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Gaza: are Israels pilotless drones powered by British-made engines?

The conflict and the killing in Gaza continues. Worryingly, Amnesty has uncovered evidence, reported in the Guardian today, that the specially-designed engines for ‘drones’ – small, unmanned aircraft used by Israeli forces to target air strikes – may originate here in the UK. There’s a full briefing on the story here

From all the reports I’ve heard, the majority of the 670+ killed seem to have been victims of aerial bombardment. And many of these reports mention the use of these ‘drones’ over Gaza. In past conflicts, like that in Lebanon, they have reportedly been used in attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets.

 UAV Engines Ltd (UEL), based near Birmingham, has stated that it manufactures the engines for Hermes 450 UAVs (Unmanned Airborne Vehicles) produced by its parent company, Elbit Systems of Israel (1). Specifications displayed by Elbit Systems beside a Hermes 450 vehicle at a 2006 defence exhibition, of which we have photographs, also state that the Hermes 450 is powered by a ‘UEL AR-80-1010’ engine, made by UAV Engines Ltd.

Hermes 450s  are described by their manufacturer as “the ‘backbone’ of Israeli army and air force ISTAR [Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition And Reconnaissance] missions”. They have reportedly been deployed for surveillance and targeting missions in Gaza prior to 2006, and were reportedly central to IDF operations in Gaza and Lebanon during 2006 (2). Defence media shortly after the 2006 conflict quoted Israeli Air Force sources discussing the performance of the Israeli Air Force Hermes 450’s “50hp (40kW) UEL engine” (3).  

A spokesperson for Elbit Systems has denied to British media that UK-made engines are incorporated into the Hermes 450s used by the Israeli armed forces. But the evidence looks pretty convincing. 

Amnesty has issued a call on the UK government to suspend all military exports to Israel until there’s no longer a substantial risk that such equipment will be used for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. We’re also calling for an immediate, humanitarian truce – you can join our campaign here

As far as we can see, UEL and Elbit have operated within the law and UK regulations. So the finger of blame is not pointed at the company but at the UK government. They say that the UK won’t allow exports of ‘main weapons’ – like guns, planes and tanks – to Israel because of concerns about the ongoing conflict. But loopholes mean that components for weapons that could be used in human rights abuses can be legally sold from the UK; as can parts that are sold to another country for incorporation into weapons that are sold-on to Israel.  

Which rather undermines the ban on ‘main weapons’ sales – not to mention the UK’s credibility.


(1)   ‘Israeli Defence Industry: In the Lion’s Den’, Jane's Defence Weekly, 26 February 2003. See also ‘Endurance above all for UAVs’, Jane’s International Defence Review 1 June 2003: “Uniquely, Silver Arrow owns its own engine company: UK-based UAV Engines Ltd (UEL), which supplies the 60kW Wankel-type rotary engine…Photo caption: Elbit's UK-based subsidiary UEL makes the engine for the Hermes 450. Like all non-turbine UAV engines so far, it burns gasoline: to date, no acceptable heavy-fuel engine has been adopted. (Source: Elbit)”

(2)   ‘On winged heels: Hermes flies high as UAVs play a bigger part in operations’, Jane’s International Defence Review, 1 November 2007

(3) ‘Israel Praises UAV abilities’, Flight International, 31 August 2006. Emphasis added.

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