Three Sa'ar 5 class missile corvettes of the Israeli Navy cruise off the shore of Israel during a training exercise (Credit: the Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson's Unit)

The Weapons Wizards exchange, part 2: On Israel’s massive arms exports


Yaakov Katz is an Israeli journalist who currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Post. He previously served for close to a decade as the paper’s military reporter and defense analyst. In 2012-2013 he was a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and is a faculty member at Harvard’s Extension School where he teaches an advanced course in journalism. Prior to taking up the role of Editor-in-Chief at The Jerusalem Post, Katz served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett.

This exchange focuses on Katz’s recent book (co-written with Amir Bohbot) The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). You can find part 1 right here.

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Dear Yaakov,

The book, and your first answer, present quite a positive take on Israel’s history of military innovation – and it truly is an impressive success story.

But one could take a step back and wonder whether a country of 8 million people should be the sixth largest arms exporter in the world – whether this is something we should be proud of. Weaponry and arms exports can be murky business sometimes, and I don’t think it would be controversial to say that not all of Israel’s customers have been squeaky clean democracies beyond any reproach (Apartheid South Africa comes to mind).

My question: are there darker sides to the story of Israel’s military innovation? If so, how do you think they should affect our general assessment of the phenomenon?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for the question. It is based, I noticed, on two parts. You ask about the murky side of arms deals as well as the darker side of Israel’s innovation.

Let me start by saying that I agree with you – there are murky deals that Israel has made over the years. There are questionable sales of arms to countries in Africa and other parts of the globe (Southeast Asia and South America). In the book, for example, we tell the story of how Israel got its start selling weapons to India, which is today one of the country’s biggest arms buyers. It was basically because Israel told India it wouldn’t ask questions about human rights issues like the US. It didn’t attach strings to its sales. The same, by the way, is what happened with China. People can read more about this in Chapter 8, called “Diplomatic Arms.”

It is important, though, to remember the historical and regional context for these deals. For the first 50 years of Israel’s existence, these deals were done (you mentioned the ties with Apartheid South Africa as an example) and stemmed, I think, from the fact that Israel is located in the Middle East without friends or allies nearby. With its back is up against a wall, it found itself needing to make deals where it could, even in some ethically questionable places.

A lot of that has changed in recent years with new oversight and restrictions on export of arms and sales. There are currently two agencies in the Defense Ministry which are responsible for approving deals, and there is a lot that is done in coordination with the US. As we tell in the book, when Israel wanted to sell drones to Russia in 2009, it had to first get approval from the Pentagon.

The second part of your question is about what you call the darker side of Israel’s military innovation. Here I have to disagree with the description. We need to make a distinction between the innovation process which is the focus of “Weapon Wizards” and the arms sales that follow. The technology that you find in Israel is usually developed, first and foremost, to provide for the needs of the IDF.

The problem is that the IDF is a small military and is not a large enough customer to incentivize local companies to develop high-end weaponry. For that reason, the vast majority of products that Israeli defense companies manufacture are exported. This way, the companies can keep production lines open and prices down for the IDF.

At Israel Aerospace Industries, the biggest government-owned company, for example, 78 percent of sales in 2014 were to foreign customers. This is the same basic breakdown for all of the large defense companies in Israel. This is unlike any arrangement elsewhere in the world. In the US, foreign sales make up a significantly smaller portion of sales for defense conglomerates. International sales at Boeing’s defense division represented about 35 percent of its business in 2014. At Lockheed Martin, that figure was only 20 percent.

Take the Popeye missile, one of the Israeli Air Force’s most advanced weapons, as an example. Developed by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Popeye can accurately hit targets through a window from over 60 miles away. It is one of the air force’s most sophisticated standoff missiles. But how many can the Israeli Air Force order? To keep prices down, it needs to export the missile. That is why one of Israel’s most sophisticated weapons— the type of  technology a country would usually want to keep to itself— has been sold to the US, India, South Korea, Australia and Turkey.

In short, if Israel doesn’t export the Popeye, Rafael won’t be able to afford to develop and produce it and then the IDF won’t have it.

My point is that we need to differentiate between the two stages – the stage of the innovation and the stage of the arms sales. The innovation is the focus of the book, which tells the story of how tiny Israel managed to beat the odds and develop weapons that have changed the battlefield. The murky deals that came after that are a challenge, but one that needs to be viewed through the context I described above.