IDF procurement of Chinese drones raises concerns

Autel EVO 2 Enterprise drone credit: Reuters Steve Marcus
Autel EVO 2 Enterprise drone credit: Reuters Steve Marcus

The Israel Defense Forces has ordered thousands of drones from two Chinese companies for its land forces, sources inform "Globes."

The Israel Defense Forces has ordered thousands of drones from two Chinese companies for its land forces, sources inform "Globes." The orders, which were placed by the weapons department of the Israel Ground Forces command, include extensive equipping of drones manufactured by two companies in Shenzen in Southern China: DJI, which controls the world's civilian drone market and Autel Robotics, which produces the popular EVO model.

Estimates are that the drones will serve mainly for short-range imaging and reconnaissance missions inside and outside buildings and for intelligence acquisition in Gaza. The Chinese drones would struggle to operate on Israel's northern front, where Hezbollah has advanced drone identification capabilities using the 'Aeroscope' system.

The Chinese drones are considered easy to operate and are therefore particularly suitable for reservists who serve in the army for short periods. After six months in which the army was flooded with Chinese drones made by DJI, Autel and US company Skydio, which were acquired voluntarily by outside parties, the IDF decided to procure drones from the Chinese companies but to 'sterilize' them to cut off their ability to communicate with the source company. The more complex Israeli drones are kept in the IDF for the regular forces.

Already on the black list

Use of Chinese-made drones is problematic due to a ban on their use by any US government authority, and in light of China's rapprochement with Iran and the assistance it provides to Russia in its war in Ukraine. According to the US government, DJI is known for the "dual use" of its products. On the one hand, it markets civilian products to every buyer, and on the other hand, it develops products for use by security organizations in China, and because of this, Western armies restrict the use of its products.

The US Department of Defense added DJI to its blacklist of Chinese exporters back in 2022 and prohibited all security organizations in the country from using it, concerned that the drones transmit information to the Chinese government as well as fearing information security breaches that could lead to a third party hijacking them and using them for a cyberattack. The US Department of the Treasury has also issued a ban on US investors making financial investments in the Chinese company.

Although Autel has not been blacklisted as it is a semi-US company, but it is to be investigated by the US Congress due to what members of Congress call a threat to US national security through the transfer of sensitive information to external parties. The members of Congress also claim that Autel supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine and helps China suppress the Uyghur minority, as well as other minorities in China, and are demanding the company be added to the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense and Department of the Treasury blacklists.

In response, Autel issued a statement saying it "Opposes the use of the drone products for military uses that violate human rights. Any concern raised in the media regarding the illegal use of our technology is unfounded and speculative." Estimates are that Autel's EVO drones ordered by the IDF will be manufactured in the US and not in a factory in China, and this is how the IDF plans to allay concerns.

A boycott also from China

There are several limitations to the use of off-the-shelf drones made in China. Iran and Hezbollah have "Aeroscope" systems to detect drones made in China, as well as the possibility of locating and attacking the operator. There is the possibility of transmitting information such as location or images through the drone's firmware (software embedded in a hardware device) to the Chinese authorities, or to a third party that will take control of it through a cyberattack; Attempts to customize drones to the requirements of different units, which can be done amateurishly and cause injuries to soldiers, while creating dependency on Chinese equipment, which can be halted at any time by a political decision. Since the outbreak of the war, China has acted as an ally of Hamas and Iran by not condemning the October 7 attack and by vetoing resolutions against Hamas and in favor of Israel's right to self-defense in the UN Security Council. China has strengthened its alliance with Iran in recent years and has been the biggest export customer for its oil since 2018.

The Western embargo on Chinese products is not one-way. China began limiting the export of drones and drone-building equipment to Western countries last August and this has had a negative impact on the war in Ukraine. Now, Israeli companies are reporting a shortage of spare parts in the field of drones in Israel as well, such as engines. At the same time, other companies report that business with China continues as usual.

Alternatives in the battlefield

The war caught the IDF unprepared in terms of defense against drones as well as ill equipped with surveillance and assault drones. The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 began with drones that shut down Israel's border surveillance and warning system and allowed terrorists to break through the separation fence unhindered. A vacuum in the field of drones caused thousands of reservists to bring their own drones from home along with them, and there were also those who organized private donations to equip themselves with drones, many of them Chinese drones made by DJI - the highest quality off-the-shelf product, which costs just a few thousand dollars.

The IDF also bought drones made by Israeli companies Elbit Systems (Nasdaq: ELST; TASE: ELST), Robotican and Xtend for various purposes such as observation, penetrating buildings and tunnels and thwarting terrorists. The Robotican and Xtend drones can enter buildings and tunnels, to identify and thwart terrorists. These are FPV-type attack drones, which are more expensive and can cost tens of thousands of dollars each. Chinese drones made by DJI and Autel have proven to be very effective on the battlefield in tasks such as intelligence gathering due to their high-quality cameras and low price.

However, Israel's Ministry of Defense is working to create Israeli alternatives in the future. These efforts include building a plant in the south for Xtend, which will have a weekly production capacity of hundreds of drones.

The IDF Spokesperson said in response, "The IDF buys and operates drones of various types. All procurement is conducted in accordance with the security classification of the mission. The procurement of the aforementioned drones is being carried out at the same time as the procurement of drones of various types made in Israel. As part of the procurement, all necessary tests are conducted to enable use of drones of this type in the service of the IDF. Following these tests, unique adjustments have been made to the drones to protect the security of the information."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on April 25, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Autel EVO 2 Enterprise drone credit: Reuters Steve Marcus
Autel EVO 2 Enterprise drone credit: Reuters Steve Marcus
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