The Polish army’s announcement that it will buy seven Aerostar Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Israel’s Aeronautics earlier this month was heralded as a step forward for Poland’s “stabilization” mission in Afghanistan. The UAV, or drone, has long been a key tool in the military arsenals of both the United States and Israel. The US leads the export market, followed by Israel, which as of last year was the planet’s third-biggest arms exporter, arming regimes around the world to the tune of $6.75 billion in 2009
The drone is more than simply a flying camera; it is killing machine in itself. American-made “Predator” and “Reaper” drones are currently used above Afghanistan and Pakistan and carry a payload of 200 kilograms — the weight of three adult men. In January 2010 alone, Predators killed 123 innocent civilians in Pakistan. During this period only two missiles hit their intended targets, in the extrajudicial killings of three al-Qaeda leaders.
Israel’s “Hermes 450” drone was used extensively during the invasion of Gaza last winter, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israeli military. Like its American counterparts, the Hermes can also fire missiles, including the “Spike” missile which weighs up to 150 kilograms. Despite being defined as a “battlefield reconnaissance” weapon, drone-launched missiles were the biggest single cause of death during the 23-day invasion. According to Palestinian human rights organization Al Mezan, 519 persons — more than a third of the total casualties — were killed by UAVs. The next closest were 473 Palestinians killed by Israeli warplanes, including American-made F-16s.
The majority of Palestinians killed during the invasion were civilians. Palestinian medics reported a preponderance of civilian deaths by drones — families like the Berbakhs in Rafah who lost five members or the Abed Rabbo family’s six members who were killed by UAV-launched missiles. During the fighting it was common to find the mangled bodies of unarmed men cut down in the streets at night — victims of Israel’s UAV-enforced “aerial curfew.”
Poland’s military has embarked on a “Polonization of Israeli technology” drive, coupling Israeli weapons-manufacturing technology with Polish manpower and raw materials. Poland’s Bumar Group has a 10-year offset deal worth $400 million with Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to produce Spike missiles for drones and helicopter gunships. Under the deal, Rafael must accept Polish components in its own weapons.
The Spike missiles are currently produced at the ZM Mesko factory in southern Poland. During the Second World War Mesko was occupied by German forces and both Jewish Polish and Polish slave-workers manufactured ammunition for the Third Reich. According to the Israeli Embassy’s Defense Attache here, the venture at Mesko represents the most successful example of the Polonization of Israeli technology. He told this writer, “Now, 60 years after the Holocaust, this company is providing Israeli technologies with Polish manpower for the benefit of the whole world.” The residents of Afghanistan, Palestine and West Papua wouldn’t agree.
The current round of UAVs being sold to Poland are unarmed but will be used to guide F-16 bombing missions in Afghanistan. Poland, with 2,600 troops occupying the country is one of the US’s top ten biggest recipients of Foreign Military funding. Following the completion of a $3.8 billion contract for delivery of 42 F-16s in 2003, the US Air Force has been training Polish pilots on how to use the new planes. According to Colonel Timothy Burke, Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the US Embassy in Warsaw, “The pilots should be qualified in the next few years. Once training has been completed, they will be using the F-16s for aerial missions” armed with laser-guided, GPS-enabled “smart-weapons.”
The first Polish S-70i Blackhawk helicopter is also ready to roll this year. It is the product of a trilateral geopolitical military alliance comprised of Israel’s Elbit Systems, the US’s United Technology Corporation and Poland’s PZL Mielec. This alliance is expected to deepen in the coming years.
Israel has also given regular strategic and technical advice to the Polish military command. According to the Polish Ministry of Defense, between 1995 and 2009 there were more than 200 activities including mutual trainings of military units, exchange of expertise, courses, seminars and symposiums organized by the Polish-Israeli Working Group. The working group is comprised of officials from the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs of both countries.
Last autumn, Poland’s Chief of Staff Gen. Franciszek Gagor participated in a training session with Israeli defense specialists on lessons learned from “Cast Lead” and “how to deal with the headlines.” According to the Israeli government, “Information warfare is one of the most developed issues of the past two decades. We have built a structure in the Israeli Defense Forces which includes information warfare. Coping with media challenges is one of our biggest issues.”
The Polish Ministry of Defense’s Vision of the Armed Forces 2030 Plan has a similar structure including “Information Forces” to police enemy media. According to the plan, “The enemy shall use a broad range of mass media in order to support its actions. By diffusing images displaying inhumane aspects of military operations, suffering of the civilian population, including children and persons advanced in years, the enemy shall try to preserve perception of the intervention forces as occupying troops which do not respect human rights. Based on the ideology or religion, it will instill fear, feed hatred and strive for mobilization of the local and international public opinion against military forces and states fulfilling mandate of international organizations.”
By equating the broadcast of the horrific realities of war and particularly its effects on a civilian population with “propaganda” and de facto enemy activity, this policy risks censoring and criminalizing investigative journalism and respect for human rights and international law. We journalists and human rights activists could be the enemy. And if we step out of line, the “Information Forces” could whip us into shape as “The units shall be intended for offensive and defensive actions carried out in order to get information predominance over the enemy and to achieve expected military [political] results of the conducted operation.”
As modern warfare takes on an ever more aerial, alienated and indiscriminate approach to “the enemy,” governments are forcing us to keep our distance. Whether it is soldiers in bunkers guiding UAVs with joysticks or keeping the men, women and children being bombed by our militaries out of our sight through media gagging orders, it is ever more urgent that this distance be closed and those in charge of military policy be held accountable for their devastating results.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a co-Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition where a version of this article was originally published.