While France is the world’s third-largest arms exporter, Israel comes in eighth place, a rather remarkable “exploit” considering the size of the country. And while the two countries are on friendly terms in many areas, things are more complicated when it comes to matters of defence. On the one hand, because their industrialists sometimes find themselves in competition with one another and because the Israelis have the reputation of “slashing” prices to lay their hands on an arms contract. But on the other hand—and most of all—because the Israeli are persistently coveting what has traditionally been regarded by the French army and arms dealers as their exclusive preserve: Africa. Ever since the Oslo accords, Israel has been investing heavily on the African continent, especially in the “protection” of the incumbent power structures.
Of course, French and Israeli officers and agents cooperate discreetly on certain fronts, for example with the Cameroonian army in the fight against Boko Haram in northern Cameroon. But in the capital, Yaoundé, one of the mainstays of “Françafrique”1, Israeli mercenaries have long been counselling the Rapid Response Battalion (BIR), an elite squad placed under the direct command of President Paul Biya. And Israeli companies provide the BIR’s equipment, especially its assault rifles. To the obvious annoyance of French arms manufacturers, as Cameroon has always been their faithful customer. “There is keen rivalry between us on the African market,” an engineer working in the military sector tells us, “but for the moment we’re on the ropes. In the high-risk areas, Nigeria, the Great Lakes region, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, Israel has grabbed the contracts. Our industrialists, especially Thales and Safran, are at odds with one another, whereas the Israeli firms maintain close bonds.”
Another source of tension and perhaps the most important one is the reversal of trade relationships: in the fifties and sixties, France sold weapons to Israel. Today, Israel sells France its cyber-surveillance systems, drones and even robot soldiers. Which, of course, is greatly insulting to the fastidious pride of our military officers and defence industrialists. And while the Elnet lobbyists and promoters of Franco-Israeli trade constantly extol the quality of the “strategic dialogue” between the two countries, which can be rendered, without bafflegab, as “he who sells which arms to whom should avoid stepping on my toes,” these voices are suddenly mute when challenged to be more precise. “Oh no, I won’t give you the figures, first of all, because I don’t know them”, says an MP. “You know, all that is pretty much on automatic, we don’t know much about it”, another one adds.”There are exchanges of information” Ariel Bensemhoun, director of Elnet France explains. “On military and strategic issues and the fight against terrorism, the two countries cooperate well,” he adds with no further details. And as Patrice Bouveret of the Observatoire des Armements points out, «the obvious lack of transparency which characterises the military domain—on the pretext of strategic secrecy together with “commercial secrecy”—is especially problematic".
Neither our elected officials nor the general public know anything about Israel’s participation in the low-profile military program called “Synergie du contact renforcé par la polyvalence et l’infovalorisation”2 (Scorpion) meant to be central to the strategy of the French army over the next few decades. Its visible dimension will consist of a renewal of the army’s fleet of armoured personnel carriers, with the launching of the Griffon to be deployed next Autumn in the Sahel. But the mainspring of Scorpion will involve the development of a digital command system based on a shared interface which will make it possible for soldiers on the ground, but also new military tools such as drones and robots to be connected simultaneously and to anticipate enemy reactions.
“At the heart of the wars of the future,” a specialist explains,"there will be a soldier bearing a lighter burden, today he carries up to 38 kilos as opposed to 40 in WW1. So, there is enormous room for improvement. At the end of the day, he’ll no longer have anything to carry but a GPS monitor, his weapon, and his canteen. He’ll be piloted by an interface, assisted by drones for a wider view and robot mules carrying the heavy loads and evacuating the wounded if need be.” Therefore, the information which the soldier will receive on his GPS navigator via Scorpion will be decisive and the development of the interface is at the core of the top-secret collaboration between France and Israel.
“The main idea of Scorpion is a noiseless war and, if possible, a bloodless war, in other words, as few causalities as possible,” she continues. Scorpion will organise the interoperability between a tank, a vessel, a motorcycle, a drone, a robot and a soldier on the ground. It’s a very important program involving the participation of all the principal French arms manufacturers as well as the Israeli company, Elbit, which has wide experience in autonomous systems.”
Israel has acquired that expertise, which facilitates the detailed analysis of a given territory, through its use of drones over occupied Palestine. “Israel is one step ahead on three key points,” our engineer adds. “First, in the silencing of drone engines. This is a major advance, we are getting close to acoustical invisibility, a subject which is receiving much attention in France.” Next, comes the miniaturisation of the drones. The insect drones which were lots of fun in James Bond movies are already operational, tested by the Israeli army in Gaza. “They are integrating drone technology into Nature,” as our specialist sums up the matter. And finally, the erasure of digital traces and detection of strategic “enemy” signals, since the main task of Scorpion is digital piloting. “Avoid having our signals intercepted while at the same time intercepting the other guys’ signals. The Israelis know how to conceal, locate, interpret, analyse and scramble. There again, the idea is to be invisible and profoundly quiet,” the same expert continues. “The basis of our partnership with Israel is all these inventions, simple enough, coming from their best engineers who have acquired their skills through the control and repression of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.”
Scorpion is so vital for the French defence industry that in addition to the army proper, its primary buyer with the the Belgian army, the program is aimed at the export trade. And unsurprisingly, the first customer would be Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates have long been among the best clients of the French armaments industry and also, more recently, have become friends with Israel.
Scorpion aside, the actual cost of which and the contribution of Elbit’s Israeli engineers are both unknown, the volumes of the weapons trade are monitored by Parliament. According to a report submitted to the MPs by the French Defence Ministry, covering the period 2010 to 2019, France delivered weapons to Israel for a cost of 244 million dollars, which is negligible compared to Saudi Arabia (10.24 billion), to the UAE (5.53 billion), to Qatar (4.82 billion) or to Egypt (7.7 billion). On the other hand, the value of Israeli weapons and military and police security systems sold to France is unknown. The opacity of the international cyber-security market, in which Israel is a major player, prevents us from having the vaguest idea of sales volumes.” Military and security partnerships are not included in official statistics”, Henri Cukierman, chairman of the Franco-Israeli Chamber of Commerce and Industry tells us with a straight face.
Prior to the infatuation with digital solutions, it was with drone technology that the collaboration between the two countries received a new lease on life in the first years of this century. “At the time, France was not on the cutting edge,” a military expert explains. “And it was important to make up for lost time in the matter of urban warfare, a particularity sensitive issue in Africa where helicopters are a very costly solution and make too much noise. At the time, Israel was already making state-of-the-art drones. Even though the mechanisms were often produced in Germany and the electronic components in China or France, they were the ones who knew how to conceive and assemble high-performance machines.”
Because of this obvious industrial deficiency, France had an urgent need to equip its armed forces with foreign made drones. Contrary to what is generally believed, it was not President Sarkozy, known for his pro-Israel leanings, who set in motion this major turning point in the country’s political-military relations by authorising the army to equip itself with Israeli drones. “Actually, the sea change, says Frédéric Eneel, a “consultant” for the “agencies accredited” by the Defence Ministry, "took place under Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin in Z005-2006. Chirac had been impressed by Ariel Sharon who had kept his promise to evacuate the Israeli colonies in Gaza during the summer of 2005. Prime Minister Villepin had convinced President Chirac that the Arab countries were not trustworthy, and that France had fallen very much behind in the matter of drones. So, with Chirac’s habitual pragmatism, trade agreements were signed on the QT.”
At the same period, when the war in Iraq was over, Chirac made overtures to Israel in order to facilitate a resumption of the dialogue with the USA.3 From then on, France would buy and market Israeli drones under licensing systems. These agreements with Dassault, Airbus, Sagem (today Safran) would also allow for the purchase of Israeli Eagle drones in 2007, and Herons in 2009 and 2010. Villepin and Chirac would take advantage of this renewal of military cooperation by authorising Eurocopter (an Airbus affiliate) to sell Panthere helicopters to the Israeli navy, where they were renamed Atalefs (Bats). Each of these costly aircraft—missiles included—are worth several million dollars. MBDA, number one European missiles manufacturer, in which Airbus is a shareholder for 37.5%, on an equal footing with BEA, a British firm, also sold Israel radio-controlled munitions and Spike ant-tank missiles.
Prior to his quarrel with Benyamin Netanyahu, President Nicolas Sarkozy4 was not about to feel bound by the antediluvian red tape of the Foreign Ministry and the apprehensions of the general staff” when he moved into the Elysée, a former ambassador explains to us. Sarkozy set up a “strategic dialogue” with Israel, consisting of annual meetings to deal mainly with information-sharing between both countries’ high-ranking officers and spies. During an official visit to Tel Aviv in June 2008, he signed an agreement dealing with the fight against criminality and terrorism. But the accord was so vague that it met with many objections in Parliament and was never ratified. Nonetheless, cooperation between the police forces of the two countries soon developed behind the scenes, through regular encounters and information-sharing.
As for the military industry, collaboration was stepped up through the production of drones. “Each drone had its specific characteristics and utilities, for territorial monitoring or more offensive operations,” an armaments engineer explains. The two best-selling Israeli models are, first of all, Elbit’s Hermes 900, on the market since 2012 and purchased in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Chile, but also in Switzerland and Azerbaijan. It is specialised in surveillance and putting down “riots”. The other is Israel Aerospace’s Heron, sold the world over, including to Muslim countries like Morocco and Turkey. Its chief advantage is its 8-hour flight time. These drones served as the basis for cooperation between Thales and Elbit; for the Watchkeeper and Hermes models, and between Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries for the Harfang, Heron 1 and Heron TP. The Patroller, a drone built by Safran, owes much to the contracts signed in 2010 between Sagem (as Safran was called at the time) and Elbit.
And business is still booming, in France and in Europe. Only recently The European Maritime Safety Agency commissioned from a consortium composed of Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries on the one hand, and Elbit on the other, Heron and Hermes drones meant to spot ships carry migrants in the Mediterranean. According to the British daily, The Guardian, these two contracts amount to 58 million dollars each.
And lastly, the French army has also ordered military robots, called “robot mules” from the Israeli firm Roboteam, designed to carry equipment and to evacuate the wounded, and which are said to have been fielded in the Sahel during the summer of 2020 as part of Operation Barkhane. The magazine Challenges, which disclosed the existence of this contract, reports that it was the object of a fierce battle of influence behind the scenes between advocates of Roboteam and those who preferred the model produced by the French group CNIM in association with the Estonian group Milrem, which already produces the robot Themis, a successful model marketed in many countries, including the US and the UK.
To be awarded the market, Challenges claims that Roboteam joined forces with a French “sock puppet” and slashed the price of its product, a common practice among Israel arms manufacturers in order to win contracts. But according to a well-informed source, Roboteam also conducted an intense lobbying campaign. French industrialists and certain French officers are infuriated for another reason as well: Roboteam, which began by selling its robots to the Israeli army, has recently raised funds in China and Singapore. Now, in French defence circles there is a tendency to worry about recent alliances in the security and arms trade areas between certain African countries and China and Israel.
All of this takes place behind the scenes, officially everything is rosy in matters of military cooperation between the two countries. As a big-time arms merchant, France just loves organising trade shows: Eurosatory, Euronaval, the Le Bourget air show and Milipol, devoted to law enforcement and crowd control. And Israel just loves to take part in these: according to data gathered by Patrice Bouveret, 51 Israeli companies had stands at Eurosatory in 2016 as against 17 in 1998. And the armaments engineer whom we interviewed told us that the Israeli colleagues that she hangs out with during these shows are “rather sympathetic chaps, often rather pacifistic, who talk about their kids and aren’t really aware of what’s at stake in what they do.”
French military personnel just love manoeuvres, too. In July 2018, Franco-Israeli joint operations took place off the coasts of Toulon and Corsica in the presence of their chiefs of staff, admirals Eli Shavit and Christophe Prazuck. It was a first for the two navies since 1963, although joint aerial manoeuvres had already taken place over Corsica as well in November 2016.
So, despite some conflicts (mainly on African soil) Israel is definitely a friend of the French army, which can only be a subject of rejoicing for the lobby. Since in this area, Palestine is “a non-issue” … As I had already been told.
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