Israeli Company Allegedly Flew A Suicide Drone On A Real Combat Mission In Azerbaijan

The Israeli government says it plans to charge executives and other employees of a defense contractor in the country with fraud and violating the country’s export controls for military equipment. The allegations reportedly stem from an incident in Azerbaijan in which executives from Aeronautics, Limited “demonstrated” the capabilities of their Orbiter 1K suicide drone by flying a very real strike on Armenian-backed forces in a disputed border region.

Israel’s Ministry of Justice announced that it would bring the charges against Aeronautics, which came after a year-long investigation into the firm, in an official statement on Aug. 29, 2018. Though the press release offered few details, Israeli media separately obtained a leaked copy of a complaint within the Ministry of Defense that mentioned the Azerbaijan-Armenia connection and had reportedly touched off the proceedings, to begin with.

Aeronautics “has never carried out a demonstration against live targets, including in this case,” the company said in a statement after Israeli newspaper Maariv first reported the Defense Ministry complaint. “We are convinced that after we first present our position at the hearing, the State Prosecutor’s Office will reach an informed decision that there is no reason to put the company or any of its officers in court and will order the case closed,” the firm added in a response to the public announcement from the Justice Ministry.

Per Israeli media reports, the alleged incident occurred in October 2017. Officials in Azerbaijan requested the company’s personnel show off what the Orbiter 1K could do against ethnic Armenian personnel in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Israeli government has permitted private defense companies to demonstrate their wares in actual combat, but this is rare and is unlikely to have occurred in this case, since Israel does not view Armenia as an enemy, according to The Times of Israel.

The video below shows Azerbaijani forces demonstrating their Orbiter 1K loitering munitions.

The often violent dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as simply Karabakh, dates to before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the two countries. Though part of Azerbaijan, the region has a significant ethnic Armenian population and a rebel movement that seeks to break away and join Armenia, which has, in turn, actively supported their aspirations.

Aeronautics employees reportedly refused to carry out the 2017 mission and company executives subsequently stepped in to fly the drone themselves. Though it’s not clear if this was deliberate or not, the drone reportedly missed the target, only injuring two ethnic Armenian fighters.

It could very well be that the executives made this decision consciously since Orbiter 1K has a so-called man-in-the-loop guidance system whereby the operator is either actively flying or otherwise monitoring the video feeds from the drone and they can see what it sees throughout the mission. This is specifically supposed to help improve accuracy since the operator can correct the course of the drone constantly and account for any movement on the part of the target. It also provides an option to abort the strike right at the last moment to avoid hitting innocent civilians or if the target is no longer reachable.

Ethnic Armenian fighters of the Nagorno-Karabah Defense Army in 2016., RIA Novosti/Sputnik via AP

This is a key feature of loitering munitions in general, which are a sort of a cross between a missile and a drone that can fly over a certain area using its onboard electro-optical and infrared video cameras to surveil the situation and search for targets. It also has an explosive warhead to directly attack any targets it finds. 

Israel has been at the forefront of the development of both loitering munitions and man-in-the-loop guidance packages. Azerbaijani authorities, which have developed very close ties with their Israeli counterparts, in no small part over their shared concerns about Iran, have also been very interested in the capabilities these suicide drones provide.

The Orbiter 1K isn’t the only loitering munition the Azerbaijani military reportedly has in service. They have also acquired a number of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harops and had successfully used them in combat prior to Aeronautics reportedly fraudulent “demonstration.” Azerbaijan used at least one in April 2016 to destroy a bus carrying ethnic Armenian fighters.

In April 2018, video footage slipped out of Azerbaijani forces using Harop in a slickly produced music video honoring the country’s State Border Service. Earlier in August 2018, the suicide drones reappeared at drills along the Caspian Sea, on the opposite side of the country from Nagorno-Karabakh.

You can see footage of Azerbaijani forces firing a Harop from a truck-mounted launcher at approximately 1:54 in the runtime of the video below.

Though Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan, all agreed in principle to a deal to finally divide up this body of water on Aug. 12, 2018, it had long been a hotly contested region. The exact position of the maritime boundaries could block certain countries from exploiting the oil and natural gas resources under the land-locked sea.

In 2001, an Iranian military vessel reportedly threatened a British Petroleum research vessel in a portion of the Caspian Azerbaijan had claimed as it national territory. Then, in 2009, Iran actually positioned its own oil rig in the same general area, prompting Azerbaijan to turn to the United States for help in handling the situation.

Those tensions, combined with the Israeli Justice Ministry’s assertion that Aeronautics had fraudulently obtained some sort of authorization relating to demonstrating the Orbiter 1K in Azerbaijan, raise the possibility, albeit remote, that the company might have claimed they were planning to use the drone in some way against Israel’s arch-nemesis Iran.

One of Azerbaijan’s Israeli-made Sa’ar 62-class patrol boats fires an Israeli-made MLS-NLOS missile during a drill in the Caspian Sea., State Border Service capture

Israeli authorities had reportedly already begun investigating Aeronautics in September 2017, a month before the alleged strike in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to The Times of Israel. The Justice Ministry specifically accuses the company of “fraudulently obtaining something under aggravated circumstances,” Maariv’s report explained.

If the Israeli government had give the company a rare permit to launch an actual strike on Iranian forces, they might have already begun to have doubts about the legitimacy of those claims giving warming ties between Azerbaijan and Iran. In October 2017, two Azerbaijani patrol boats visited the Iranian port of Enzeli in the Caspian Sea on a goodwill mission.

It could also simply be that Aeronautics had obtained normal approvals for demonstration and export of the Orbiter 1K under false pretenses, even though they planned all along to conduct the live strike for Azerbaijani authorities. However, it is not clear how this would necessarily have been apparent to the Israeli government a month before the strike in Nagorno-Karabakh occurred.

Whatever the case, and despite Aeronautics confidence that the Israeli government won’t decide to pursue the charges in court, the Justice Ministry has already suspended its export license pending the outcome of the situation. It will be interesting to see what new details come out about this case as the legal proceedings begin.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.