How Israel is developing Scorpion, at the heart of France's future defence system

How Israel is developing Scorpion, at the heart of France's future defence system
Comment: In utter secrecy, France and Israel are cooperating on the digital warfare of the future, despite
competitive tensions on the African arms market, writes Jean Stern.
12 min read
15 Apr, 2021
A French drone pilot stands next to two of Israel's Harfang drones [Getty]
While France is the world's third-largest arms exporter, Israel comes in eighth place, a rather remarkable "exploit" considering the size of the country.

And while the two countries are on friendly terms in many arenas, things are more complicated when it comes to matters of defence. On the one hand, because industry names sometimes find themselves in competition with one another, and because the Israelis have a reputation for slashing prices to lay their hands on an arms contract.

But on the other - and perhaps most significantly - because Israel has persistently coveted what has traditionally been regarded by the French army and arms dealers as their exclusive preserve: Africa.

Ever since the Oslo accords, Israel has been investing heavily on the African continent, especially in the "protection" of the incumbent power structures.

Of course, French and Israeli officers and agents cooperate discreetly on certain fronts, for example with the Cameroonian army in the fight against Boko Haram in northern Cameroon. But in the capital, Yaoundé, one of the mainstays of "Françafrique", Israeli mercenaries have long been overseeing the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite squad placed under the direct command of President Paul Biya. And Israeli companies provide the BIR's equipment, especially its assault rifles, to the obvious annoyance of French arms manufacturers, as Cameroon has always been their faithful customer.

"There's strong competition between us on the African market," says an engineer working in the military sector, "but for the moment we're lagging behind. In the high-risk areas, Nigeria, the Great Lakes region, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, Israel has grabbed the contracts. Our companies, especially Thales and Safran, are at odds with one another, whereas the Israeli firms maintain close bonds."

The shared interface will connect soldiers on the ground to new military tools such as drones and robots, and allow them to anticipate enemy reactions

Another source of tension and perhaps the most important one is the reversal of trade relationships: in the 50s and 60s, France sold weapons to Israel. Today, Israel sells France its cyber-surveillance systems, drones and even robot soldiers. Which, of course, is greatly insulting to the fastidious pride of our military officers and defence companies.

And while the Elnet lobbyists and promoters of Franco-Israeli trade constantly extol the quality of the "strategic dialogue" between the two countries, these voices are suddenly mute when challenged to be more precise. "Oh no, I won't give you the figures, first of all, because I don't know them", says an MP. "You know, all that is pretty much on automatic, we don't know much about it", another one adds.

"There are exchanges of information" Ariel Bensemhoun, director of Elnet France explains. "On military and strategic issues and the fight against terrorism, the two countries cooperate well," he adds with no further details. And as Patrice Bouveret of the Observatoire des Armements points out, "the obvious lack of transparency which characterises the military domain - on the pretext of strategic secrecy together with "commercial secrecy" - is especially problematic".

Elbit develops the Scorpion interface

Neither our elected officials nor the general public appear to know anything about Israel's participation in the low-profile military programme known as Scorpion, intended to be central to the strategy of the French army over the next few decades. Its visible dimension will consist of a renewal of the army's fleet of armoured personnel carriers, with the launch of the Griffon vehicle to be deployed next Autumn in the Sahel.

But the engine driving Scorpion is the development of a digital command system based on a shared interface that will connect soldiers on the ground to new military tools such as drones and robots, and allow them to anticipate enemy reactions.

"At the heart of the wars of the future," one specialist explains, "there will be a soldier carrying less weight, today he typically carries up to 38 kilos, as opposed to 40 in WW1. So, there is enormous room for improvement. In the future, he'll no longer have anything to carry but a GPS monitor, his weapon, and his water bottle. He'll be piloted by an interface, assisted by drones for a wider view, and have robot mules carrying the heavy loads and evacuating the wounded if need be."

Read More: How Israel is sowing the seeds of a deadly war in South Sudan 

Therefore, the information the soldier will receive on his GPS navigator via Scorpion will be decisive and the development of the interface is at the core of the top-secret collaboration between France and Israel.

"The main idea of Scorpion is a noiseless war and, if possible, a bloodless war, in other words, as few casualities as possible," she continues.

Scorpion will organise the interoperability between a tank, a vessel, a motorcycle, a drone, a robot and a soldier on the ground. It's a very important programme involving the participation of all the principal French arms manufacturers as well as the Israeli company, Elbit, which has wide experience in autonomous systems."

'They've integrated drone technology into nature'

Israel has acquired that expertise, which facilitates the detailed analysis of a given territory, through its use of drones over occupied Palestine. "Israel is one step ahead on three key points," adds the engineer.

"First, in the silencing of drone engines. This is a major advance, we are getting close to acoustical invisibility, a subject which is receiving much attention in France." Next, comes the miniaturisation of the drones. The insect drones which were entertaining in James Bond movies are already operational, tested by the Israeli army in Gaza. "They are integrating drone technology into nature," she concludes.

The development of the interface is at the core of the top-secret collaboration between France and Israel

And finally, the erasure of digital traces and detection of strategic "enemy" signals, since the main task of Scorpion is digital piloting. "Avoid having our signals intercepted while at the same time intercepting the other guys' signals. The Israelis know how to conceal, locate, interpret, analyse and scramble. There again, the idea is to be invisible and profoundly quiet," she continues.

"The basis of our partnership with Israel is all these inventions, simple enough, coming from their best engineers who have acquired their skills through the control and repression of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza."

Scorpion is so vital for the French defence industry, that in addition to the ground army - its primary buyer along with the Belgian army -  the programme is taking aim at the export trade. And unsurprisingly, the first customer would be Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates has long been among the best clients of the French armaments industry and also, more recently, has become friends with Israel.

Beyond the official statistics 

Scorpion aside, the actual cost of which and the contribution of Elbit's Israeli engineers are both unknown, the volume weapons sold is monitored by Parliament.

According to a report submitted to MPs by the French Defence Ministry covering the period 2010-2019, France delivered weapons to Israel for a cost of 244 million dollars, which is negligible compared to Saudi Arabia (10.24 billion), to the UAE (5.53 billion), to Qatar (4.82 billion) or to Egypt (7.7 billion).

The value of Israeli weapons and military and police security systems sold to France, however, is unknown. The opacity of the international cyber-security market, in which Israel is a major player, prevents us from having the vaguest idea of sales volumes.

"Military and security partnerships are not included in official statistics", Henri Cukierman, chairman of the Franco-Israeli Chamber of Commerce and Industry says with a straight face.

The year 2000: A turning point

Prior to the infatuation with digital solutions, it was drone technology that gave the collaboration between the two countries a new lease on life in the first years of this century. "At the time, France was not on the cutting edge," a military expert explains. "And it was important to make up for lost time in the matter of urban warfare, a particularly sensitive issue in Africa where helicopters are a very costly solution and make too much noise.

"At the time, Israel was already making state-of-the-art drones. Even though the mechanisms were often produced in Germany and the electronic components in China or France, they were the ones who knew how to conceive and assemble high-performance machines."

Read More: Israel's army is using 'talking drones' to disperse Palestinian protests

Because of this obvious deficiency, France had an urgent need to equip its armed forces with foreign made drones. Contrary to what is generally believed, it was not President Sarkozy, known for his pro-Israel leanings, who set in motion this major turning point by authorising the army to equip itself with Israeli drones.

"Actually, the sea change," says Frédéric Eneel, a consultant for the agencies accredited by the Defence Ministry, "took place under Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin in 2005-2006. Chirac had been impressed by Ariel Sharon who had kept his promise to evacuate the Israeli colonies in Gaza during the summer of 2005.

Prime Minister Villepin had convinced President Chirac that the Arab countries were not trustworthy, and that France had fallen very much behind on the matter of drones. So, with Chirac's habitual pragmatism, trade agreements were signed on the downlow."

In the same period, when the war in Iraq was over, Chirac made overtures to Israel in order to facilitate a resumption of the dialogue with the US.

From then on, France would buy and market Israeli drones under licensing systems. These agreements with Dassault, Airbus and Sagem (today Safran), would also allow for the purchase of Israeli Eagle drones in 2007, and Herons in 2009 and 2010. Villepin and Chirac would take advantage of this renewal of military cooperation by authorising Eurocopter (an Airbus affiliate) to sell Panthere helicopters to the Israeli navy, where they were renamed Atalefs (Bats).

Israel has acquired that expertise, which facilitates the detailed analysis of a given territory, through its use of drones over occupied Palestine

Each of these costly aircraft - missiles included - is worth several million dollars. MBDA, the number one European missiles manufacturer, in which Airbus is a shareholder for 37.5 percent, on an equal footing with BEA, a British firm, also sold Israel radio-controlled munitions and Spike anti-tank missiles.

Sarkozy initiates policing cooperation

Prior to his quarrel with Benyamin Netanyahu, President Nicolas Sarkozy "was not about to feel bound by the antiquated red tape of the Foreign Ministry and the apprehensions of the general staff" when he moved into the Elysée, a former ambassador explained. Sarkozy set up a "strategic dialogue" with Israel, consisting of annual meetings to deal mainly with information-sharing between both countries' high-ranking officers and spies.

During an official visit to Tel Aviv in June 2008, he signed an agreement dealing with the fight against criminality and terrorism. But the accord was so vague that it met with many objections in Parliament and was never ratified. Nonetheless, cooperation between the police forces of the two countries soon developed behind the scenes, through regular encounters and information-sharing.

As for the military industry, collaboration was stepped up through the production of drones. "Each drone had its specific characteristics and utilities, for territorial monitoring or more offensive operations," explains one armaments engineer. The two best-selling Israeli models are Elbit's Hermes 900, on the market since 2012 and purchased by Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Chile, but also by Switzerland and Azerbaijan. It is specialised in surveillance and putting down "riots".

The other, is Israel Aerospace's Heron, sold the world over, including to Muslim countries such as Morocco and Turkey. Its chief advantage is its 8-hour flight time. These drones served as the basis for cooperation between Thales and Elbit; for the Watchkeeper and Hermes models, and between Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries for the Harfang, Heron 1 and Heron TP.

The Patroller, a drone built by Safran, owes much to the contracts signed in 2010 between Sagem and Elbit.

Despite some conflicts (mainly on African soil) Israel is definitely a friend of the French army, which can only be a subject of rejoicing for the lobby

And business is still booming in France and in Europe. Just recently The European Maritime Safety Agency commissioned a consortium composed of Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries on the one hand, and Elbit on the other, to discuss Heron and Hermes drones meant to spot ships that carry migrants in the Mediterranean. According to the British daily, The Guardian, these two contracts amount to 58 million dollars each.

Israeli robotic mules in the Sahel

Lastly, the French army has also ordered military robots, called "robot mules" from the Israeli firm Roboteam, designed to carry equipment and to evacuate the wounded, and which are said to have been fielded in the Sahel during the summer of 2020 as part of Operation Barkhane.

The magazine Challenges, which disclosed the existence of this contract, reports that it was the object of a fierce battle of influence behind the scenes between advocates of Roboteam, and those who preferred the model produced by the French group CNIM in association with the Estonian group Milrem, which already produces the robot Themis, a successful model sold in many countries, including the US and the UK.

To be awarded the contract, Challenges claims that Roboteam joined forces with a French "sock puppet" and slashed the price of its product, a common practice among Israel arms manufacturers in order to win contracts.

But according to one well-informed source, Roboteam also conducted an intense lobbying campaign. French industrialists and certain French officers are infuriated for another reason as well: Roboteam, which began by selling its robots to the Israeli army, has recently raised funds in China and Singapore. Now, in French defence circles there is a tendency to worry about recent alliances in the security and arms trade areas between certain African countries and China and Israel.

The two navies and their joint operations

All of this takes place behind the scenes, and officially everything is rosy in matters of military cooperation between the two countries. As a big-time arms merchant, France just loves organising trade shows: Eurosatory, Euronaval, Le Bourget air show and Milipol, devoted to law enforcement and crowd control.

And Israel just loves to take part in them. According to data gathered by Patrice Bouveret, 51 Israeli companies had stands at Eurosatory in 2016 compared to just 17 in 1998. And the armaments engineer we interviewed says that the Israeli colleagues she hangs out with during these shows are "rather sympathetic chaps, often rather pacifist, who talk about their kids and aren't really aware of what's at stake in what they do."

French military personnel just love manoeuvres, too. In July 2018, Franco-Israeli joint operations took place off the coasts of Toulon and Corsica in the presence of their chiefs of staff, admirals Eli Shavit and Christophe Prazuck. It was a first for the two navies since 1963, although joint aerial operations had already taken place over Corsica as well in November 2016.

So, despite some conflicts - mainly on African soil - Israel is definitely a friend of the French army, which can only be a subject of rejoicing for the lobby. In this domain, Palestine is "a non-issue" … As I had already been told.

Jean Stern is a French journalist who has contributed to Libération and La Tribune, and International's La Chronique. He is also the author of two books.

Follow him on Twitter: @Jean55

This article is republished here with permission from our partners at Orient XXI.

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