Bad Timing: Israeli Police Arrested Military Contractors For Supplying Kamikaze Harop Drones To China

The arrests come at a bad time for Israel, with the US increasingly hawkish on China and the fourth early elections in two years to be held for the Israeli premiership at the end of the month.

Harop drones had successfully destroyed Russian-made S-300 SAM, Nebo-M air defense Radar, Pantsir-s1 Point defense system and Iskandar Tactical ballistic missiles in Nagorno-karabakh conflict.

A group of over 20 Israelis, including former defence officials, were arrested by Israel’s secret police (ISA) for illegally selling suicide drones to China.

Israeli-made Harop drones captured the image of Iskandar missile battery before hitting the target.

According to the Law For Oversight of Defense Exports, Israel’s Ministry of Defense is required to consult with the Foreign Ministry for weapons sales to any country. This allows Israel to mitigate harm to its foreign policy and international ties. 

A previous attempt at selling intelligence collection drones to China was cancelled due to US pressure. 

This comes nearly a month after three legal sales of the same weapon were sold to Asian nations. Within Israel, a gag order is in effect.

The revelation comes from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein’s blog, which has been reporting on the details of the sale since February 11.

Silverstein notes this isn’t the only time Israel has attempted defence sales to China, only to earn the United State’s ire.

Unmentioned was the relatively little regulation governing Israel’s defence industry. Israel’s historic record of arms sales shows little concern with human rights records.

The most recent sale of ‘loitering’ suicide drones is the second such deal made between the two nations, with the first taking place in 1998. The ‘Kamikaze’ drones are manufactured by local defence giants Rafael and Israeli Aerospace Industries.

Suicide drones, or ‘loitering munitions as they are technically known, are a hybrid between drones and guided missiles. They are defined by being able to ‘loiter’ in the air for a long period of time, before striking a target entering a pre-defined zone or waiting for human guidance.

Euphemistically described as a ‘fire-and-forget’ weapon, the Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Harop autonomously attacks any target meeting previously identified criteria, but includes a ‘man-in-the-loop’ feature that allows a human to technically prevent an attack from taking place without approval. 

Given the cutting-edge nature of autonomous weapon platforms, there is little in the way of international law regulating their production or sale.

Politics Or Espionage

In his paper “The Necropolitics of Drones” Dr. Jamie Allinson says suicide drones give powerful military commanders the one weapon don’t already own. For most leadership, suicide drones are the perfect soldier. They never know reluctance or fear, and can hold a position for hours waiting for its chance to take others with it. 

Allinson goes on to argue that the suicide drone and human suicide bomber cause the same level of terror rooted in the lack of warning.

To boost sales, Israeli aerospace companies have sold the story that they’re well acquainted with suicide bombings. Another trademark of Israeli defence offerings is the notion that their weapons are ‘battle-proven’.

The implications were rarely voiced. Israeli defence sale pitches don’t often admit they saw testing first and foremost on occupied Palestinians.

Israeli Arms Transfer To PRC

The International Institute for Strategic Studiesonly since 1991 listed military acquisition from Israel until the end of 1995 is a licence to produce the Python-3 air-combat missile.

Chinese Engineers are standing next to an Israeli Lavi Fighter jet before the shipment of the Lavi fighter. Source weibo.

Reportedly based ontechnology-transfer agreements signed in 1989 and 1990, China has managed –with Israeli assistance – to develop two supposedly ‘genuine’ missile versions ofthe Python: the PL-8H surface-to-air/ship-to-air missile (SAM/ShAM) and the PL-9 air-to-air missile (AAM).

By the end of 1995, China had reportedlyproduced 3,213 PL-8Hs and 4,837 PL-9s at an annual rate of some 600 and 800respectively. Impressive as they are, these figures do not represent actual armssales: in those years, Israel had better business selling actual military equipmentto other countries.

While SIPRI data indicate that Israel is one of China’s few military suppliers,its share in the Chinese arms market is marginal compared not only to China’senormous size and needs, but also to the share of Russia, whose military transfers to China dwarf those of all others combined. Israel may be the PRC’s second military supplier, but the significance of this statement is similar to saying that China is the world’s third nuclear power, even though its nuclear arsenal lags far behind the two leading nuclear powers.

There are many unconfirmed reports of Israel’s arms sales to China, They include:

  • Israel’s alleged cooperation with China on improving its 9,000 battle tanks by supplying L7 105mm smooth-bore guns with thermal fume-extractionsleeves and matching shells, fire-control systems, night-vision equipment, range-finders, stabilisers and reactive armour protective devices
  • designing or redesigning missile technologies for China’s DF-3 (CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), the DF-15 (also known as M-9) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), as well as the PL-8H, PL-9 mentioned above, and a variety of other missiles including anti-tank guided missilesbased on the Israeli Mapatz;
  • upgrading China’s outdated MiG-derived fighters and designing new ones, primarily the J-10, supposedly based on the technology of the aborted Israeli Lavi project
  • a variety of other projects such as electronic warfare, intelligence and surveil-lance measures, airborne-refuelling technology, airborne radar and early warning and control systems and radar technology for China’s submarines.

These otherwise diversified reports have several common elements. First,they create an impression of large-scale Israeli military transactions with the PRC, which in fact are of smaller scale. Second, most of them relate to defense-technology transfers rather than ready-made arms sales. Third, although Israeli officials and leaders have reluctantly admitted the existence of Sino-Israeli military cooperation, none of the above-mentioned projects has ever been officially confirmed.

Bad Timing As Biden Administration Recalibrate Middle East Foreign Policy

In recent years, Israel’s defence spending has been shrinking slowly. Israel was formerly allowed to reinvest nearly a quarter of US defence spending into its own defence industries. 

This came to an end after 2016, when the terms of the agreement were rebalanced by former US President Barack Obama. Coupled with a flagging economy and elected leader facing multiple charges of corruption, Israel’s security establishment seems overtaxed.

The normalization of Israel’s relations with the Gulf states is crucial for Netanyahu and, indirectly, for Biden, too. But, for the former, it is not having the intended effect.
Photograph by Michel Euler / AP

The most recent scandal has far-reaching implications on US-Israeli cooperation, particularly after the hawkish stance taken by Biden’s administration on China. This has prompted fears that Israel finds itself in an awkward bind with the new administration, even if it will only earn them a slap on the wrist

The US maintains strict regulations for military aid sent to Israel, which make it illegal to transfer US technology, compete with US defence companies, and spend the majority of the aid on US defence products.

This comes ahead of Israel’s early elections set for the end of March, after the coalition government failed to approve a budget. This would be the fourth such election held in four years.

Suicide drones have been in the international spotlight since Azerbaijan made use of Israeli loitering munitions in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to great effect. But even their involvement was later deemed questionable.

In 2017, Israeli company Aeronautics Limited was charged with fraud and violation of Azerbaijan’s export control laws. This came after Israeli members of the company “demonstrated” the effectiveness of their suicide drone with an actual strike on Armenian soldiers in the region.

The relatively small number of members also raises concerns over the growing ease with which militias and non-state actors are adopting suicide drone technology, most recently in Yemen.

It remains to be seen how Biden’s new administration will respond to news of the illegal sale with China.

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