Israel’s Growing Arms Export

Jul 23, 2014 by

The Jewish Standard notes today that “the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine has led airlines across the globe to consider investing in … anti-missile systems [produced by Israel’s Elbit Systems] that all of Israel’s civilian aircraft are outfitted with”.

[The following post was originally published in December 2013]

Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world today. According to Suketu Mehta’s article in the New York Review of Books, “more people are murdered in Brazil than in almost any other country. In 2010, there were 40,974 murders there—21 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to the global rate of 6.9” (see also an earlier GeoCurrents post on homicide rates in Brazil). The prevalence of rape has also made headlines in Brazil. Much of the country’s violent crime, particularly in the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, is gang- and drug-related. Especially alarming is children’s involvement in the drug trade. This rise of violent crime is particularly worrisome since Brazil is otherwise emerging as a power player on the world stage. It is set to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

The Brazilian police are turning to an unexpected source to help counter this escalating crime wave, using weapons and training obtained from Israel. In recent years, Israel has become one of the world’s largest exporters of military and policing equipment and know-how, accounting for 10% of the world total in 2007 (other major arms exporters include the US, Russia, France, the UK, Germany, China, and Italy). Israeli export of defense equipment has been growing exponentially, doubling every 2-3 years. Israel’s total arms transfer agreements in 2004-2011 add up to $12.9 billion. In 2012, Israel’s defense technology sales totaled the all-time record of $7.473 billion, according to Brig. General (Ret.) Shmaya Avieli, the head of Defense Exports Directorate. This is a nearly 30% increase in just one year. Crucially, all of Israel’s weapon-export deals are carried out with the Foreign Ministry’s approval, and exporting weapons to states that violate human rights is not permitted, according to Defense Ministry sources quoted by the Haaretz.


The Defense industry in Israel is a strategically important sector and a large employer; over 150,000 households are said to depend on it. More than 150 defense companies are based in Israel, with combined revenues of more than $3.5 billion annually. Three Israeli companies—Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and RAFAEL—were listed on the 2010 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute index of the world’s top 100 arms-producing and military service companies.Along with private firms they produce a wide range of conventional systems, ranging from ballistic missiles and anti-missile weapons, tanks, radar and communications systems, and warships.






Israeli drone export map

Israel is also considered to be the world’s leading exporter of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Missile-armed drones were developed by Israel to assassinate key militant leaders; the US has been using such drones against al-Qaeda, its first such ‘targeted killing’ mission being carried out in Yemen in November 2002. In 2001‑2011, Israeli companies were behind 41% of all UAVs exported to 24 countries, including the US, India, Russia, Nigeria, and Mexico.

More generally, the United States and Europe are the biggest customers of the Israeli Defense industry. For example, in July 2012 IAI signed deals worth nearly $1 billion with Italy, involving a $182 million high-resolution optical military satellite system, known as OPTSAT‑3000, for Telespazio, a prime contractor for satellite launch and logistics services and in‑orbit testing. IAI will also supply two Gulfstream G‑550 executive jets converted to early-warning aircraft; both are equipped with NATO-standard communications, tactical links, and other subsystems developed by its Elta Systems division, at a cost of  $750 million each. The United States also provides major funding for Israeli defense projects. In July 2012, Congress approved an aid package of nearly $1 billion on top of the continuing annual aid for developing IAI’s Arrow-3 ballistic missile interceptor with Boeing, as well as for systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling, under development by Rafael. These systems and their associated radar equipment, which will eventually be part of a multi-tiered Israeli missile defense shield, are likely to become crucial items for Israel’s defense-sector exports. Iron Dome’s 85% success rate in knocking out incoming rockets in the course of the Pillar of Defense military operation in November 2012 is sure to spark increased interest. It is not clear whether the US will buy any of the systems, but South Korea, India, and some other countries have expressed interest.

Asian and Latin American nations are also among the major customers of Israeli defense exports, while sales to African countries remain marginal). In the 1990s, China was Israel’s most important arms market. At that time, the major weapons system exported to China was the Phalcon airborne warning and control system (AWACs), which used US technology and was thus subject to US export oversight. As tensions rose in the Taiwan Strait, Washington pressed the Israeli Ministry of Defense to cut back on its ties to Beijing, and the Phalcon became a bone of contention, at a serious economic cost to Israel. Since then, India has become a major buyer of Israeli arms. Israelis never tire of telling the story of David Ben-Gurion’s great respect for Mahatma Gandhi, yet the two countries established formal diplomatic relations only in 1991. Military and intelligence connections between Israel and India have been growing ever since. In 2006, the India market comprised more than one-third of Israel’s defense exports. Sales included upgrades for MIG 21 aircraft and T72 tanks originally purchased from Russia, the Barak anti-missile ship defense system, communications equipment, laser-guided munitions, and the Phalcon. The first of five Phalcon AWACs were delivered to India in 2007.

According to the Ministry of Defense director-general Udi Shani, 2013 is bringing an increase in weapons sales to Poland, Vietnam, and Brazil. Azerbaijan is another key Israeli defense customer. In 2012, a $1.6 billion deal between IAI and Azerbaijan was signed for aircraft, missiles, UAVs, and intelligence systems. Some UAVs, such as the Aerostar and Orbiter 2M aerial drones, are now manufactured in Azerbaijan by Azad Systems Co., a joint venture between Israel’s Aeronautics and the Azeri Defense Ministry. Oil-rich Azerbaijan has become a strategic ally of Israel, raising speculation that the Israeli security forces use Azerbaijan for intelligence surveillance of neighboring Iran.


The prominence of UAVs and missile interceptors among Israeli-made weapons systems highlights the defensive nature of much if Israel’s military technology, with many systems designed with protection of its military personnel and civilians in mind. In the early 2000s, Amos Golan, a retired Lieutenant colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces, argued that the best way to protect SWAT teams and special forces officers, especially those in terrorist-hostage situations, may be quite literally “around the corner”. He invented CornerShot, a weapon worthy of James Bond’s Q. CornerShot is a semi-automatic gun with a hinge in the center that allows the barrel to pivot to the left or right while the handle and trigger remain fixed, thus kitty-cornershotallowing its operator to literally shoot around corners in either direction. A flashlight and digital camera are mounted on the weapon in the bayonet position, allowing the operator to identify and target concealed enemies, thus offering protection from counterattack. Versions of CornerShot are now used by special forces in Azerbaijan, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Mexico, and the United States; Angelina Jolie sported a CornerShot weapon in the 2008 action thriller film Wanted. And if CornerShot were not ingenious enough, Golan also invented a surprising modification to it, both imaginative and simple. While shopping for toys for his children, Golan thought of putting a cat puppet on the barrel of CornerShot, which makes it look like a cat walking from around the corner, providing its operator with a much-needed element of surprise.

Another specialty of the Israeli defense export industry is providing training for security personnel. One major company that focuses in this area is International Security and Defense Systems (ISDS), established by a former El Al security officer Leo Gleser. Argentinean-born Gleser is particularly fond of working in Latin America, where he has provided weapons and training for Brazilian special forces (as mentioned in the opening of this post). More recently, ISDS has competed for security tenders for both the 2014 FIFA World Cup Games and 2016 Olympic Games. Another recent project of ISDS is in Honduras, producing electronic handcuffs for monitoring prisoners and criminals at home. But the company’s chief area of activity is providing high-level security for deep-sea drilling platforms, civilian nuclear reactors, and vessels on international shipping lanes. Gleser and his company have also provided the security for visits to Israel by Madonna, Elton John, and other rock stars; fortified the homes of wealthy South Americans; organized the security for the U.S. Embassy in Rome; and trained commandos and special forces on three continents.

While Israel’s defense exports continue to grow, some worries have surfaced. The military technology market around the world has stagnated, particularly as governments diverted defense spending to other needs after the global economic crisis of 2008, a trend that is not expected to be reversed any time soon. The effects of the withdrawal from Iraq by Western militaries and the reduction of forces in Afghanistan have been particularly felt at IAI, which leases drones to Western governments operating in Central Asia, and at Plasan, which produces armored protection for vehicles. Protectionism has also become an increasing problem for Israeli defense exporters, who often encounter a preference from potential customers abroad to buy domestically. All told, however, the world remains a dangerous place, and as a result, the high-tech military and defense systems sold by Israel will continue to find willing buyers.

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