Personnel from Israeli Aeronautics Defense Systems (also known as Aeronautics Ltd.) operated an armed drone that attacked an Armenian military position last month, according to an article in Maariv newspaper on August 13. Veteran national security writer and journalist Yossi Melman authored the article, citing a complaint filed with Israel’s Defense Ministry.
According to the report, two company employees, one recently sacked and another apparently on his way out, filed the complaint, alleging that they were punished for refusing to operate an armed Orbiter-1K drone produced by Aeronautics to target Armenian forces in what amounted to a “live test” of the system. Other company personnel then conducted the attack, but were unable to hit the forces they targeted. Israel’s Defense Ministry confirmed that it was looking into the complaint.
Aeronautics denies any wrongdoing. But on its website, the company says that it has an “outsourcing division for all mission control and operational services” that works with customers around the world. The company is reportedly “the first civilian contractor to carry out all-inclusive operational missions for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).”
Prior to the Maariv report, in an interview published in August 2-8 issue of Hay Zinvor, a weekly newspaper of the Armenian Defense Ministry, Col. Armen Gozalian revealed that on July 7, Azerbaijani forces used an armed drone to target a unit under his command. Two servicemen were injured as a result.
On July 24, Israeli minister Tsachi Hanegbi, known as a key figure in the Benjamin Netanyahu government, visited Armenia seeking, as he put it, a “breakthrough” in relations, while avoiding comment about weapons sales to Azerbaijan, when asked by media.
Azerbaijan has been building its armed drone fleet since 2015, focusing most recently on Orbiter-1K, locally known as Zerbe. An Azerbaijani official told Jane’s Defence Weekly in June that Zerbe is a “loitering/suicide-type craft [that] has a high-explosive cumulative warhead that’s already been adopted and was handed over to the [Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense].” According to the official, “There also is a launching-vehicle outfitted with a catapult and we expect to complete test work within a few months (emphasis added), after which we plan to field 100 of them. “Due to its very low acoustic signature it is not detectable until two seconds before diving into attack.”
The Azerbaijani forces also used the larger Harop drones in more than half a dozen attacks on Armenian forces and civilian infrastructure during the April 2016 war. At least eleven Armenians are believed to have been killed in three of those attacks, including nine volunteers, one military driver and one logistics officer. Several Harop drones were shot down by ground fire. Harop is produced by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the extent to which IAI’s or associated personnel were involved in the attacks is unknown.
IAI reported revenues of $3.8 billion in 2014 and Aeronautics reported $550 million in 2015. Azerbaijan sales accounted for significant portions of those revenues.
Azerbaijan is known to have engaged mercenaries to conduct military operations throughout the Karabakh war. Between 1992 and 1994, these included several dozen military pilots, most from Russia and Ukraine, who conducted bombing raids in Karabakh and Armenian border areas, attacking both military and civilian targets. Several hundred former Soviet military personnel, both from bases in Azerbaijan and those in Russia, were also contracted to handle tanks, artillery and other weaponry Azerbaijan received after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Additionally, Azerbaijan hired more than one thousand fighters from Afghanistan, who fought in Karabakh from 1993 to 1994.
On August 29, Ma’ariv and other media, citing the Israeli Ministry of Defense, reported that the Aeronautics license for Orbiter-1K sales to Azerbaijan has been suspended pending investigation. The company said it expected to lose $20 million in sales as a result.
In an interview, Armenia’s Deputy Defense Minister David Pakhchanyan welcomed the move but suggested – without specifying names – that other Israeli companies involved in Azerbaijan have also breached their license restrictions and that Jerusalem should be “consistent” in sanctioning them as well.