Drone sale to Azeris halted as maker accused of bombing Armenia in demo
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Drone sale to Azeris halted as maker accused of bombing Armenia in demo

Aeronautics Defense Systems reports it stands to lose $20 million deal, denies it illegally used its UAV against Armenian forces during demonstration in Baku

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd. Orbiter 1K drone. (Screen capture: YouTube/Practical Information)
An Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd. Orbiter 1K drone. (Screen capture: YouTube/Practical Information)

In a rare move, the Defense Ministry suspended the export license of an Israeli drone manufacturer to Azerbaijan in light of claims that the company attempted to bomb the Armenian military on the Azeris behalf during a demonstration of one of its “suicide” unmanned aerial vehicles last month.

On Monday, Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd. reported the situation to the Israeli stock exchange, as required by law.

“The Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Controls Agency informed the company that it was suspending the marketing and export permit for the company’s Orbiter 1K model UAV to a significant customer,” the drone manufacturer wrote in its statement to the exchange.

According to Aeronautics, the company was poised to make a NIS 71.5 million ($20 million) deal over the next two years with the “significant customer.”

An ORBITER 3 small tactical UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) model on display at the UVID 2014 Conference, at Airport city, Israel on September 17, 2014. (Illustrative photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An ORBITER 3 small tactical UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) model on display at the UVID 2014 Conference, at Airport city, Israel on September 17, 2014. (Illustrative photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As a rule, Israeli defense contractors refrain from naming their customers directly. However, it could be clearly understood from the statement that the country was Azerbaijan.

“The company is working to clarify the issue with the Defense Ministry,” Aeronautics added.

The company noted that the Defense Ministry’s decision only affected the sale of its drone to the “significant customer” and not to other foreign buyers.

Earlier this month, a complaint was filed against Aeronautics with the ministry’s Defense Export Controls Agency in which the company was accused of conducting a live-fire test of its Orbiter 1K model against Armenian forces at the behest of the Azeri military.

Colonel Armen Gyozalian of the Armenian army said two soldiers were lightly wounded in the attack on July 7, according to the Armenian defense ministry’s “Hay Zinvor” news outlet.

The Yavneh-based Aeronautics denied the assertion when reports first came out, saying it “has never carried out a demonstration against live targets, including in this case.”

An Aeronautics spokesperson would not comment on the Defense Ministry’s freezing of the company’s export license to Azerbaijan beyond what the company wrote in its statement to the stock exchange.

The Defense Ministry has confirmed it is investigating the issue, but would not discuss the case further.

“As a rule, the Defense Ministry does not comment on issues concerning defense exports. The allegation is being investigated by relevant figures in the ministry,” a spokesperson said in a statement this month.

The investigation is ongoing.

A copy of the allegations was first leaked to the Maariv newspaper.

According to the report, the firm sent a team to the Azerbaijan capital Baku to demonstrate its Orbiter 1K unmanned aerial vehicle, which can be outfitted with a small explosive payload, 2.2 to 4.4 pounds (one to two kilograms), and flown into an enemy target on a “suicide” mission.

According to the complaint, while demonstrating the Orbiter 1K system to the Azerbaijani military sometime last month, the company was asked to carry out a live fire test of the system against an Armenian military position. The two countries have been been fighting a sporadic conflict for nearly 25 years, which has ramped up over the last 16 months over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Such a test would be illegal under Israeli law, as companies require a seldom-granted permit allowing them to carry out demonstrations against real targets. In this case, Aeronautics Defense Systems would be even less likely to receive such a permit, as Israel does not consider Armenia to be an enemy state.

The two Israelis operating the two Orbiter 1K drones during the test refused to carry out the attack, despite threats from their superiors, Maariv reported.

Two higher ranking members of the Aeronautics Defense Systems delegation in Baku then attempted to carry out the Azerbaijani request, but, lacking the necessary experience, ended up missing their targets, according to the report.

Aeronautics Defense Systems, which specializes in UAV technology, also manufactures drones similar to the Orbiter 1K, but that lack its attack capabilities and can only be used for reconnaissance. Azad Systems, a subsidiary of Aeronautics Defense Systems that is run by the Azerbaijani defense ministry, currently manufactures at least two models of the Orbiter platform. Azerbaijani news outlets have also reported that the country has its own Orbiter suicide drones as well.

Last year, Azerbaijan used another Israeli suicide drone, an Israeli Aerospace Industries Harop-model, in an attack on a bus that killed seven Armenians.

Azerbaijan is one of the largest importers of Israeli military equipment and is seen as an important ally to the Jewish state, given the fact that it shares a border with Israel’s nemesis, Iran. Last year, the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, revealed Azerbaijan had purchased some $5 billion worth of weapons and defense systems from Israel.

In 2012, Foreign Policy reported that Israel had reached an arrangement with Azerbaijan allowing it to potentially fly sorties out of the country.

“The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior US administration official told Foreign Policy at the time, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

Israel has come under internal criticism for its cooperation with Azerbaijan over the country’s reported human rights violations, despite it being one of the few majority Muslim countries with which Israel enjoys an openly positive relationship.

Last month, Azerbaijan sentenced an Israeli blogger, Alexander Lapshin, to three years in prison for traveling to the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the country, which is controlled by Armenian separatists, and for insulting Azerbaijani President Aliyev.

Lapshin’s attorny said his client met with an Israeli official and is hoping to be extradited to the Jewish state.

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