A Reliable Partner

Let me get this one out of the way straight away: I would very much like Israel to ship air defence systems (and other lethal weaponry) to Ukraine, much in the same way I would like other countries to keep doing so and increase both volume and complexity of their weapons packages.

However, at the same time I don’t think that necessarily reflect on whether Israel is a reliable supplier of arms and other critical equipment to the Finnish Defence Forces.

Israel’s David’s Sling air defence system stands a good chance of becoming a key weapon for the Finnish Defence Forces, and questions have now been raised if that is a good thing? Here Israel’s 66th “David’s Sling” Battalion take part in a live-fire event. Source: Israeli Air Force

Let’s start with why the question suddenly occupies the mind of a number of Finnish defence-minded people. Finnish-Israeli arms trade stretches back decades, and while during the Cold War much of the trade went from Finland to Israel, with the growth of the Israeli arms industry the trade flows have largely been reversed during the last few decades. Both countries see eye to eye on a number of important issues when it comes to national defence, including the heavy reliance on national conscription, doctrinal similarities emphasising superior training, tactics, and high tempo to take and keep the initiative, as well as a down-to-earth attitude which emphasise things that work (and keep working in field conditions) rather than new and flashy solutions. Both countries have also been rather happy to keep a somewhat low profile when it comes to which capabilities are found and where they are acquired from. This is however changing with an increased openness on the part of the FDF when it comes to strategic signalling as well as a more open policy on the part of the Israelis (partly due to the need for marketing by the companies themselves, partly due to the Israeli state opening up the traditionally very strict secrecy operational systems and units).

Two key acquisitions have thrown the spotlight on Israel as a supplier among Finnish defence analysts: the choice of the Gabriel 5 as the PTO 2020 anti-ship missile and narrowing the ITSUKO high-altitude ground-based air defence program down to two Israeli systems. With both of these programs being of strategic importance for the FDF as a whole, the question of whether Israel can be counted on as a reliable supplier is certainly a valid one.

The controversy over Ukraine stems from a number of issues. Ukraine has already in the years leading up to the February invasion expressed interest in certain Israeli systems, mainly armed drones and the Iron Dome rocket-defence system. These were turned down, as were requests by the Baltic states to ship SPIKE anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in much the same way they had been shipping US-made Javelins. Following the outbreak of hostilities, there has been renewed requests both from third parties wanting to ship Israeli made systems from their own arsenals to Ukraine, as well as directly from Ukraine. The last round was caused by the Russian terror bombings which heavily feature Iranian-made systems. This led to an official Ukrainian request for ground-based air defence systems covering Iron Beam, Iron Dome, Barak-8, Patriot, David’s Sling, and Arrow, which was again turned down by the Israeli MoD.


This has turned up the volume with accusations flying that Israel has sided with Putin against the democratic world, and while the questions of security of supply is a relevant one, that statement is plainly false.

Israeli aid has so far included helmets, flak vests, 100+ tons of humanitarian supplies, a field hospital, and there’s rumours about (limited) assistance with intelligence from both the state and private companies. In addition Israel has voted against Russia in UNGA Resolution ES-11/1 as well as in the follow-up ES-11/2, ES-11/3, and ES-11/4. Yes, I would very much like to see direct military aid as well, but the Israeli aid package is in line with what e.g. Japan is doing, and I do not see a big debate on whether Japan is a traitor to the free world, despite Tokyo also having some interesting air defence (and other) systems that would come in handy for Ukraine.

ES-11/3 reached 93 votes in favour and led to Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council following the Bucha massacre. Source: Pilaz – United Nations Digital Library / Wikimedia Commons

It deserve to be kept in mind that the turn in arms policy vis-a-vis Ukraine happened very quickly in the West – a year ago artillery and anti-tank weaponry was largely unthinkable despite a number of people calling for policy reversals either across the board or at least domestically (a position which I quite honestly can’t understand Finland having taken back then, but that’s a topic for another discussion). We still have a less-than-impressive showing in certain supposed powerhouses in Europe, and it’s easy to lose sight of just how Eurocentric the change in fact has been. Besides the European countries, it really is only the US, Canada, and Australia which have pitched in and supplied heavier military equipment. This is despite the fact that many of the ex-Soviet systems employed by Ukraine are in fact found in significant numbers also outside those nations.

Behind the scenes, Israeli refusal to go head-to-head with Russia most likely stems from two factors with a third thrown in for good measure with the advent of Iranian systems on the battlefield. The first is the significant number of Russian jews (as well as Russian non-jews granted citizenship due to marriage) living in Israel. Exactly how many there are depends on how you count as Soviet jews, Russian jews, jews that used to live in Russia, and so forth, aren’t always synonyms. Obviously what they have in common is that for some reason or the other they have chosen to leave Russia for Israel, which means they might or might not have warmer feelings towards Russia than your average Israeli. However, in a country that is currently headed for its seventh election in ten years, potentially upsetting approximately one million citizens is a risk few parties are willing to take. That’s not to say there’s one million who supports Russia, as evident by Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai (born in Jerusalem to parents who had emigrated from Russia and Poland respectively) who went on Twitter and broke ranks to call for arms deliveries, but it certainly puts a bit of a break on things (at least until after the upcoming elections).

A second and possibly even more important issue has been the role of Russia in Syria. Israel and Russia has reached an understanding when it comes to operations in Syria, under which Israel has been able to strike Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah without much interference from Russia. The importance of this agreement can be discussed, as it is questionable to what extent Russia would have been able to stop Israel even if they wanted to (in particular following reports of the withdrawal of at least some long-range systems from Syria to cover losses in Ukraine), but it certainly has made Israeli air strikes more convenient.

With Iran appearing as a major supplier of long-range strike systems to Russia – a sentence I did not foresee ever writing – Israeli interests are again at a crossroad. On one hand, Russia cooperating more closely with a country Israel sees as an existential threat could be seen to support Israeli aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the question is what kind of aid and systems could be going from Russia to Iran? Especially in light of the ongoing JCPOA renegotiation (aka the Iran nuclear deal) which Israel is afraid will end poorly from their point of view, trying to ensure any kind of political leverage vis-a-vis Moscow to be able to stop arms transfers to Iran – which might be unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, but on the other hand Iran is unlikely to send ballistic missiles to Russia just from pure generosity – in particular with regards to e.g. the long-rumoured Su-35 deal is likely a top priority in Jerusalem. That however only works if Israel believes it has enough of a leverage to actually be able to convince Russia to come around to the Israeli point of view, which is far from certain given the Kremlin seem ever more desperate for every passing month (and let’s just say the number of agreements kept by Russia after they no longer seem to serve their intermediate interests is somewhere between ‘none’ and ‘hen’s teeth’). As such, I would not be overly surprised to see an Israeli reversal of its position on arms deliveries to Ukraine within the next twelve months. That might not be the answer Ukraine is hoping for, and as noted I personally don’t believe it to be good policy, but the fact is it isn’t any different from that of most countries.

However, leaving aside the question of proper Ukraine policy for a while (we’ll let the realists and constructivists fight it out on Twitter), and getting back to the question of whether Israel is a reliable arms supplier to Finland, I’m inclined to say they are. Crucially, there’s a significant difference between initiating new deals and follow-on sales/support to existing customers. It is notable that Israeli support to e.g. Azerbaijan was not cut off even when Azerbaijan started the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War against Armenia – which after all was Russia’s treaty-ally (speaking of making deals with Russia…). The morality of that decision can be discussed, but it is in line with Israeli arms trade policy which always has placed a premium on ensuring the customer is satisfied, as when you aren’t overly open about your deals, you can’t rely on glossy paper for marketing. In the particular case of Finland, as mentioned there is also the long ties and understanding issues such as having strong and unpredictable (read: aggressive) neighbours who might or might not want to erase you from the map. The Finnish deals in recent years also hold significant value for reference purposes and as part of their reputation as being able to compete with the best in a country known for valuing capability. With Israeli arms exports being worth 11.3 Bn USD last year (that’s an HX-program each year for my Finnish readers) and making up almost 7% of the total exports of the country, it’s a reputation they can ill afford to lose.

Of course, we are strongly moving into the hypothetical. An argument can certainly be made that there’s nothing guaranteeing that if Finland gets dragged into a conflict there isn’t an Israeli election coming up at the same time as there is a perfect storm with regards to Russian and Israeli regional interests in the Middle East. Still, you can also make an argument to the contrary that the reputational hit taken now and Israel’s slowness in changing policy could actually make deliveries to Finland more likely as the export decision has been made before any crisis, and that even if the worst would come, Finland is known to strive to always procure wartime stocks of munitions and spares, making the impact of any feet-dragging in follow-on supplies smaller. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Sweden bought 72 Fiat CR.42 Falco starting in 1940 – not because they wanted to, but because there wasn’t anything better available at short notice. A lesson that the war in Ukraine has again brought to the fore. Source: Towpilot/Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important realisation all around during the past eight months is how difficult arms procurement really can be in wartime regardless of where the supplier sits. German behaviour with regards to heavy weapons, the possibility of a Trump 2.0 in the White House, the artisanal production runs of expensive weapons from many suppliers, limited stocks for many countries, and overall policy choices by many countries both in Europe and elsewhere has again raised lessons that really should have been learned in the 40’s – namely that buying weapons when everyone is gearing up for war is difficult. Policy changes can also come quickly in either direction (the controversial Israeli policy was Finnish policy as well right up to 24 February, when it changed literally overnight), raising the question which country really can be seen as a reliable supplier? Inside NATO the situation should hopefully be better than outside, but as mentioned the size of the production runs and ability to scale up production when facing a crisis is unfortunately not where one would want it to be. At the same time, domestic production isn’t as viable as it used to be due to the cost of modern weapons development and the general trend of globally distributed production chains.

There isn’t an easy (and cheap) answer to these question, but my personal opinion is that I do not believe that buying Israeli represent a measurably higher risk compared to most European or US suppliers. The risk might be different, but I believe recent events have shown that risk-free options are few and far between.

16 thoughts on “A Reliable Partner

  1. Hi, I am an Israeli, I live in a village west of Jerusalem. In general the main feeling in Israel is full support of Ukraine. This is also my personal feeling. I believe that the two main reasons for no direct weapons support to Ukraine, and they are critical, are

    (a) our pilots are operating over Syria. How can we look at them in the eye and tell them we are risking their lives by angering Russia? Russia has anti-aircraft systems in Syria that can easily down a plane.
    (b) There are many Jews living in Russia (not emigrants to Israel) right now and I do not trust the Russian government not to act against them in some way.

    Apart of the history that you mentioned, Finland will soon be part of NATO, and Israel supplies and buys a lot of weapons to and from NATO, this is a totally different situation than Ukraine.

    1. BB3

      pretty sure there are lots of jews living in Ukraine whose houses, businesses and houses of worship are getting bombed by your buddy Putin that’d differ w/ your stated viewpoint Eyal .. You scream at the US and the world ‘Never Again’ but sit on your fat asses while it’s happening AGAIN!

  2. J

    Russia is going to be more and more dangerous so that should be the first and only thing when thinking about defense. Just buy more and better. There is no moral high ground to defend in a war when attacked. Just have everything you need to kill them. Would be really stupid to see missiles flying over and not have David’s Sling just because you should think like some silly student politician about Israel’s politics. Moscow is friendly with Hamas and other similar baddies so there is not going to be a hot love affair with Israel and Moscow. People should really think about having the best possible defense and nothing else. FDF thinks these israeli systems gives the best bang for our euros so we should be happy to get them. I do not think FDF would take deadly risks. And breaking contracts would also be deadly for Israel’s defense industry and their relations with USA.

  3. BB3

    Jeez CF – I’d think that you’d stick up strengthening NORDEFCO’s production. Buying RBS-15 MK4s rather than Israeli anti-ship missiles for example. Why not strengthen domestic production in Norway, Denmark, Sweden & Finland. Buy from Kongsberg, NAMMO, Saab, BAE, Patria etc. and thereby encourage production and investment in technology in your backyard.

    1. If we have good solutions at home or among our closest allies, that’s certainly an added bonus, but I very much come down on the side of what gives the best capability out in the field all things considered. If LOGCOM who has access to all the info says it isn’t NASAMS-ER or CAMM-ER with a Saab radar, I support them.

      1. BB3

        BS CF .. That’s the opposite of analysis .. You’re saying you will accept and all Finns should accept whatever decision LOGCOM makes .. Why even discuss & debate the issue huh? After all LOGCOM has access to more information and they’ve made a decision. That’s a really weak & disappointing response .. Jeeesh .. and btw – all things considered really means that Finland considered the lower cost of the solutions being proposed by Israel without considering security of supply if/ when Israel is engaged in a conflict itself and/ or the.situation facing Ukraine today when Russia is the adversary and directly engaged and Israel has to make a decision to stand-up .. or stand-by. There are other solutions. Kongsberg’s NSM & JSM & Saab’s RBS-15 missiles are more than suitable alternatives to the Gabriel missiles. NASAMS-ER and CAMM-ER with Saab radars are viable alternatives to David’s Sling etc. .. especially if supported & further developed. How’s about analyzing that?

      2. You seem to be new here, I’ve just spent the last five or so years discussing HX and other acquisitions from the viewpoint of “Here’s some interesting things, but at the end of the day I don’t have access to the classified details so I’ll just assume there’s a reason behind the decisions made unless proven otherwise”. People seem to like it, but of course if you want something else there’s probably other analysts doing that. In the meantime, you will find posts discussing most of the topics you mention – including a deep-dive in the CAMM-ER, a more general overview of the candidates on offer for ITSUKO before the shortlist, discussions on anti-ship missiles, and so forth – on the blog strewn out over the years. For the security of supply question, if you check this post you will find a discussion on why the security of supply questions aren’t in fact unique to Israel, and why my personal opinion is that these can be (and most likely are) mitigated through different measures. We by the way have no statement as far as I am aware of that would point to the Israeli solutions being cheaper than the competition, but rather that they are capability-wise what the FDF wants (and yes, FDF and LOGCOM does factor in security of supply in their analysis).

  4. Nielsen

    I hardly dare… but there is also the elephant in the room that should be adressed. The simple fact that Israel too are violating international law and numerous UN resolutions by its occupation and annexation of the areas it occupied in the 1967 war.

    So far, the west have avoided dealing with it, using the never ending ”peace process” as a fig leaf.
    However people will eventually connect the dots and see that to avoid another ukraine, israel cannot be allowed to undermine western credibility forever. Just look how india, brazil and south africa won’t join the sanctions on russia, because most likely they are tired of western double standards with regard to international law.

    Israels violations of international law may go on without much notice for another decade, but the occupied people could also rise up tomorrow demanding freedom, and we will have scenes similar to what we see, and sanction, in Iran.

  5. @Nielsen makes an important point. Also, we don’t know how Israel’s interests develop regarding Russia.

    FDF can count on Israel when they are not themselves in a conflict. For Israel to allow FDF to pass the weapons such as air defense systems to another nation such as Ukraine, to help it fight Russia – not so much.

    For the US, well, depends on who is in the White House.

    Paris and Rome have fewer such qualms and larger production runs and are part of EU. It may be worth looking into SAMP/T for air defense.

  6. BB3

    CF – let me 1st say that I am an ardent follower of your postings and appreciate both your relative objectivity and detail on the subjects covered and I’d say that I usually agree with your conclusions .. when you make them. However, on this subject I happen to disagree. I admire Israeli ingenuity and inventiveness and think they generally make high quality and useful equipment/ platforms and munitions. However, I don’t necessarily trust Israel to either come to anyone else’s aid or be there – even at an under the radar level – when it’s even a semi-difficult decision/ situation for them. They are NOT like the US or the UK or Finland’s Nordic neighbors and they aren’t a NATO or treaty ally. Israel has proven time and again that they are always and almost exclusively looking out for Israel. We can debate why that is and whether their unique history and rather precarious geographical position justifies their inward looking, go-it alone (as long as the US is backing them up and funding them) etc., but the fact is that Israel is a ‘taker’ and not a ‘giver’/ ‘supporter’.

    As I said in an earlier post, Israelis are always telling us to ‘Remember the Holocaust’ and saying ‘Never Again’ – but they ae loathe to act when its a group other than Israeli Jews on the receiving end of genocidal action by some world actor. We’ve talked about Israel’s reticence to come to Ukraine’s aid in its time of need, but we’ve seen the same reticence/ lack of action on the part of Israel respecting China’s repression of the Uyghurs, Mynmar’s extermination of the Rohingya population and all sorts of atrocities exacted on various ethnic or religious minorities in Africa and the Middle East. Hell, Israel didn’t get involved or even really come out forcefully against ISIS and they’ve been silent on Turkey’s persecution of the Kurds and Saudi and Gulf State persecution of minorities and women. Let’s just say that Israel doesn’t get high marks in my book for helping out or getting involved in lots of good causes on the world stage (that don’t directly relate to Israel) and I don’t see them wanting to step up and get/ stay involved in any great power conflict involving Russia or China (as we can see w/ Ukraine) even if they have the backing of the US and the rest of the West.

    Bottom line – Israel is a Taker and not a Giver and their recent actions in international affairs doesn’t suggest that you can trust Israel to have your back if the going gets tough or there is any possibility that doing so will make things difficult for Israel.

    I frankly don’t think it’ll make any difference that Israel will act differently respecting a relationship that exists prior to the outbreak of a conflict and Israel is in a perpetual state of conflict and any limited missiles and anti-air defense systems will always be allocated to Israel 1st and they don’t produce great quantities anyway. Now you may be right that Finland can try and insulate itself to some extent by buying and stockpiling lots of systems and munitions ahead of time, but if Ukraine is any example – whatever you though was enough ain’t nearly enough once the bullets start flying .. you always need and want more .. and fast.

    And it’s this last point that I think may be the most important, I think it’s vitally important to develop and nurture domestic and allied production and development – which is why I think every effort should be made to go with production and weapons development being produced by your home country and your closest and most reliable allies – such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the US, the UK and perhaps Poland and the Baltic Republics. I bring up Poland because their military build-up is going to make them a very important player and eventually a big producer (license or otherwise) of military hardware and munitions.

    And yes this is doable respecting anti-air defense systems. Here’s a link detailing what Poland is doing in cooperation with the US and UK to develop an integrated and layered air defense system: https://breakingdefense.com/2022/10/poland-uk-sign-agreements-on-new-weapon-developments-shorad-takes-step-forward/ and here’s a short article describing what Norway is doing with it’s NASAMS systems (in coordination w/ the US): https://www.raytheonmissilesanddefense.com/news/2022/09/06/government-industry-team-demonstrates-first-of-its-kind-air-base-air-defense-capability/ And Sweden has its own SHORAD system and Saab radars along with US Patriot systems.

    Now my guess is that the Ukrainian experience is teaching everyone about the benefit, necessity and cost-effectiveness of air defense/ denial systems vs. an over reliance on fighter fleets to provide air defense/ denial so I think the next decade is going to see more investment in these systems. If I were Finland I would want to be a part of that work and a part of the supply chain and I’d want to be using a lot of the same equipment as my closest allies if and when a fight breaks out.

    For all the foregoing reasons, I don’t think the Israeli systems are the best choice for Finland over the medium to long term. Israeli systems may be a cheaper quick fix but that’s not the way I would go for the reasons articulated above. BTW – we can debate cost but my guess the Israeli systems are somewhat cheaper for a # of reasons – including the Israeli propensity to steal/ co-opt US IP/ research and development and the fact that most would choose US gear if price were no object – but regardless – I think Finland should try and team up with its Nordic neighbors and the US and UK and yes perhaps Poland to acquire and help develop and nurture production and supply chains that are more aligned with Finland’s medium/ long term needs and goals.

    1. EMK

      You said: “Ukrainian experience is teaching everyone about the benefit, necessity and cost-effectiveness of air defense/ denial systems vs. an over reliance on fighter fleets”

      According to wikipedia, Ukraine had around 100 S-300 batteries (300 launchers) before 24th of February. Russia has knocked out some of those (I guess only Ukrainians know exactly how many.) In recent Russian attacks approx. 30-40% of the cruise missiles got through despite the vast amount of batteries and launchers Ukraine has. (Never mind the BUK’s and manpads).

      It’s hard to translate that to a similar capability for Finns, using Israeli or western systems, but my gut tells me that it would cost much more than we can afford.

      So, could you elaborate on your thinking regarding the cost-effectiveness part? What role should the fighter fleet has in this, in your opinion? What should be the role of SAM’s? And how do you factor in the combined capabilities of NATO air-forces?

      1. BB3

        EMK – just seeing your post now. As to your in inquiries – I’d refer you to the very detailed analysis on this subject provided by Perun who does deep dives on lots of military matters on his YouTube channel. Here’s a link to his very good and detailed analysis of how the extensive air defenses possessed & deployed by Ukraine and Russia have blunted the effectiveness of conventional air power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCEzEVwOwS4/ Perun goes on to explain why each threat is unique – from fighters, bombers, helos, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles & high and low end drones/ UAVs and long range mobile artillery & land based mobile missile systems. Long story short, air defense systems have generally proven to be very effective and they are generally a more cost effective way to protect your territory than fixed wing aircraft, but no weapon system – defensive or offensive system is perfect.

        Obviously, each defensive and offensive system has its own characteristics, effectiveness and cost effectiveness and each advancement eventually elicits a response on the other end. History has taught us that weapons development and tactics are dynamic and the pace of development and response has obviously accelerated with advancements of technology.

        Perun does a great job of addressing the current state of things in the context of the Ukraine conflict – which offers a lot of lessons. Like others he concludes that the West is generally over reliant on fighter aircraft to control and defend airspace so my guess is that one of the lessons the West has and will learn is to spend proportionally more on air defense systems and long range mobile artillery and land based mobile missile systems for long range strike.

  7. BB3

    Final comment – and not sure why it slipped my mind – but Finland has indicated just about a week ago that it’s interested in joining the European Sky Shield initiative being pushed by Germany and supposedly 13 other European countries – including Norway but not (yet) Sweden & Norway. Still it’s a strong list of NATO allies including Germany & the UK, the Netherlands, the Baltic Republics, Belgium, Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia & Bulgaria. Initiativehttps://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_208103.htm/ Not sure how this may impact Finland’s interest in Israeli systems. I’m also thinking other NATO allies may eventually join the party, but who knows for sure. Would certainly be interested your thoughts on this development CF .. Thx in advance 🙂

    1. BB3

      I should have said not yet Sweden & Denmark .. Norway has indicated that it’s interested in being a part of the European Sky Shield initiative. [I wish there was an ‘edit’ button on this comment section 🙂

Comments are closed.