Procurement: The Customer Is Not Always Right

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September 17, 2017: In August 2017 the Israeli Defense Ministry suspended the export arrangement an Israeli UAV manufacturer (Aeronautics) had with a firm in Azerbaijan that built the Orbiter UAV there under license and sold it for export as well. This was the result of a complaint by Armenia that two of their soldiers were wounded when a UAV, coming across the border from Azerbaijan, fell near the soldiers and exploded. It didn’t take long to determine that the UAV was an Israeli designed Orbiter 2.

At first Azerbaijan denied it was theirs but Israel, wanting to maintain good relations with Armenia (and their major ally, Russia) insisted on investigating further and found out that the incident was the result of a demonstration of a new model of the Orbiter 2 (the Orbiter 1K) that was introduced in 2015. The 1K was simply an Orbiter 2 equipped to carry a 2 two kg (4.4 pound) explosive charge and, on command from the operator, dive on a target and explode. One of the Azeri officers attending the demonstration asked that the Orbiter 1K actually hit a specific target and detonate. That was OK but as the demo was near the Armenian border the Azeri officer insisted that the test be performed on a target across the border in Armenia. There was some resistance to that but eventually a company rep took the controls and did it. It is still unclear if the Orbiter operators or the Azeri officers involved knew that Armenian soldiers would be near the explosion. There are still a lot of conflicting versions about what went on and the Israeli government felt suspending the export license (which could cost Aeronautics over $20 million) might help clear the air.

Azerbaijan is one of the few Moslem majority countries that is a regular customer for Israeli military equipment. Since 1992 Azerbaijan has bought about $5 billion dollars’ worth of Israeli weapons and military equipment. This includes a license to build (for internal use and export) the Israeli Orbiter UAV.

Most of the weapons Azerbaijan was buying from Israel and elsewhere was to deal with a decade’s old territorial dispute with neighboring Armenia that flared into open warfare in the 1990s when Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries. Russia has helped broker a ceasefire and is promoting settlement talks. Russia also builds Israeli UAVs under license and also wants this matter settled.

The Israeli Orbiter 2 UAV weighs 9.5 kg (21 pounds) and its battery powered motor can keep it in the air for about three hours per sortie. Maximum altitude is 3,200 meters and top speed is 120 kilometers an hour. Since the UAV can't operate more than 80 kilometers from the controller top speed is rarely needed. The Orbiter is launched by a catapult. It lands via parachute, is waterproof and floats. Orbiters are sold as “systems.” One of the three UAVs in each Orbiter system can be launched while the other has its battery replaced and the parachute repacked and be ready for another sortie in under ten minutes. The day/night vidcam transmits video back to the handheld controller, where the images can be stored. The Orbiter can also be used at sea, and Israel uses them on some of its patrol boats. One of the Orbiter export customers is Azerbaijan, which formed a joint venture to build Orbiter 2 in Azerbaijan. Because Azerbaijan is a Moslem country Orbiter 2 can then be sold to other Moslem nations (which normally will not buy anything from Israel).

Israel is still shipping high-tech gear to Azerbaijan. In 2016 Israel delivered the land based version of its new Barak 8 SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) system to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had ordered 12 launchers, 75 Barak 8 missiles and four search radars in 2013. The Barak 8 is a 275 kg (605 pound) missile with a 60 kg (132 pound) warhead and a range of 70 kilometers. The warhead has its own seeker that can find the target despite most countermeasures. The missiles are mounted in a three ton, eight cell container (which requires little maintenance), and are launched straight up. The compact (for easy installation on a ship) fire control module weighs under two tons. The land version has everything mounted in 6×6 cross-country trucks.

 

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