South East Asia: The Emerging Market for Israeli Arms

ISSSP Reflections No. 16, May 19, 2014

Author: Mr. Alvite Singh Ningthoujam


3823085536Israel has been unrelenting in exploring opportunities to strengthen military cooperation with countries in South East Asia (SEA). This is evident from the burgeoning military trade between Israel and countries in the region. Moreover, exhibitions like the Singapore Air Show and other similar defence expos have provided Israel a platform to lure the attention of defence planners in the SEA countries. Alongside its sales of conventional arms, Israel has begun to take up the task of upgrading major systems such as tanks.  In March 2014, its Elbit Systems was awarded a US$290 million contract to perform (over three years) a tank upgrade program for an unidentified customer in the Asia-Pacific region. Similar lucrative business is expected for its aircraft industries in South East Asia over the coming years.

Israel’s increasing attention towards Asia-Pacific countries has come at an appropriate time, amidst considerable cut-back in the defence budgets in the West. Withdrawals of American troops from Iraq and the impending drawdown from Afghanistan have contributed to this shift. As a result, this region is offering potential and lucrative defence markets for Israel. During 2012, Asia-Pacific remained a major market for Israel with an estimated arms sales worth US$4 billion. Again in 2013, Israeli firms such as Israel Military Industries (IMI) reportedly secured military contracts with a few Asian countries worth US$500 million. These contracts were mostly for upgrades of military platforms, sales of heavy munitions, and a variety of military systems. During the same year, Israel’s Aeronautics Defence Systems Ltd won a contract worth US$20 million from a South East Asia air force for its Aerostar tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for intelligence collection. Additionally, there are several important joint-ventures which are underway.


The globally reputed Singapore Air Show 2014 witnessed a high profile Israeli participation, which included its Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, several other military officials and dignitaries from various defence industries. Items such as Elbit-manufactured Hermes 900 Unmanned Aircraft Systems; TREASURES; ANVIS/HUD 24 featuring line-of-sight were displayed. For the first time, IAI’s revamped Super Heron Heavy Fuel drone that could stay airborne for about 45 hours was unveiled. This product is likely to give some competition to manufacturers within Israel and abroad. On the sideline of this event, IAI launched its Local Cyber Early Warning Research and Development Centre in Singapore, which is the first of its kind in the region. The joint-project with Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) signals the transformation of relations from one of a seller-buyer to a more collaborative relationship.

Further, Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems impressed the audience by unveiling its Iron Beam high-energy laser (HEL) system which is designed to defeat rockets, mortars, and UAVs at short ranges. Owing to rising missile threats from its neighbours, Israel has started with this programme, and has already received adequate attention from potential customers despite being in a developmental stage.


Israel is also gradually entering Vietnam’s defence markets. For instance, Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) has established a production facility in Vietnam to support the supply of Galil 31/32 ACE assault rifles to the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA). Considering Vietnam’s large army equipped with obsolete weapons systems, Israel might one day take up the task of upgrading the Hanoi’s defence systems and technologies. In March 2014, during the visit of Vietnam’s Vice Minister of Public Security, Senior Lieutenant-General Dang Van Hieu to Israel the countries signed accords promoting cooperation in defence industrial sectors.  The delegation also visited several Israeli companies specialising in the development of equipments for counter-terrorism and homeland security. Cooperation is also expected to grow in trans-border crime prevention, drug-related crime, human trafficking, illegal immigration, and crime related to citizens from both countries. Looking at these developments, one could say that the future of their military-security ties looks very promising.


Simultaneously, military cooperation between Israel and Philippines is on the rise. Manila is considering purchase of surface-to-air missiles (SAM), UAVs, missile launcher systems from Israeli firms such as Rafael, Elbit Systems, IMI and IAI. Philippines is likely to enter into tie-ups in developing and manufacturing weapons. In January 2014, an agreement was signed for the purchase of 28 light armoured vehicles from Israel by Philippines at a total price of US$19.7 million. The same month witnessed a meeting between Philippines Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, where Tel Aviv offered to provide defence items to Manila boosting their military cooperation.

Israeli assistance to Philippines would be in the development of command, control, communications, computers and intelligence capabilities. In addition, a working group is likely to be established to examine the security situation in their respective countries and to address common concerns. Israel’s Elbit Systems has won a tender to supply Philippines with artillery worth more than US$8.2 million. Israel has also offered its P368, 837, 332 for 12 pieces of 155 Howitzer canons with accessories and ammunition to this South East Asian army.

In Conclusion

The above developments reflect the existence of robust military-security cooperation between Israel and the mentioned countries. Israel’s willingness to transfer military technologies – without any strings-attached – has tied Tel Aviv closely to the military modernisation and upgrade programmes of the South East Asian countries. With economic and political incentives, bilateral relationships between these countries will continue to be driven by close defence ties and shared national security challenges. The importance Israel places on its relationship with the defence markets in these countries is captured by its willingness to showcase its latest military technologies.

Nevertheless, there is stiff competition for Israel as several other arms vendors are eyeing the lucrative defence markets in Southeast Asia. In this regard, the US and France are two major contenders. That said, Israel will continue to remain an important arms supplier for these countries. Moreover, the region is not new to Israeli arms sales but has been there in the business since several years.

Finally, certain implications cannot be ruled out considering the instabilities looming large in the Asia Pacific regions, and particularly, between China and these countries. With tensions escalating in the South China Sea, Israel will have to carefully tread in its arms sales to the region. The Jewish state, for various reasons, would not want to spoil its relations with countries in the region especially given their positive outlook towards Tel Aviv. However, the maturity of their relations cannot be explained by merely looking into arms sales, for such tactics seem to be ad-hoc in nature. Moreover, it is often a matter of options available at different junctures.  As a result, for the longevity of relations, robust political ties should be at the forefront, which remains lacking in the current context.

About the Author

Alvite Singh Ningthoujam is a PhD researcher at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He also served as a Fellow at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Israel (2010-2011). He can be reached at alvite_n[at]yahoo[dot]com

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