Spain complains to Israel after Spanish-made drone gifted to Russia

Israel's agricultural minister kicked off controversy after giving unmanned device to Russian president

The Spanish Government wants answers after Israel’s Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel presented Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with a drone sold to Israel by its Spanish manufacturer Alpha Unmanned Systems SL. In a note to the Israeli Embassy in Madrid, the Foreign Ministry expressed “concern” over the breaking of Spanish laws which prohibit the re-export of sensitive technologies, especially to a country like Russia which is subject to European Union sanctions.

One of the drones sold to Israel.
One of the drones sold to Israel.Alpha Unmanned Systems

The generosity of the Israeli agriculture minister – who presented the drone which normally sells for €70,000 to Medvedev after the Russian president was impressed by the small helicopter during a visit to Israel’s Volcani Center research institute – caused a storm of controversy in the country. But it has also created diplomatic tensions.

The problem is that the Sniper drone contains sensitive technology and its exportation requires the express authorization of the Spanish Government.

The drone was handed to Russia, a target of EU sanctions, making the situation even trickier

The sale of two unmanned helicopter drones manufactured by Alpha Unmanned Systems was approved by the relevant Spanish authorities in 2014. “In the export license, the final user is given as Agricultural Engineering The Volcani Center, a public body which is part of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture,” sources within Spain’s Economy Ministry said.

The license was granted after the Israeli Government signed a Declaration of Final Destination, thus making a commitment not to re-export the drone, re-sell it as an export or transfer it to another country. “Prior consent was not requested from the Spanish authorities for the re-exportation of the helicopters,” the Economy Ministry added.

In other words, neither the producer nor the Israeli Government sought permission for the transfer of this technology which means they have broken the terms of the export license. Under Spanish law, the re-export of defense equipment without prior consent is considered smuggling.

The Spanish-made Sniper drones are subject to a special export license

The fact that the drone in question went to the Russian Federation, the target of EU sanctions since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, makes the situation even trickier. As the helicopter has both civilian and defense applications its transferal to Russia can only take place under special circumstances. These sanctions were approved unilaterally by the EU but Israel does not apply them.

Eric Freeman, CEO at Alpha Unmanned Systems has confirmed the company did not request permission for the drone to go to Russia and that his dealings with the matter ended with the sale to the Israeli Agriculture Ministry.

Freeman downplayed the incident – and earlier reports that it contained US technology in the form of cameras made by US firm Flir – saying the firm had exported the Sniper helicopters without US-made cameras which were only later installed by his Israeli clients.

It is not known whether Washington has complained about the handing over of those cameras to Russia. However, Spain has done so: not just in writing but also in person during a visit this week by the Political Director of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Alon Ushpiz.

English version by George Mills.


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