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Innovation and Conflict: The Rise of Military Industries in Israel and Italy

In an era marked by persistent conflicts, the Israeli military industry and the initiatives of the Leonardo Foundation acquire complex nuances, especially in light of the current conflict in Gaza. While both entities embody technological progress and innovation, it is imperative to question the ethical implications of their operations in war contexts. The Israeli military industry, with its impressive technological development in defense, finds itself at the center of a critical debate when its applications become tools in a war theater like Gaza. Advanced technologies, while crucial for national security, raise moral questions related to their use in conflicts involving civilian populations. The risk is that technological efficacy may overshadow necessary considerations on humanitarian impact and international law. Similarly, the Leonardo Foundation, although not directly involved in the Gaza context, represents the other side of the coin of technological innovation applied to defense. This foundation highlights how research and development in critical sectors can serve both civilian and military purposes, bringing with it the duty to reflect on the responsible use of technologies.

In recent decades, the trade of military systems between Italy and Israel has seen significant growth. The defense industry giants of the two countries have initiated joint production programs and even capital mergers, investing considerable amounts to strengthen their presence on the global market. The overall value of exchanges exceeds 90 million euros, including semi-automatic weapons, missiles, targeting systems, and camouflage devices, according to Giorgio Beretta of the Permanent Observatory on Light Arms and Security and Defense Policies (OPAL) in Brescia. In detail, in 2019, export authorizations in category ML2, which includes firearms, howitzers, cannons, mortars, anti-tank weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers, reached 17.5 million euros. However, the specificity of the exported materials remains unclear due to the lack of transparency in government communications. During the same period, Italy imported from Israel military materials and systems worth about 150 million euros. Among the Italian companies benefiting from exports to Israel are Leonardo SM, in addition to Ase Aerospace, CABI Cattaneo, Fimac, Forgital, Leat, Mecart MES, OMA Officine, Sicamb, and Teckne. A significant operation dates back to 2012 when Israel purchased 30 M-346 “Master” training aircraft, produced by Leonardo/Fine Mechanics; these aircraft were assigned to the “Flying Tigers” squadron of the Air Force to prepare pilots for new generation fighters but were also used in ground attacks. Leonardo (through its subsidiary OTO Melara in La Spezia) also supplied the Israeli Navy with 76/62 Super Rapid naval cannons, capable of firing up to 120 rounds per minute, equipping the new “Saar 6” class corvettes recently used for operations in the Mediterranean Sea. These systems, used since 1973, testify to the long history of military collaboration between the two countries. In May 2020, Leonardo signed an agreement with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. to acquire advanced technologies for the new M-346FA light aircraft, including Litening-5 and RecceLite systems for target searching with artificial intelligence. Subsequently, at the end of 2021, Israel completed the purchase of 12 AW119Kx “Koala” helicopters from Leonardo, including the supply of flight simulators and support for twenty years. A further collaboration between Leonardo DRS and Rafael led to the supply of advanced technologies for the US Army and Marines’ Abrams M1A1/A2 tanks, with a contract worth 80 million dollars. The Trophy APS system, produced by Rafael, offers protection from rockets and missiles thanks to an advanced radar and special projectiles, and has been installed on various Israeli military platforms. Finally, in June 2022, Leonardo DRS announced a merger with RADA Electronic Industries, specialized in military radars and surveillance systems, aiming to expand its defense air and force protection offerings. This operation aims to strengthen the presence in the defense market, with a focus on the Pentagon’s needs and the international demand for advanced technologies for modern warfare. In March 2023, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an academic institution specializing in defense and security affiliated with Tel Aviv University, and the Leonardo Med-Or Foundation, created by the homonymous conglomerate of military industries, signed a memorandum of understanding to launch shared research initiatives focused on geopolitics and security in the wider Mediterranean region. This collaboration mainly aims at organizing events and seminars, both in Italy and Israel, on foreign policy, defense, and security topics, in addition to developing exchange programs for researchers affiliated with both the INSS and the Foundation and establishing financial scholarships from Leonardo for Israeli students enrolled in master’s programs at Italian universities. Founded in 1977 as the Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, the INSS has provided crucial analyses on military, strategic, terrorism, low-intensity conflict, military expenditures in the Middle Eastern region, cyber warfare, and other relevant topics for the Israeli government authorities. The institute is also known for organizing conferences and meetings featuring political leaders and heads of the armed forces, including an annual conference on Cybersecurity and Intelligence. Former generals such as Aharon Yariv and Shlomo Gazit have led the institute, the latter also known for having developed the controversial “Dahiya doctrine,” which involves the use of disproportionate force and causing severe damage to civilian infrastructure, a strategy documented in 2008 by Gabriel “Gabi” Siboni. The Leonardo Med-Or Foundation, established in 2021, aims to promote cultural, research, and training activities to strengthen connections, exchanges, and international relations between Italy and the nations of the wider Mediterranean, Sahel, Horn of Africa, Red Sea, Middle and Far East. According to its founders, the goal is to merge industrial expertise with the academic world to foster geo-economic and socio-cultural partnerships. The research focuses mainly on cybersecurity, aerospace, and defense. Chaired by Marco Minniti, former Minister of the Interior, the Foundation boasts a scientific committee of university professors and rectors of various Italian state universities, in addition to a high-level International Board with members from around the world, including David Meidan, a well-known businessman and former government official with a past in Mossad and Unit 8200, specialized in cutting-edge technologies. The decision to collaborate with the INSS fits into the Foundation’s strategy to create important synergies in the field of international defense and security.

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