Parallels
11:22 am
Fri August 29, 2014

With Homegrown Technology, Israel Becomes Leading Arms Exporter

Originally published on Fri August 29, 2014 6:40 pm

One byproduct of the recurring battles between Israel and its Arab neighbors is that Israel has developed a homegrown weapons industry that addresses its very specific needs.

Over the decades, this has included a number of cutting-edge technologies, from drones to night-vision equipment, which have been widely exported.

A more recent example is the Iron Dome, which was used throughout the latest conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The mobile missile defense system is capable of stopping short-range rockets from places like Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former director of the Defense Ministry's research and development program, says there was no technology in the world capable of doing that, so Israel had to develop its own system. The U.S. has subsequently provided funding to Israel to build additional anti-missile batteries.

"We did it because of our unique threat and our unique problem, and ... this is what we do since 1948," he says, referring to the year that Israel was founded.

As with previous battles, the Gaza conflict has damaged Israel's overall economy. The tally this time has been estimated at several billion dollars for Israel, and is far greater for the Palestinians in Gaza.

But the fighting can also provide a boost to Israel's arms manufacturers, says Barbara Opall-Rome, the Israel bureau chief for the U.S. magazine Defense News.

Over the past five years, Israel has had military sales of around $7 billion annually, she says. "And it puts them in the top five of the world's arms-exporting nations," she adds.

In the latest operation against Hamas, new types of ammunition, bombs that can penetrate reinforced concrete buildings, and other equipment have been introduced on the battlefield. Opall-Rome says a new anti-guided missile defense system for tanks, called Trophy, performed well during ground operations in Gaza.

"It means a lot on the international arms market, and Israel certainly makes very good use of their added value, in that these systems are combat proven," she says.

Critics would object to that, saying the Israeli weapons are not so precise and caused heavy Palestinian civilian casualties during the recent conflict. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, and various estimates put the civilian deaths at 50 percent to more than 80 percent of that total.

In addition, the Israel-Palestinian feud imposes a major limitation on Israeli weapons sales: the Arab boycott of anything made in Israel.

"The whole Arabian Gulf market, which is the No. 1 market for purchasing of foreign-made weaponry, that's cut off to them," says Opall-Rome.

She says China is also cut off to Israel arms manufacturers because of U.S. security concerns. And Israel faces similar U.S. pressure when it comes to possible sales to Russia.

India is one Israel's biggest customers, buying everything from ship and air defense systems to anti-tank missiles and drones. Israel also sells to other countries in Asia, as well as Europe and Latin America.

She says Israel is a tiny domestic market, so its arms industry needs to export nearly 80 percent of its goods in order to break even.

Some of the weapons are so unique that no one else wants or needs them. Case in point is the Iron Dome. It has proved generally effective against Hamas rockets, which are made in Gaza workshops and are relatively unsophisticated. But no other country faces this persistent threat from short-range rockets.

The same holds true for the Arrow, an anti-ballistic missile system. Uzi Ruben, the former head of Israel's missile defense program, says the Arrow was designed to destroy long-range missiles coming from Iraq or Iran. It went into development in 1991 and took nine years to bring it to operation.

"It was never used; it was just deployed," he says.

One of the new technologies likely to emerge from this conflict will focus on detecting and destroying tunnels, like those used by Hamas to move fighters and weapons underground. Ben-Israel, the former defense researcher, says it's not likely to be a big seller on the international market.

"No one in the world is digging tunnels in order to penetrate into, let's say, the United States of America for terrorist attacks," he says.

Still, Ben-Israel says there will always be a global demand for sophisticated weapons — something Israel has become better at producing with each war.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Before the current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed and about and about 70 Israelis died - most of them soldiers in Gaza. A few people inside Israel were killed. Israelis say, that's largely the result of unique Israeli-made technology - a missile-defense. Over the decades, a byproduct of the threats and wars fought by Israel is a homegrown weapons industry that has made it one of the world's biggest arms traders. NPR's Jackie Northam filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Israel's Ministry of Defense selected Rafael to develop the Iron Dome.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This hard-charging video shows the Iron Dome, a mobile missile defense system, knocking short-range rockets out of the sky with precision and protecting Israeli communities. The Iron Dome was developed in Israel to meet its specific needs - stopping short-range missiles in from places like Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon. Isaac Ben-Israel, a former director of the Defense Ministry's research and development program, says, there was no technology in the world capable of doing that, so Israel had to develop its own system.

ISAAC BEN-ISRAEL: We did it because of our unique threat and our unique problem. This is what we do since 1948.

NORTHAM: Wars usually boost a country's weapons and technology sectors, as they have in the U.S. While conflict is a loss for Israel's economy overall, it provides a boon to the country's arms manufacturers. Says Barbara Opall-Rome, the Israel bureau chief for the U.S. magazine Defense News...

BARBARA OPALL-ROME: Now, in the past five years, Israel has been registering more than 7 billion in new arms contracts signed. And it puts them in the top five of the world's arms-exporting nations.

NORTHAM: In the latest operation against Hamas, new types ammunition - bombs that can penetrate reinforced concrete buildings and other equipment - have been introduced on the battlefield. Opall-Rome says, a new anti-guided missile defense system Trophy performed well during ground operations in Gaza.

OPALL-ROME: It means a lot on the international arms market. And Israel certainly makes very good use of their added value in that these systems are combat proven.

NORTHAM: Many people would object to that, saying, the Israeli weapons are not so precise and caused heavy Palestinian civilian casualties during the recent conflict in Gaza. And those casualties are cause for one of the biggest limitations Israel faces in selling weapons - the Arab boycott of anything made in Israel.

OPALL-ROME: Because the whole Arabian Gulf market, which is the number one market for purchasing of foreign-made weaponry - that's cut off to them. China is cut off to them because of U.S. security concern. And lately, even Russia - Israel is under some pressure to consider U.S. national security concerns in any type of arms that it sells to Russia.

NORTHAM: Opall-Rome says, India is one of Israel's biggest customers, buying everything from ship and air defense systems to anti-tank missiles and drones. She says, Israel is a tiny market, so it's arms industry needs to export nearly 80 percent of its goods in order to break even.

Also, some of the weapons are so unique that no one wants or needs them. Take, for example, the Iron Dome. It's only proven fairly effective against unsophisticated Hamas rockets, and no other country faces a similar short-range threat. The same holds true for the Arrow, an anti-ballistic missile system. Uzi Ruben, the former head of Israel's missile defense program, says, the Arrow was designed to destroy long-range missiles coming from Iraq or Iran, but...

UZI RUBEN: It started its full-scale development in about 1991. And it took about nine years build it initial operation and capability. It wasn't used it. It was never used. It was just deployed.

NORTHAM: One of the new technologies likely to emerge from this conflict will focus on detecting and destroying tunnels, like those used by Hamas to move fighters and weapons underground. Former defense researcher Ben-Israel says, it's not likely to be a big seller on the international market.

BEN-ISRAEL: No one in the world is digging tunnels in order to penetrate into, let's say, the United States of America for terrorist attacks.

NORTHAM: Still, Ben-Israel says, there will always be a global demand for sophisticated weapons and know-how - something Israel has been good at producing with each war. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.