An Israeli defense contractor is facing allegations that it live tested a high tech suicide drone against Armenian troops in an active battle zone. Over the weekend multiple Israeli newspapers reported that a formal complaint filed with the Israeli Defense Export Controls Agency alleges that Aeronautics Defense Systems was asked by Azerbaijan to provide a live demonstration of the Orbiter 1k armed unmanned aircraft along the disputed border area of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan and Armenia have intermittently clashed since 1991.
According to reports, Aeronautics Defense Systems representatives were in Azerbaijan - a country which has recently purchased close to $5 billion worth of military hardware from Israel - in order to close a contract for the firm's latest advanced drone. The Orbiter 1k drone is capable of delivering 1-2 kilograms worth of explosives contained in its fuselage if flown directly into a target as the latest in a series of "suicide drones" produced and marketed by the Israeli firm. Azerbaijan government officials reportedly requested that the Israeli drone operators provide a live demo by deploying an armed Orbiter 1k against a military position of the Armenian army. When the drone operators refused, company management took over and deployed the aircraft. The Israeli daily Haaretz presents an account of the incident as follows:
The two Israeli operators of the craft refused to hit the Armenian position, and after remaining firm in their refusal even after threats directed against them, senior representatives of the company armed and operated the unmanned aircraft themselves. Ultimately the drones are said to have missed their targets, and no damage was caused, but according to the complaint, one of them struck at a distance of about 100 meters (330 feet) from the position.
Orbiter 1k drone sketch as shown on Aeronautics Defense Systems' website. Screen capture from aeronautics-sys.com
Aeronautics Defense Systems released a statement on Sunday which said the company "never carries out demonstrations [of the operations of the drone] on live targets, and that was true in this case as well" while the Defense Ministry refused to comment. The firm has deep ties with the Israeli military and boasts of clients in 50 countries worldwide. The former head of the Israel Air Force, Major General (ret.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu, is currently the company's board chairman. Part of the company's media statement seemed to confirm that one of its drones was used in combat while Aeronautics Defense Systems staff were in Azerbaijan. The statement admitted that:
The operational action was carried out by the purchaser alone and on its responsibility.
Last year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the small Central Asian republic and acknowledged the years long close military cooperation between the two countries. Azerbaijan purchased Israel's 'Iron Dome' radar and missile defense system for an unspecified amount in late 2016.
So called "Kamikaze" drones are a new and scary technology in warfare. Multiple Israeli companies are developing and exporting the systems.
The current scandal involving Aeronautics Defense Systems follows an April 2016 sighting of a similar Israeli-made drone over the disputed Armenia-Azerbaijan border region. In that incident a suicide drone called a 'Harop', made by another Israel based company, Israel Aerospace Industries, rammed an Armenian military bus, killing seven. The Washington Post reported at the time:
In this instance, the Harop apparently targeted a bus full of “Armenian volunteers,” killing seven, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, a spokesman for Armenia’s Defense Ministry, said in an interview with Ria Novosti, a Russian state-run media agency. Hovhannisyan also posted about the Harop on his Facebook page, according to local media reports, indicating that it was piloted by Azerbaijani forces.
The Washington Post report featured video of the 2016 drone attack posted by pro-Azeri groups - possibly the first time a suicide drone was deployed in combat - but the video has since been taken down, though still preserved on social media.
Armenia has over the past year publicized multiple images of downed drones of Israeli origin its military forces have recovered in the disputed Karabakh region while lodging complaints. Though Azerbaijan is a tiny Caucuses country with a relatively secular Muslim population, it is Israel's largest oil supplier. According to a statement on the website of the Azerbaijan Embassy in the U.S., Israel buys 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. The conflict monitoring publication, War is Boring, described the geopolitical significance of the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship as follows:
Israel is another player, which sells drones and air-defense systems to Azerbaijan in exchange for Caspian oil and safe access for Israeli intelligence agents. And like Israel, the Azerbaijani government is wary of Iran. Then there’s the fact that Israel has positioned itself as a source for advanced drones on par with the best Western versions — but more affordable for poorer countries.
The latest revelation involving Aeronautics Defense Systems testing its most advanced drone in the skies of a remote Caucuses border conflict could put the Israel-Azerbaijan "oil for weapons" relationship in the international spotlight. No doubt, part of the reason why the advanced and still somewhat experimental suicide attack drones are showing up along the Azerbaijan border is because the remote area and obscure border conflict almost never receives international media attention or comment in Western press. Perhaps nothing short of news of state actors live testing suicide attack robots on human subjects will change that, though we won't wait around with bated breath.