India turns to Israel for armed drones as Pakistan, China build fleets


India has accelerated plans to buy drones from Israel that can be armed, defence sources said, allowing the military to carry out strikes overseas with less risk to personnel.

The news comes weeks after long-time rival Pakistan first reported using a home-made drone in combat when it attacked militants on its soil, raising the prospect of a new front in the nuclear-armed neighbours' standoff over Kashmir that has twice spilled into war.

The plan to acquire Israeli Herons was first conceived three years ago, but in January the military wrote to the government asking for speedy delivery, the sources said, as Pakistan and China develop their own drone warfare capabilities.

India has already deployed Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along the rugged mountains of Kashmir for surveillance, as well as on the disputed border with China where the two armies have faced off against each other.

In September, the Indian government approved the air force's request to acquire 10 Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) that can be fitted with weapons to engage targets on the ground, an air force official with knowledge of the matter said.

He added that he expected the agreement to be inked soon. The Indian Defence Ministry declined to comment.

The plan to buy Herons in a deal estimated at $400 million would open the option of covert cross-border strikes.

Currently the two armies exchange fire across the de facto Kashmir border at times of tension, but do not cross the Line of Control (LoC) by land or air.

“It's risky, but armed UAVs can be used for counter insurgency operations internally as well across the borders; sneak attacks on terrorist hideouts in mountainous terrain, perhaps,” said an army officer in the defence planning staff.

“DEEP-STRIKE CAPABILITY”

Gurmeet Kanwal, a former head of the government-funded Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said the armed Herons due to enter Indian service by late 2016 will give the air force deep-strike capability.

The United States has carried out hundreds of drone strikes inside Pakistan, targeting al Qaeda and other militants in its northwest. Pakistan has allowed such targeted killings, even though it complains about them in public.

Indian drones, in contrast, face being shot down as soon as they show up on Pakistani radars, the army officer and Kanwal said.

Deniability would be essential in any use of armed drones by India and Pakistan across their bitterly contested border, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading weapons proliferation expert in Pakistan.

“It is likely that drones would be used in a surreptitious mode close to the LoC, far away from populated areas,” he said.

In July, the Pakistan army said it had shot down a small Indian spy drone in Kashmir. India did not comment.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia specialist at the Washington D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the arrival of lethal drones in the region could heighten mutual suspicion at a time when ties are strained.

“Pakistan might worry that India could use an armed drone to attack terrorist safe havens in Pakistan or to target a specific terrorist there.”

“India might worry that Pakistan will now be tempted to add drones to its repertoire of asymmetric warfare tactics it has used against India.”

Only the United States, Israel and Britain are known to have used armed drones in combat, although more than 70 countries have UAVs with surveillance capabilities, according to New America, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

China has no public strategy for armed drone development, but it has poured resources into UAVs and has shown them off at exhibitions. Chinese combat drones still lag far behind the Israeli-made ones in terms of capability, military experts say.

LOCAL MANUFACTURE?

A delegation from state-owned IAI has been holding talks with the Indian defence ministry to determine the possibility of local manufacture of the Heron TP as part of the “Make-in-India” programme, IHS Jane's said.

Israel does not confirm or deny using or producing armed drones. IAI declined comment on the proposed sale of the Herons, as did Israel's Defence Ministry, which oversees such arms exports.

IAI is one of several Israeli companies manufacturing drones or related technologies.

At least one of them has sold armed drones to a foreign country other than India, a person involved in the deal said, without elaborating on the client, model or manufacturer of the aircraft.

Such deals are handled directly between the governments of Israel and the purchasing country, with mutual secrecy agreements, the person added.

It is not clear what kind of weapons will be fitted to the Heron TPs that India plans to buy.

India has been trying to develop its own combat drone, but the defence research organisation has struggled to integrate a missile onto the proposed Rustom series of UAVs.

David Harari, a retired IAI engineer and Israel Prize winner for his pioneering work in drone development, said India could mount its own weaponry on an Israeli supplied drone, helped by close technological cooperation between the two countries.

U.S. budget caps could complicate Israel’s missile funding request


Mandatory caps due to resume this year for the U.S. defense budget could complicate Congress' ability to honor Israel's request for $317 million in extra funding for missile defense programs on top of $158 million already requested by the White House.

U.S. lawmakers continue to strongly support Israel, but congressional aides said Israel's push for more than $475 million in U.S. funding for missile defense programs in fiscal 2016 could run into trouble if Congress does not ease or rescind budget caps on the overall level of the U.S. defense budget.

“We've been very generous with the Israelis … but the first step is to see where we are on the budget resolution. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse,” said one aide on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.

Two other aides cited “frustration” about the size of the Israeli request given the current budget uncertainty.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other U.S. officials have warned that cutting the Pentagon's proposed 2016 budget by $38 billion to stick to the caps would harm the U.S. military's ability to respond to crises around the world.

It remains unclear if deficit hawks in the Republican-controlled Congress will agree to lift the budget caps.

Israeli officials last week asked lawmakers for $41.2 million for the short-range Iron Dome rocket interceptor, which has already received more than $1.2 billion in U.S. funding, and $268 million for further development of the longer-range David's Sling and Arrow 3 missile defense programs.

They also requested $165 million for initial procurement of both systems, said two aides familiar with the request.

A senior Democratic aide said Israel had shifted its focus from Iron Dome, now a mature system, to completing development of David’s Sling, which defends against cruise missiles.

Depending on what was included, Israel's request was potentially as high as $488 million, the aide said.

The House committee aide said the procurement request would require a new U.S.-Israeli bilateral agreement allowing co-production of the new weapons systems by U.S. and Israeli firms.

“This can't just be a blank check to the Israelis,” the aide said.

Raytheon Co is working with Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd on the Iron Dome and David's Sling programs. The Arrow program is jointly developed by Boeing Co and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Riki Ellison, founder of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said Congress was likely to approve the request, if the budget caps are lifted, but the funds would be taken from other programs, including Lockheed Martin Corp's Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program.

John Isaacs, senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said one possibility would be for Congress to include the Israeli programs in a supplemental request for war funding, or “overseas contingency operations.”

Israel to buy 25 more F-35 Lockheed stealth fighters


Israel plans to buy a second batch of Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter jets, bringing the total number it has on order to about 44, Israeli defence sources said on Tuesday.

Israel bought 19 F-35s for $2.75 billion in 2010, a deal that included options for up to 75 of the planes. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, visiting the United States last week, placed a preliminary order for about 25 more F-35s, defence sources said without elaborating on the cost.

The first batch of planes is scheduled to arrive in Israel between 2016 and 2018, the sources said, noting that the second purchase needs final approval by an Israeli government panel.

The U.S. embassy in Israel had no immediate comment.

Washington gives Israel some $3 billion in annual defence grants, most of which it spends on U.S. products. Israeli companies, including Elbit Systems Ltd. and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), are contributing technologies to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Louise Ireland

Israel is the leader in producing drones


This story originally ran on themedialine.org.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) are being used in conflicts all over the world, and military analysts say their use is only expected to increase. With the clear advantage of not needing pilots, who can be shot down or captured, sophisticated drones can perform many of the same tasks as manned aircraft.

“The Heron, made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) can carry several payloads at the same time — it’s a multi-mission multi-payload UAV,” Dan Bichman, a consultant for IAI and a reserve pilot in the Israeli Airforce told The Media Line as he proudly showed off the large drone. “Once I’m in the air, I can carry simultaneously 4 or 5 different payloads, and I can conduct a mission using all of them at the same time which is very unique in the UAV world. Another advantage is that I can stay in the air for up to 50 hours.”

Bichman said the US, France and Germany are all using Israeli-made Herons in Afghanistan to fly spy missions. He said several other countries have bought the systems, but he refused to give details.

He was speaking at a recent UAV conference in this Tel Aviv suburb, where more than 1500 drone buyers and sellers came together. They came to watch live demonstrations, meet with manufacturers, and compare prices. There was a significant representation from Asia, especially China and Singapore, although both journalists and buyers refused to be interviewed.

“This is the first international conference in the world that shows in one place unmanned systems in the air, on the ground, and on water,” Arieh Egozi, the editor of the IhLS, Israel Homeland Security website and the conference organizer told The Media Line. “Israel is a superpower in unmanned systems. They started with unmanned aerial systems and they have been flying now for more than 40 years.”

IAI announced that its systems have accumulated more than one million operational flight hours.

He said that Israel, which is the leading manufacturer in the world of UAV systems, has a range of systems.

“Israel has developed some systems as small as a butterfly, and others, like the Heron TP, which has a wingspan of 37 meters, which is like a Boeing 737,” Egozi said.

He stood in front of a large vehicle called an Air Mule, currently under development.

“The job of this system is to bring water and ammunition to the front line, and to evacuate wounded soldiers,” he said. “In the Lebanon war (of 2006) a helicopter was shot down when it tried to rescue wounded soldiers. If you use unmanned systems you don’t endanger any pilots.” 

These systems do not come cheap. Israel’s defense exports last year topped 10 billion dollars. Some of the larger drones cost several million dollars depending on what kind of cameras they are fitted with. At the Israeli booths offering systems for sale, former generals abound.

“We are a start-up company and we have developed a revolutionary vehicle called the Hovermast,” Gabi Shachor, a retired air force general and CEO of Skysapience told The Media Line. “It sits on a vehicle and with the push of a button the doors open and the Hovermast rises up to 50 meters. Within seconds you get real time video into your vehicle. Because it’s tethered to a vehicle by cable, it can stay up as long as you like – six hours or two days.”

He says the Israeli army has bought two systems for operational evaluations and his company are currently selling more, at about one million per system.

“If you buy a lot, I can give you a very good price,” he says laughing.

He says Israel sees the future of combat in UAVs.

“Israel is already leading in this area and UAV’s will do more and more of what is done today by manned platforms,” he said. “There’s no risk, since there’s no pilot. You can stay airborne for a long time. A pilot can’t stay up that long.”

Looking around the conference hall, there were very few women in evidence. Ofra Bechor, a field application engineer for Green Hills software, a US company which has a branch in Israel, says the UAV field is dominated by men.

“Software and defense are fields that have a lot of men,” she told The Media Line. “I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman but I have been ignored when there are men around.”

As world’s largest exporter of drones, Israel looks to transform battlefield


An Israeli soldier sits in an office chair in an air-conditioned metal chamber staring at two screens side by side. One shows a map with a moving dot. The other displays a video feed. Next to the soldier are three more identical stations.

The soldier isn't an air traffic controller but a pilot, and his aircraft is called an unmanned aerial system, more commonly known as a drone.

Welcome to the next generation of the Israeli Air Force.

Israel long has relied on superior air capability to maintain a military edge in the Middle East, and its pilots are among the most respected soldiers in the county.

Now Israel’s drone industry is booming, and experts predict that within decades, manned flight largely will be a thing of the past – especially in risky combat missions. During Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza last year, Israeli drones reportedly played a key role on the battlefield.

“Already today we see that the technology can work faster and better than our five senses, which are limited,” Tzvi Kalron, a marketing manager for Israel Aerospace Industries told JTA in an interview during a recent tour of an Israeli drone facility. “When you take away the human factor in battle and send tools that know how to do it better, it’s easier.”

With two large drone manufacturers — Israel Aerospace Industries, a government company, and Elbit Systems — Israel is the world's second-largest producer of drones, behind the United States, and the world's largest exporter of drones.

IAI began manufacturing drones in 1974, employs 1,000 people in its drone division and sells about $400 million worth of drones per year. The company exports to 49 countries, including NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan, such as Canada and Australia. The client list also reportedly includes some U.S. rivals, such as Russia, and developing countries like Nigeria.

About one-fifth of IAI’s drones stay in Israel. They range from the 5-ton Heron TP, which can fly as high as 45,000 feet and stay in the air for 36 hours, to the handheld Mosquito micro-drone, which weighs less than a pound and travels nearly a mile. The Heron looks like an oversized, gray remote-control airplane, with a radar sticking out of its top and, of course, no space for a pilot.

Along with Air Force drones, the Israel Defense Forces plans to incorporate drones in infantry units. Soldiers may carry a disassembled mini-drone in two backpacks and, when patrolling cities, assemble the drone, launch it by slingshot and monitor it by remote control. The Ghost, as this drone is known, weighs nine pounds and can help the unit eliminate blind spots and, according to IDF spokesman Eytan Buchman, overcome the “fog of war.”

“You can’t see around the corner, you don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill,” Buchman said. “It's definitely helpful when you're facing guerrilla opponents and rely heavily on the element of surprise.”

He added that drones help save civilian lives by identifying civilians near a bomb’s target and helping reroute the bomb to avoid them.

The Ghost's only protruding feature is its most expensive part: a small, round camera that sticks out of the drone's underbelly. To protect the camera, the Ghost flips upside-down before it lands.

Kalron said IAI hopes to expand its drone options in the coming years, developing stealth drones that are harder to see and hear, and working on a micro-drone with wings that flap like a butterfly — a concept known as biomimicry. IAI also is expanding drones’ civilian uses, like surveillance of large crowds and stadiums.

IAI’s drones conduct surveillance, take photographs, and record audio and video, according to Kalron. He would not discuss the drones’ combat capabilities; IAI’s website includes the payload limits for drones.

Drone expert Arie Egozi of the online publication Israel Homeland Security told JTA that “from a technological standpoint, every drone” can shoot missiles. “You put bombs under the wings and it shoots them,” Egozi said.

Some critics argue that the use of drones raises serious moral and legal problems. The debate has been particularly heated on the American use of unmanned vehicles for targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While drones are not without their Israeli critics, they have provoked far less controversy here than in the United States. For many Israelis, a future where planes fly unmanned and pilots are at less risk of death or capture is a welcome development.

“If you can take the pilots out of danger, of course it’s better,” said Uri Aviv, a civilian flight instructor who spent 15 years in the Israeli Air Force. “The moral question is about hitting the target, not the type of weapon. It doesn’t matter if you use a cannon, a tank, a plane or a drone. A pilot can’t see who he’s hitting — it’s the same thing with a drone.”

The biggest concern raised by drones, says Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal, is that their pinpoint accuracy raises the bar for the soldiers operating them. Freed from the stress and uncertainty of flying a plane, Halbertal said, soldiers must take more time to “identify who is a legitimate target” and review the decision before launching a strike.

Halbertal said he doubts that “those who operate drones will be much quicker in using weapons” than traditional pilots.

Egozi said the bigger question for Israel is about the efficacy of exporting to countries such as Russia, which has provided technology to Israeli adversaries like Iran and Syria. Israel’s agreements with Russia have required pledges that Russia not sell certain missile technology to Iran.

Every IAI export deal must receive Israeli Defense Ministry approval before being finalized, according to Kalron.

He said he looks forward to a day when 95 percent of army aviation is unmanned and the Israeli Air Force is not needed.

“In 20 or 30 years they’ll fly drones on commercial flights,” Kalron said. “It’s a trend that’s developing quickly. Technology is superior than all human abilities.”