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Analysis

Israel says IDF’s armed drones can now be talked about, unless it’s to sell them

Drone manufacturers have been barred for years from advertising their attack capabilities due to censorship rules; those have now been lifted, but not the ban on hawking the UAVs

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

File: In this August 3, 2014 photo, an armed Israeli drone circles over Gaza City. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
File: In this August 3, 2014 photo, an armed Israeli drone circles over Gaza City. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

The Military Censor allowed Israeli media to publish one of the country’s worst-kept secrets last week — that the Israel Defense Forces uses armed drones as part of its offensive capabilities.

For at least two decades, the IDF refused to confirm widespread reports that it deploys armed UAVs. Attempts to write about the drones were quashed by the IDF’s censor.

As a result of barring any mention of Israel’s attack drone abilities, local arms contractors who develop such UAVs could not officially advertise their armed drones or say they were exporting them to other nations, if they were.

But despite the change in the Military Censor’s policy, Israel appears to be of two minds regarding whether to let Israelis into the lucrative armed drones market, and defense exporters may still face restrictions on what they can hawk.

With some rare exceptions, Israeli drone exports have been mostly limited to surveillance models. Arms-capable UAVs have been reportedly sold to Germany and India under special agreements. Loitering munitions, often called suicide drones, were not under censorship and have been exported to numerous countries.

It’s unclear what is behind the censor’s change of heart, but the decision comes as recent wars have highlighted the value of armed drones, specifically Turkey’s spotlight-grabbing Bayraktar TB2.

A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is displayed during a rehearsal of a military parade dedicated to Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 20, 2021. (/Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Both the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia war have been showcases for the TB2’s abilities, with aerial videos showing the UAV destroying enemy positions and vehicles making the rounds not only among wonks, but also on social media.

This has likely placed pressure on Israeli drone manufacturers, who have not been able to fully take advantage of the popularity of armed drones or openly show off their capabilities.

Despite the restrictions, drones made up 9 percent of Israel’s record-breaking $11.3 billion in arms exports last year, amounting to around $1 billion in sales. The global military drone market was estimated at some $10.25 billion in 2021, and is only expected to rise, according to Fortune Business Insights.

The IDF uses several drone models, developed by the Elbit Systems and the Israeli Aerospace Industries defense firms, that are capable of launching munitions.

File: The IAF’s 161st Squadron’s fleet of Hermes 450 drones at the Palmachim airbase. (Barak Shalev, Tomer Matzkin/Israeli Air Force)

The first, the Elbit Hermes 450, currently operated by the Air Force’s 161st Squadron, was developed in the early 1990s. According to the Haaretz daily, at the time there was a dispute among top defense officials who had to choose between the development of the Hermes 450, known in Israel as Zik, and an unmanned armed stealth jet, developed by IAI.

The Zik project was given a boost by Ehud Barak when he entered the role of IDF chief in 1991, and by 1993, then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin signed off on terminating the IAI unmanned jet project in favor of the Hermes 450.

Other armed drones used by the Israeli Air Force include the Hermes 900, also developed by Elbit and declared operational in 2017, and the IAI’s Eitan, also known as the Heron TP, which was introduced in the early 2000s.

Israel has used armed drones to strike numerous targets over the years, as early as the 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2008 war in the Gaza Strip. Israeli drones have been used in several targeted killings of Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, including that of a leader of the terror group’s military wing, Ahmed Jabari, in 2012.

Drones have also been used in a technique known as “roof knocking,” in which an inert missile is fired at the roof of a building to warn residents to leave before the structure is destroyed by armed munitions.

An Israeli Heron military drone flies over the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on November 13, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

As a result of the censorship of Israel’s attack drone capabilities, firms such as Elbit and IAI did not advertise that their drones can carry and launch missiles. All promotional images from both firms have been carefully chosen to not show the missile launching systems. Contrary to the Israeli firms, Baykar proudly displays the munitions the Bayraktar TB2 can carry.

But even after the Military Censor’s announcement, the policy of not advertising Israel’s attack drones appears unlikely to immediately change.

The Defense Ministry, which oversees Israel’s arms exports, said there would be no change in its policy of censoring drone capabilities for advertising, a source in one of the arms firms told the Kan public broadcaster on Thursday.

While technically the Defense Ministry also oversees the IDF, the Military Censor’s move was not coordinated with the ministry, according to Kan.

“The censor’s announcement surprised us,” the arms firm source told Kan, adding that the Defense Ministry had contacted it and explicitly instructed firms not to speak about their armed UAVs.

A Military Censor official told The Times of Israel that although it removed the media restriction, any additional constraints on Israel’s arms firms would be up to the Defense Ministry, not it. The Defense Ministry did immediately respond to requests for comment.

Elbit did not respond to requests for comment on if it would begin to advertise and officially export armed UAVs, and IAI declined to comment on the same query.

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