The weapons industry worldwide is flourishing. But while sales of classic military platforms—tanks, planes and ships—have not stopped, it is UAVs, projectiles, and munitions, both offensive and defensive, that are driving the industry forward.
While in the past, the great powers—the United States, Russia and China—had a monopoly over advanced armaments, today medium-sized and even small countries are producing them as well. North Korea, South Korea, Iran and Turkey all manufacture advanced military equipment. Israel, of course, does as well.
Against this global backdrop, it appears as if the flow of weapons from the Democratic Republic of North Korea to Iran is set to once again influence the strategic landscape of the Middle East.
Some waves of North Korean force build-up have in the past reached Iran and its proxies, either through direct technological transfers from Pyongyang to Tehran, such as missiles, or through “twists” that the Iranian weapons producers conducted on North Korean technology. Among them are a combination of high-level technologies and products, such as submarine-launched cruise missiles and air-defense systems.
This time, the direction of traffic could be two-way, with Iranian drone technology possibly heading in the opposite direction from Iran to North Korea.
Pyongyang has an economic interest in selling its arms to the Middle East, and its technology has significantly influenced Iran’s missile program. Mutual visits between Iranian and North Korean defense and weapons industry officials are routine.
As global tensions rise, including in Southeast Asia, North Korea is ratcheting up its arms development. The past has demonstrated that this affects the Middle East, fueling Iranian capabilities and ambitions.
Just as Iran has in the past taken Russian missiles, such as the Kh-55 air-to-surface cruise missile, turning it into three different Iranian missiles, it will likely do the same when it receives North Korea’s domestically produced cruise missile.
These types of technological transfers fuel Iran’s weapons industries, which are decentralized and run along parallel lines to encourage competition and creativity.
In Iran today, multiple weapons-production centers are active, with tension between them, in a way that is reminiscent of Israel’s defense industries in the 1970s and ’80s. Even today, Israeli defense companies compete in producing missile-defense systems, for example.
The South Korean connection
Meanwhile, as its arch-enemy North Korea develops new arms, South Korea is stepping up its own domestic-arms industry production, and this trend will result in new competition in export markets for Israeli defense companies.
Israel already competes with Turkey’s weapons industries, which have deployed a modern armed drone, the Bayraktar TB2, used effectively by Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and which has been acquired by Poland.
Thus, the United States, Russia and China are no longer the only major armed UAV exporters. These developments also mean that traditional arms proliferation treaties are gradually losing their relevance.
America could no longer limit South Korea’s initiative to build missiles beyond the 300-kilometer range, enabling Seoul to develop missiles that cover the whole of North Korea—some 600 miles. South Korea also has missiles that have ranges of beyond 700 miles. This represents another step in the erosion of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
The latest example of this is the U.S. decision to sell submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia as part of its nuclear-propelled submarine deal. Until now, only Britain has been allowed to purchase Tomahawk missiles; thus, another type of erosion takes place.
These developments will, in one form or another, find their way to Iran, influencing the threat faced by Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli defense industries must prepare themselves to compete with South Korean for exports. And worldwide, arms treaties are beginning to recede as they lose their gravitas.
With precision weapons becoming ubiquitous, Iran and its proxies are able to proliferate this technology, and Israel and Saudi Arabia have been the chief countries to suffer from this in the Middle East.
Air bases—a major tool for power projection—are under increasing threat from precision firepower, and Israel as well as regional pragmatic states need to think of new ways to counter the threat, including the formation of their own active missile units for returning fire in ways not dependent on fighter jets.
Yair Ramati is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. In 2016, he concluded his four year service as director of IMDO, the government agency charged with the development, production and the delivery of missile-defense systems, including Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow weapons system, to the State of Israel.