One of the growing debates in Israel is how much its impressive defense technology sector can save it from its wide range of security challenges and diplomatic dilemmas.
More specifically, can developing better defenses and weapons deter its adversaries from gambling on attacking the Jewish state?
Further, can offering to sell new air defense, spy plane, cyberwarfare and electronic warfare products to European Union countries and Israel’s Middle East Sunni allies enable increasing the Abraham Accords’ normalization wave and mitigate criticism over Jerusalem’s handling of the Palestinian issue?
For years, almost no one believed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His talk about creating regional alliances with Arab countries on the basis of a “TnT strategy” – trading Israeli counterterrorism know-how and broader technology capabilities in exchange for diplomatic recognition – seemed detached from reality. Until Netanyahu’s strategy, along with incentives from the US, led to the Abraham Accords.
Speaking at the Paris Air Show expo this week, which The Jerusalem Post attended, several defense officials seemed to argue that their latest achievements would jump Israel’s own defense capabilities forward, while enlarging the Abraham Accords wave and reducing EU criticism of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians – all at once.
Israel's defense technology helps its diplomatic standing
Defense Ministry Director-General Eyal Zamir noted that Israel’s “defense technology companies and the official government defense establishment strengthen each other... Our sales help other countries defend themselves and provide a sense of security.”
He rattled off a range of those defense sale areas, including advanced technology, advanced sensors, space technology and cyberdefense, which he said reached 17 distinct arenas.
Similarly, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that “the creative Israeli brain leads not only to sales, but also influences diplomacy and serves as a bridge between states.” In a clear implied reference to current and potential Abraham Accords countries, he said defense technology was “a bargaining chip for changing the strategy of other nations,” in relating to Israel more positively over time.
Discussing general statistics showing that the entire Israeli defense industry did an astounding approximate $12.5 billion in sales last year, Israel Aerospace Industries CEO Boaz Levi said that “2022 was our best year ever, and this was not an isolated blip.
“There are a range of reasons,” Levi continued, citing European countries spending more on defense following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also including a post-coronavirus explosion in spending in the interconnected airline and aircraft purchasing industries.
Likewise, IAI chairman Amir Peretz referenced that the Russia-Ukraine War is unlikely to end soon, and that this would keep European defense spending – and likely that of other countries, such as Japan – much more elevated than in prior decades.
The Post has heard from a wide range of European officials that their greater reliance on defense products, and from Israel specifically, will not end their criticism of Israeli policies, such as building settlements in the West Bank. But they also say that context limits how willing they are to confront Jerusalem over the issues in a concrete manner.
IAI’s sale of the long-range missile defense system Arrow 3 to Germany is one of the largest manifestations of the change.
Earlier in June, the first payment for that sale – more than $500 million out of the eventual $4b. – was made, with the next step being US final approval (since America partnered with Israel in producing the Arrow 3).
Multiple sources at the Paris Air Show told the Post that Washington’s approval is virtually guaranteed and could come in a short period of weeks or possibly at most a few months. This comes in a context where the US already gave its general approval in principle a few months ago.
Can Berlin threaten to sanction Israeli companies in the West Bank or to use other hard power pressure on the Jewish state at the same time that it waits for delivery of the Arrow 3 in 2025?
Of course, existing missile defense only addresses European countries’, and potentially some Abraham Accords countries’ present defense needs against existing threats.
What about the next-generation threats which are just over the horizon, such as Russia, China or Iran threatening Europe or moderate Sunni countries with hypersonic missiles?
To cope with the new hypersonic missile threat – a threat that some experts say could penetrate all of Israel’s existing three-layer missile defense – Rafael displayed its progress toward Sky Sonic, a hypersonic missile defense system. This technology could eventually account for both Israeli defense needs against Iran and a wide variety of other countries’ defense needs.
All of that accounts for areas where Israel’s defense technology can help it cope with certain diplomatic dilemmas.
What major new contributions will new defense technologies make to direct threats to Israeli security?
There are many, but one advance could be in the general area of surveillance, early warning detection of threats and improved sensor capabilities for facilitating any future required major strikes. For example, the F-35, F-16 and F-15 may all have critical attack capabilities, with the F-35 also having some close-range intelligence collection tools, but they do not compare to assistance that IAI’s MARS2 “Oron” can provide for foreign strikes.
In the coming months, Israel may be able to operate a new cutting-edge spy aircraft known as “Oron” or MARS2, which IAI has been investing serious work in, dating back to around 2015.
The aircraft received a special visit by Netanyahu earlier in June and could potentially be used for surveillance of all of Israel’s enemies on its borders as well as more distant countries, like Iran.
The MARS 2 spy aircraft mixes together many of the physical aspects of the older Gulfstream G550 aircraft with a host of newly installed technologies. The 122nd (“Nachshon” IAF) Squadron will operate the aircraft.
It can withstand all inclement weather situations.
The MARS2 has eight intelligence collection operator workstations, multi-domain sensors and a much higher level artificial intelligence (AI) capability for coordinating and systematically sharing the multiple intelligence inputs.
This AI also knows how to focus more attention on more immediately actionable intelligence, including selecting some of its own targets.
The aircraft is faster, can fly higher, travel farther, for about 15-16 hours, and its intelligence surveillance capabilities extend farther than other previous spy aircraft in Israel’s repertoire.
In fact, the aircraft can see and analyze issues hundreds of kilometers away, whereas many other systems only detect issues at much closer ranges.
Not only does the aircraft’s spying capabilities have higher resolution, a more sophisticated mix of different sensors and greater interoperability than previous similar aircraft, but it projects its surveillance in all directions.
If previous spy aircraft were focused on an area in front of the aircraft, the MARS 2 can provide a 360 degree plane defense picture.
Previous smaller spy planes could only retain intelligence collected in the range of millions or tens of millions of computer bytes.
In contrast, the MARS2 can carry surveillance information at the tera data level (trillions of bytes) covering an area of 10,000s of kilometers.
At 40 tons, the aircraft is capable of holding physical sensor equipment way beyond what even the largest of drones can carry.
MARS2’s intelligence collection capabilities are superior not merely to other spy planes, but also to the elite F-35 fifth generation combat aircraft, which comes with powerful intelligence collection capabilities.
The F-35 is the most cutting-edge combat aircraft in existence and has had unparalleled success to date for Israel in a variety of countries. Yet, the fact is that its intelligence systems were developed around 10 years earlier than the newest technologies on the MARS2.
One issue for the aircraft is the cost, with a price-tag of hundreds of millions of dollars per aircraft, due to its size and the number of technological pieces that come with it.
Sources indicate that many countries are in the mix for purchasing the aircraft, with purchases usually going over a billion dollars as part of buying a package of two to four aircraft, plus all the ancillary items that come with the aircraft.
The bottom line is that IAI’s new spy plane gives Jerusalem a range of additional options for improving the likelihood of success for operations against Iran, Syria or others.
A KEY next question is: is all of this enough?
At this week’s Paris Air Show, Gallant noted that one power Israel has over Palestinian threats emanating from the West Bank is that there are around 210,000 West Bank Palestinians working in Green Line Israel. In other words, Palestinians would avoid terrorism to keep their work permits.
But harsh Middle Eastern realities barged their way into the air show’s unambiguous positive messaging.
On one day, there was a major battle in the West Bank city of Jenin, with several Palestinians dying and a large number wounded, at the same time that several IDF soldiers were wounded.
The next day of the expo, there was a West Bank terrorist attack near Eli, in which four Israelis were killed and the terrorists were eventually killed hours later.
All of this led Gallant to nix some of the West Bank worker permits that he was lauding only days earlier.
Maybe a very targeted move against only those associated with the terrorists will prevent terrorism from arising among those who have not yet lost their workers permits.
But few Israeli officials seemed to believe they were anywhere close to ending the West Bank waves of terrorism which date back to March 2022.
Also, the US, the EU and a mix of current and potential Abraham Accords countries slammed Jerusalem for the announcement of further settlement building.
In short, Israel’s threats and diplomatic challenges are complex and connected to long-term processes.
It is unclear that any fancy technologies can fully solve these problems, absent a broader change in the security or diplomatic context.
Until then, Jerusalem hopes that its defense technology will at least score some security and diplomatic points in the region’s decades-old conflicts.•