Triumphant Down Under: Elbit Systems and the Australian Military

Deeds of substance, rather than words of forced concern, will always take precedence in the chronicles of history.  Superficially, the Australian government has been edging more closely towards expressing concern with aspects of Israel’s relentless war in the Gaza Strip.  While claiming to be targeted, specific and directed against Hamas and other Islamic militants, the war by Israel’s defence forces has left a staggering train of death.  Since Hamas attacked Israel last October, the death toll of Palestinians has now passed 30,000.  Famine, malnutrition, and appalling sanitary conditions are rife.

Initially staying close to Washington’s line that an immediate humanitarian ceasefire would only embolden Hamas to regroup (Australia abstained in its October 2023 vote on the subject), wobbles began being felt in Canberra.  The slaughter had been so immense, the suffering unsettling to those thousands of miles away.  In December 2023, Australia changed its tune – in a fashion – eventually voting in the UN for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire proposed by the “Arab Group”, a decision greeted with rage and opprobrium by the opposition.

In February, Guardian Australia obtained documents revealing advice given to Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  The advice is hardly filled with the stuff of courage and grit: “Given the improvements in the text and shifting positions of some like-mindeds [sic], we think it would be open to us to vote Yes this time” came one meek observation.  Australia would be in “good company” in doing so.  “Overall, we assess the number of Yes votes will go up (from 120 on the last resolution)”.

A vote for the resolution was not to be given without the thick varnish of qualification.  An explanation of vote (EOV) would have to accompany Australia’s position, being “very firm in articulating the deficiencies in the text”.  As another email states, “What remains problematic is that the resolution does not reference the 7 October attacks nor condemn (or even mention) Hamas, which perpetuates a trend of erasing Hamas from the record in UN decisions on the crisis.”  The EOV would have to be “firm about our concern that Hamas’s actions weren’t recognised and condemned in the resolution.”

This approach of nodding in one direction while waving a hand in the other has come to typify the slim, unimaginative armoury of Australian diplomacy.  When it comes to the substance of policy towards Israel, the military industrial complex, not dead Palestinians, tends to have the final say.

That final say in Australia has been formidable, in contrast to the decisions made by other countries to alter or adjust their arrangements with Israel.  In some cases, ties and relations have been severed, with embassy staff being recalled.  Having been put on notice by the International Court of Justice that its military actions in Gaza were not exempt from the operation of the UN Genocide Convention, Israel’s clients are also becoming more cautious in their dealings, knowing that complicity, aiding and abetting also fall foul of the Convention.

Last month, the aviation unit of Japan’s Itochu Corp announced that it was ending its strategic cooperation with Israel’s defence company, Elbit Systems Ltd which had begun with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in March 2023.  The company’s Chief Financial Officer, Tsuyoshi Hachimura, was clear about the role played by the World Court in reaching the decision.  “Taking into consideration the International Court of Justice’s order on January 26, and that the Japanese government supports the role of the Court, we have already suspended new activities related to the MOU, and plan to end the MOU by the end of February.”

Elbit Systems had little reason to be too disappointed.  Despite having its technology (the BMS Command and Control system) removed from Australian Army equipment three years ago for reasons of data security, the company now boasts a spanking new defence contract with the Australian government.  The contract is the largest made by the company since the Gaza conflict commenced with the October 7 attacks by Hamas.  On February 26, the company announced the award of a five-year “contract worth approximately (US)$600 million to supply systems to Hanwha Defense Australia for the Australian Land 400 Phase 3 Project.”  In less jargon-heavy terms, the project will “deliver advanced protection, fighting capabilities and sensors suite to the Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) for the Australian Army.”

Hanwha Defense Australia’s parent company is located in South Korea, but the manufacture of the IVFs, which will number in the order of 129 vehicles, will take place in Australia.  “The acquisition of these infantry fighting vehicles is part of the Government’s drive to modernise the Australian Army to ensure it can respond to the most demanding land challenges in our region,” said the Australian Ministry of Defence in December.  Elbit Systems promises that most of the work regarding its advanced turret systems will be done in Australia.

The Australian footprint of Elbit Systems, along with that of other Israeli defence companies, is only growing.  Despite having a gruesome, pioneering record of using lethal drone technology against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip well before the current Israel-Hamas war, Elbit Systems has been courted by Australian defence officials and contractors keen to see the brighter side of such applications.

The state of Victoria figures prominently in such arrangements, and maintains its memorandum of understanding with the Israeli Defence Ministry, one intended to be a “a formal framework that paves the way for continuing cooperation between the parties.”  Attitudes regarding the MoU post-October 7 have not waned in the state’s Labor government, despite pressure from various opposition parties to abandon it.

Victoria also hosts Elbit Systems of Australia (ELSA)’s Centre for Excellence in Human-Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence in Port Melbourne, an initiative “developed in partnership with the Victorian Government.”  As ELSA puts it, “we develop new technologies, solutions and innovative products adapted for Australian conditions, and apply them across defence, homeland security and emergency services.”

Forget Wong’s wobbliness, the persuasive pull of the Genocide Convention, and Canberra’s concerns about the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.  Cash, contracts and jobs drawn from the military industrial complex continue to sneak through the guards.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.