War & Peace

India’s Refusal to Back UN Arms Embargo on Israel May Be Linked to Adani Drone Exports

JV, run by businessman close to PM Modi received official clearance for sales 10 times in past five years, claims drones are for ‘non-combat’ but the Indian licensing system classifies items as munitions.
India abstained from a UNHRC resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire, likely due to the resolution's call for an arms embargo on Israel, which contradicts India's arms exports to Israel.

New Delhi: On April 5, India was one of 13 countries to abstain from voting in a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an arms embargo on Israel.

Having voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on December 12, 2023, one might wonder why the Narendra Modi government chose to abstain four months later, contradicting its December 2023 position.

The U-turn was likely triggered by the resolution’s call for an arms embargo on Israel. The Indian government, which has been selling weapons to Israel (as will be shown below), clearly wishes to continue sending munitions there notwithstanding the growing international criticism of the Israeli Defence Forces’ conduct in Gaza and the taint of genocide – which has already seen Germany, a key seller of weapons to Tel Aviv, dragged before the International Court of Justice.

In the first week of February 2024, various media outlets, both at home and abroad, reported that the Hyderabad-based Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems India Ltd., a joint venture company between Adani Defence and Aerospace and Israel’s Elbit Systems, had exported over 20 India-made Hermes 900 (rechristened Drishti 10) UAVs/drones to Israel.

However, neither India nor Israel has acknowledged the reported exports so far. The company, too, has not refuted these reports. Indeed, an Adani corporate source confirmed off the record that the exports had taken place.

Licensing system for drone exports

UAVs and drones, being items of dual-use with potential civil and military applications, are subject to specific regulations which apply to all SCOMET (Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technologies) exports – as overseen by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Drones and UAVs, in general, are covered under Category 5B of the SCOMET List. There are also some specific variants that fall under other categories, such as Category 6A010, of the SCOMET List.

According to Adani Defence and Aerospace promotional material, the “Hermes 900 is a state of the art, combat proven multi-role unmanned platform with an endurance of 36 hours, payload capacity of 420 kg, altitude of over 32,000 feet (10km+) with applications across civil, defence and homeland security (emphasis added)”. As per DGFT regulations, the above specifications of the India-made Hermes 900 (Drishti 10) UAVs/drones imply that they can be exported only with a licence under the provisions of SCOMET for everyexport, and with the attendant conditions.

Therefore, whether the reported exports have actually taken place can be confirmed if it can be known if, and when, a SCOMET licence was issued to the company. According the DGFT data available in the public domain, no application for export of any SCOMET item had been made to the DGFT by the Adani-Elbit JV company till April 10, 2024.

Such applications to the DGFT for export of SCOMET items are considered by an Inter-ministerial Working Group (IMWG), which decides on its approval or denial. The minutes of the meetings of this IMWG between January 2015 and March 2024 are available in the public domain.

Scanning the minutes of the period between January 2018, the year Adani-Elbit JV company was formed, and March 2024, did not reveal any mention of Adani-Elbit’s application, or approval/denial thereof, in these minutes as well.

So is the story about Drishti 10 drones being used in Israel’s ongoing genocidal war on the Palestinian population in Gaza wrong?

There is evidence from the company’s own words that Adani has been exporting Drishti 10 UAVs/drones. The company’s press release on February 6, 2020, from Lucknow, said: “Adani Elbit Advanced Systems India Limited, a joint venture between Adani Defence & Aerospace and Elbit Systems, Israel, had set up the first private UAV manufacturing complex at Adani Aerospace Park in Hyderabad to indigenize unmanned aerial platforms. The only Hermes 900 production facility outside Israel, which [was] inaugurated in December 2018, has started exporting Hermes 900 Unmanned Aerial Platform[s] to international customers (emphasis added).”

Adani acknowledges drone sales, claims ‘non-combat’ use

In an attempt to get a complete picture of the issue, The Wire sent three questions to the spokesperson of Adani Defence and Aerospace by email:

  • How many times has the company exported Hermes 900 UAVs since it was established in 2018?
  • Which country/countries have these drones, or variants of these, been exported to?
  • What were the dates of issue of SCOMET licence for each export?

The first response received by The Wire seemed to hedge against giving a proper reply. It said:

“Adani Defence exported aero-structures and subsystems of 20+ Drishti 10 UAVs for surveillance and reconnaissance missions (non-combat) between 2019 and 2023. It is reiterated that these drones are purpose-built for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and can’t be used for attack roles (emphasis added).

As per the Ministry of Defence guidelines, defence production and exports are governed by Indian license requirements, and due permissions have been taken by Adani from DDP [Department of Defence Production] for the deliveries.”

There was, thus, no straight answer to any of the three queries. Though the reply stated that aero-structures and subsystems (emphasis added) of 20+ Drishti 10 (Hermes 900) UAVs were exported between 2019 and 2023, it did not give the number of times these had been exported and to which countries. Also, by saying that “due permissions have been taken by Adani from [the]DDP for the deliveries (emphasis added)”, the company indirectly admitted that no licence was obtained from the DGFT for these exports.

This acknowledgement ties up with the fact that, as noted earlier, no SCOMET licence applications, or approvals thereof, could be traced either in the DGFT’s public record of the status of applications made till April 10, 2024, or in the minutes of the meetings of the IMWG of the DGFT held till March 2024. Significantly, however, Adani’s reply puts the whole issue in an entirely different light.

A licence from the DDP is required only for munitions which, by definition, are for military use. Category 6 of the SCOMET List is populated by munition items and is called the Munitions List. The DGFT directive for the need for a DDP authorization for munitions came into effect in April 2017; vide its Public Notice No. 4/2015-20. The DGFT notification also stated that the grant of authorization for export of munitions (Category 6 of the SCOMET List) would be governed by the Amended Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued for the purpose by the DDP.

There is a sub-class of UAVs/drones that are classified as munitions (sub-category 6A010 of the SCOMET List), which require an authorisation by the DDP rather than the DGFT. And the characteristics of the UAVs that fall under this sub-category are given as follows:

6A010: “Aircraft”, “lighter-than-air vehicles”, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (“UAVs”), aero-engines and “aircraft” equipment, related equipment, and components…specially designed or modified for military use (emphasis added):

  1. Unmanned “aircraft” and “lighter-than-air vehicles”, and related equipment, as follows, and specially designed components therefor:
  2. “UAVs”, Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles (RPVs), autonomous programmable vehicles and unmanned “lighter-than-air vehicles”;
  3. Launchers, recovery equipment and ground support equipment;
  4. Equipment designed for command or control

Further, DGFT’s January 2024 document Handbook on India’s Strategic Trade Control System specifies which uses of UAVs/drones are civilian and which are military (Table on p. 10):

Civil/Industrial Use: Aerial Photography and Videography, Search and Rescue, Infrastructure Inspection

Military/WMD Use: Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Target Acquisition, Strike Operations, Electronic Warfare, Mine Detection and Clearance (emphasis added)

It should be noted that ‘Surveillance and Reconnaissance’ is categorised as “military use”, and not civil. Clearly, the end-use of the exported Drishti 10 (Hermes 900) UAVs/drones, as stated by the spokesperson of Adani Defence and Aerospace in his email to The Wire, is “surveillance and reconnaissance”. Which is why the export of these required an authorisation from the Department of Defence Production (DDP), and not the DGFT.

Thus, by saying that the UAVs exported are for “non-combat use”, the spokesperson is being disingenuous. Because, while the Drishti 10 (Hermes 900) may not be used for dropping bombs and shells, their surveillance and reconnaissance operations can potentially assist the armed forces and thus be used in combat. Indeed, that is precisely why surveillance and reconnaissance has been categorised as “military” by the DGFT. Also, as quoted earlier from the February 2020 press release, the company itself has stated that these UAVs/drones are combat-proven.

Coyness in openly identifying customer

As pointed out earlier, the spokesperson had carefully avoided providing information about the countries these exports between 2019 and 2023 had been made to. On being pressed further by a follow-up mail, the spokesperson gave the dates of issue of DDP authorisations in the different years as well as the set of items for whose export authorizations had been given (which was the same for all the exports) but refrained from giving the destination for each export.

According to the information provided by the spokesperson, the company had obtained DDP authorisations once in 2019, thrice in 2020, five times in 2021 and once in 2022. And all these authorizations were for the same set of items: “Fuselage, Fuselage bonded assembly, V-tail assembly and Log Covers Kit”.

So, strictly speaking, there is no verifiable information that the India-made Hermes 900 (Drishti 10) drones (or parts thereof) have been exported to Israel, because, unlike the SCOMET licensing by the DGFT, the details of DDP authorizations, the export destination countries in particular, are not made public.

Also, the information disclosed by the spokesperson throws up a technical issue. The set of items claimed to have been given DDP authorisations for export does not conspicuously include any wing-related item. On being contacted again to clarify this, the spokesperson categorically said, “We cannot share anything more on our drone/UAV exports”, and also refused to put this down as an e-mail.

Adani annual reports identify Israel as destination for drone exports

According to a drone expert that The Wire contacted, who wishes to remain anonymous, the wing forms a very important part of the drone, which needs to be carefully designed and integrated with the fuselage. So, it is very unlikely that ‘the fuselage bonded assembly’ would have included the wing part as well. Also, the expert pointed out that the authorised items do not include the crucial avionics part.

However, from the very brief statements made in the Annual Reports of Adani Enterprises Ltd. (AEL) for FY 1019, FY 2020, and FY 2021, one can infer that Adani-Elbit, till at least March 2019, was perhaps yet to achieve the capability of fabricating all the subsystems required for assembly and integration of full-fledged Hermes 900/Drishti 10 UAVs/drones, and that during the 2020-21 period the company had definitely exported the fuselage aero-structure alone to Israel, and perhaps not the other subsystems.

AR FY19 said, “The factory has started operations with the manufacturing of complete carbon composite aero-structures for Hermes 900…catering to the global markets and will be further ramped up for the assembly and integration of complete UAVs.”

Both AR FY 20 and AR FY21 said, “The Company’s joint venture with Israel-based Elbit Systems exported the first ship set of the Hermes 900 fuselage to Israel…” Here is the only confirmation available in the public domain that Adani-Elbit did export at least the fuselage part of Hermes 900 UAVs/drones to Israel.

So, unless the company is hiding information about the export of wings part and the avionics, it is not clear if the company exported all the sub-assemblies required for assembling a functional Hermes 900 drone/UAV. So it is unlikely that, except for the technology’s parent company Elbit Systems in Israel, any other third party would be able to assemble a full-fledged operational Hermes 900 drone with the claimed items of export alone.

If we strictly go by the information provided by the spokesperson alone, it would seem that Adani-Elbit JV has so far exported only some India-made Hermes 900 subsystems to the Elbit head quarters in Israel for these to be assembled back there into complete operational drones, and not all the aero-structures and subsystems required to do so. Even so, these subsystems too constitute ‘munitions’, or weapons, under SCOMET and the fact that the company had to obtain DDP authorizations for the export of these makes that explicit.

If the complete drones, or even only their subsystems, were exported to Israel, it is inconceivable that, given the unprecedented scale of the ongoing military offensive by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) against the population of Gaza, these would not be/have been used towards supporting the military’s combat operations in reconnaissance and surveillance.

No evidence that India is monitoring end use

Clauses 8 (iii & iv) of the Amended SOP for the grant of export authorization, to both private and public sector units, of November 1, 2018, state:

8 (iii): End Use Certificate (EUC) declarations can be verified by the Government as deemed necessary, both before and after export (emphasis added);

8 (iv) The item(s) exported should not be used for purposes other than those declared in the EUC.

The pertinent question then in the present context is whether the government/DDP has taken any steps to verify if they are being put to use only for non-combat end use, as claimed by the Adani spokesperson?

One, in fact, can raise the larger question of what indeed is the instituted operational procedure under the DGFT and the DDP for EUC verification of exported SCOMET items.

Further, Clause 9 (vii) of the Amended SOP says:

9 (vii) The Authorization issued will, however, be subject to review by [the] Government of India, if any, in future and extant national security and foreign policy considerations of [the] Government of India. (Emphasis added)

India’s official position at the UN General Assembly changed in December 2023 (after its abstention in October 2023) in favour of an immediate ceasefire in the Palestine-Israel conflict. This then makes ‘foreign policy’ considerations mentioned in Clause 9 (vii) above for reviewing the export authorisation by the DDP relevant. However, given its recent abstention on April 5, 2024, from the UNHRC resolution, which called for an embargo on the sale of arms to Israel, the Modi government is clearly in no mood to review the licence given to Adani-Elbit JV company for export of munitions to Israel.

Not carrying out end-use verification, especially in the current context, and not reviewing the export authorisations that have been to Adani-Elbit, amount to the Modi government extending direct military support to Israel in its war in Gaza.

It is one thing to not directly condemn Israel’s military actions against the Palestinians. But overtly providing military support to Israel is quite another. And not voting in favour of an arms embargo on Israel has only made Modi government’s stand on the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza explicitly clear, and open. It wants to continue exporting munitions to Israel.

R. Ramachandran is a science writer.

Photo: The Wire India

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