TEL AVIV – In Israel, where combat-capable unmanned systems constitute a significant share of exports and form the backbone of counter-terror operations, a new Obama administration's push for international guidelines governing strike drones is being viewed with skepticism, if not outright alarm.
As much as the Israeli government wants to support its closest ally, officials and experts say the nascent US initiative is diplomatically dubious, practically unenforceable and potentially crippling to a critical sector of Israel's defense industrial base.
Beyond all that, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it could prove operationally self-defeating in the war against terror.
"If the modern Western world wants to continue to fight terrorism in future, this capability is essential," said retired Maj. Gen. Ya'akov Amidror, a former Israeli national security advisor.
"From a professional point of view, it’s important to understand there is no substitute for this capability."
Defense News first broke news of the initiative, headed by the US State Department, last week. The goal of the discussions is to bring nations that export armed unmanned systems under the same guidelines that US firms have operated under since Feb. 2015.
Amidror said he was unaware of the armed drone initiative and is no longer involved in bilateral discussions. Nevertheless, he warned that without active participation of China, Iran and Russia, benefit would be marginal, at best.
"Without the obligation of those countries, any benefit will be minimal… and I’m not sure there will be benefit at all," he said.
Absent Iran, aerial strike systems will continue to flow to Hizbollah and other terror groups, Israeli experts say. And without China and Russia – already prominent suppliers in the Mideast and beyond -- Israel and other Western manufacturers will be forced to cede legitimate markets.
"There’s no vacuum in the field of military exports in general and of armed drones in particular," said Tal Inbar, head of UAV and Space Programs at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies. "The limitations the US has imposed on itself is what led to the rise of Chinese strike UAVs in the world."
Inbar and other experts here noted that Egypt is using the Caihong 4 (CH-4), the Chinese knockoff of the US Predator, against al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists in Sinai. Saudi Arabia is using the same system in Yemen as is Iraq against extremists in its own country. A smaller version of the Caihong (Rainbow), the CH-3, is known to operational in Nigeria. And Jordan has been seeking for more than a year to acquire US combat UAVs to support its intensifying battle against the Islamic State group, or ISIS.
"This seems to be a futile effort given the fact that the horses have already left the stable," Inbar said. "Today, almost every country that produces its own UAVs has tried to add some kind of offensive weaponry, either based on real need or for prestige."
He added, "And let’s not forget that the US is the number one country that produces and uses these types of drones… I wonder why the Obama administration is pushing this now, since the number of unmanned attacks during his two terms went sky high."
Israel’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry, which share responsibility for arms control and export licensing issues, declined to comment for the record due in equal part to an unwillingness to upset Washington and longstanding sensitivities shrouding the entire subject of combat-capable UAVs.
"We don’t talk about combat drones. From our perspective, the subject is classified," one government official told Defense News.
Another official acknowledged that there have been "some exchanges" with US counterparts, but insisted that Israel is still in the process of developing its policy. "There are ideas out there, but everything is still in the embryonic stages," he said.
And while Israeli industry executives said they would like to believe the US initiative marks merely an attempt to burnish Obama’s arms control legacy, many fear it to be one more attempt to rein in Israeli competitors on the global market.
Executives here cited White House demands to reduce the amount of US military aid Israel has been able to convert into shekels in support of local research, development and procurement. Others have flagged Washington’s recent intervention on behalf of US suppliers in countries such as Germany, which decided to evaluate the Israeli Heron TP UAV over the General Atomics Predator B.
A full-page story published Thursday by Israel’s largest daily newspaper ran a headline blaming "American pressure" for delaying a potential $650 million sale of the Israeli combat drone to Berlin.
"After a new security assistance agreement between Israel and the US is expected to cause significant damage to local defense industries, American producers are trying to thwart significant Israeli export deals. The latest target: the Heron TP by Israel Aerospace Industries, in a huge deal potentially worth 580 million Euro ($650 million)," according to the paper.
A prominent Israeli industry executive said his government is unlikely to actively oppose Washington’s combat drone initiative, but he hoped that it would drag its feet until a new Administration enters the White House next year.
"We can’t overtly refuse, but we should try to let the clock run out," the executive said. As with most interviewed for this story, he refused to be identified by name.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.