a successful bond issue on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, where it raised almost half a billion shekels at an attractive interest rate of 0.95% over the Bank of Israel level. Senior executives at IAI think one of the reasons for its popularity was the success of Iron Dome.

Other IAI products currently on the battlefield are the Heron unmanned aerial vehicle and the brand new Windbreaker system (also known as Trophy), to protect armored vehicles against anti-tank missiles – at a price of $300,000 per tank. The IDF put Windbreaker into operation sooner than planned because of the Gaza operation, and it performed well. There is also the Green Rock tactical radar system to identify and locate short-range rockets and mortar shells that Iron Dome is unable to intercept.

Not all the successful systems were used defensively. The Tamuz missile – from Rafael’s “Spike” family of missiles – is equipped with a video camera and can hone in on a target, moving or static, at distances of up to 20 to 25 kilometers. Reports say the IDF has used Tamuz some 200 times during Protective Edge. Only three years ago it was considered one of the most secret weapons in the Israeli arsenal, even though it originally went into operation in the 1980s as an anti-tank weapon. As opposed to Iron Dome, there is a very good chance that Tamuz will be exported.

A Tamuz missile hitting a target during a military exercise.Credit: Israel Defense Forces
Protective range of Rafael’s Windbreaker system.

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