ROME — Italy’s plans to buy an undersea drone derived from an Israeli firm Elta Systems platform have been abruptly put on hold, defeated by ambitions to give the order to Italian industry and by increased sensitivity over buying arms from Israel.

The defense committees of the upper and lower houses of the Italian parliament were due last week to start evaluating a proposal by the Italian defense ministry to purchase three of the torpedo-shaped BlueWhale drones designed for intelligence gathering, anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures.

Equipped with sonars, including towed array sonar, the 5.5 tonne platform also boasts a raisable, satellite-linked turret offering radar and electro-optic capabilities.

The program was listed, without naming Elta, in last year’s Italian defense budget, which priced the purchase at €254 million ($273 million), with payments to be spread between 2023 and 2035, including logistic support, control stations and recovery and deployment systems for ships and submarines.

The Italian parliament’s defense committees generally approve all purchase proposals sent to them by the Italian defense ministry, marking the last formal step before a procurement goes ahead.

But last week, just before the BlueWhale purchase was due to be debated and voted on, the plan was withdrawn by the defense ministry.

Sources knowledgeable of the planned procurement said it was blocked over concerns that the technology could be entirely produced by Italian industry without the need to involve overseas firms.

The decision suggests that plans to partly involve Italian firms in work share on the 10.9 meter long BlueWhale were deemed insufficient.

Italy is raising its profile in sub-sea warfare with a new centre at La Spezia which brings together the Navy, industry and universities to develop systems.

A second reason, the sources said, was the political sensitivity involved in buying Israeli defense products amid the international outcry over Israel’s military operation in Gaza which has led to the deaths of over 33,000 Palestinians.

The Israeli operation followed the Hamas attack on Israel which killed around 1,200.

Italy’s right wing government is solidly pro-Israel, but opposition members of parliament sitting on defense committees hail from parties which have been vocal in criticizing the Israeli operation.

Two sources, who could not be named because they were not permitted to speak publicly about the program, told Defense News the decision to block it was also related to doubts raised by Italian officials over the performance of the platform, with criticism of the acoustic signal emitted by its propellor, its maneuverability and its cost.

A third source however said the BlueWhale’s performance had not been a factor.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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