Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap

Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, a Silicon Valley drone company called Skydio began receiving emails from the Israeli military. The requests were for the company’s short-range reconnaissance drones — small flying vehicles used by the U.S. Army to navigate obstacles autonomously and produce 3D scans of complex structures like buildings.

The company said yes. In the three weeks since the attack, Skydio has sent more than 100 drones to the Israeli Defense Forces, with more to come, according to Mark Valentine, the Skydio executive in charge of government contracts.

Skydio isn’t the only American tech company fielding orders. Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Already, Israel is using self-piloting drones from Shield AI for close-quarters indoor combat and has reportedly requested 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones from another U.S. company, according to DefenseScoop. Jon Gruen, CEO of Fortem Technologies, which supplied Ukrainian forces with radar and autonomous anti-drone aircraft, said he was having “early-stage conversations” with Israelis about whether the company’s AI systems could work in the dense, urban environments in Gaza.

This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine, which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology — much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians, pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.

The Israeli defense ministry did not elaborate in response to questions about its use of AI.

These sophisticated platforms also pose a new challenge for the Biden administration. On Nov. 13, the U.S. began implementing a new foreign policy to govern the responsible military use of such technologies. The policy, first unveiled in the Hague in February and endorsed by 45 other countries, is an effort to keep the military use of AI and autonomous systems within the international law of war.

But neither Israel nor Ukraine are signatories, leaving a growing hole in the young effort to keep high-tech weapons operating within agreed-upon lines.

Asked about Israel’s compliance with the U.S.-led declaration on military AI, a spokesperson for the State Department said “it is too early” to draw conclusions about why some countries have not endorsed the document, or to suggest that non-endorsing countries disagree with the declaration or will not adhere to its principles.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said in an interview that “it’s very difficult” to coordinate international agreement between nations on the military use of AI for two reasons: “One is that the technology is evolving so quickly that the description constraints you put on it today may no longer may not be relevant five years from now because the technology will be so different. The other thing is that so much of this technology is civilian, that it’s hard to restrict military development without also affecting civilian development.”

In Gaza, drones are being largely used for surveillance, scouting locations and looking for militants without risking soldiers’ lives, according to Israeli and U.S. military technology developers and observers interviewed for this story.

Israel discloses few specifics of how it uses this technology, and some worry the Israeli military is using unreliable AI recommendation systems to identify targets for lethal operations.

Ukrainian forces have used experimental AI systems to identify Russian soldiers, weapons and unit positions from social media and satellite feeds.

Observers say that Israel is a particularly fast-moving theater for new weaponry because it has a technically sophisticated military, large budget, and — crucially — close existing ties to the U.S. tech industry.

“The difference, now maybe more than ever, is the speed at which technology can move and the willingness of suppliers of that technology to deal directly with Israel,” said Arun Seraphin, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Though the weapons trade is subject to scrutiny and regulation, autonomous systems also raise special challenges. Unlike traditional military hardware, buyers are able to reconfigure these smart platforms for their own needs, adding a layer of inscrutability to how these systems are used.

While many of the U.S.-built, AI-enabled drones sent to Israel are not armed and not programmed by the manufacturers to identify specific vehicles or people, these airborne robots are designed to leave room for military customers to run their own custom software, which they often prefer to do, multiple manufacturers told POLITICO.

Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng confirmed that users are able to customize the Nova 2 drones that the IDF is using to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas fighters.

Matt Mahmoudi, who authored Amnesty International’s May report documenting Israel’s use of facial recognition systems in Palestinian territories, told POLITICO that historically, U.S. technology companies contracting with Israeli defense authorities have had little insight or control over how their products are used by the Israeli government, pointing to several instances of the Israeli military running its own AI software on hardware imported from other countries to closely monitor the movement of Palestinians.

Complicating the issue are the blurred lines between military and non-military technology. In the industry, the term is “dual-use” — a system, like a drone-swarm equipped with computer-vision, that might be used for commercial purposes but could also be deployed in combat.

The Technology Policy Lab at the Center for a New American Security writes that “dual-use technologies are more difficult to regulate at both the national and international levels” and notes that in order for the U.S. to best apply export controls, it “requires complementary commitment from technology-leading allies and partners.”

Exportable military-use AI systems can run the gamut from commercial products to autonomous weapons. Even in cases where AI-enabled systems are explicitly designed as weapons, meaning U.S. authorities are required by law to monitor the transfer of these systems to another country, the State Department only recently adopted policies to monitor civilian harm caused by these weapons, in response to Congressional pressure.

But enforcement is still a question mark: Josh Paul, a former State Department official, wrote that a planned report on the policy’s implementation was canceled because the department wanted to avoid any debate on civilian harm risks in Gaza from U.S. weapons transfers to Israel.

A Skydio spokesperson said the company is currently not aware of any users breaching its code of conduct and would “take appropriate measures” to mitigate the misuse of its drones. A Shield AI spokesperson said the company is confident its products are not being used to violate humanitarian norms in Israel and “would not support” the unethical use of its products.

In response to queries about whether the U.S. government is able to closely monitor high-tech defense platforms sent by smaller companies to Israel or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was restricted from publicly commenting or confirming the details of commercially licensed defense trade activity.

Some observers point out that the Pentagon derives some benefit from watching new systems tested elsewhere.

“The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” said CSIS’s Cancian — a process that takes much longer in peacetime environments and allows the Pentagon to place its bets on novel technologies with more confidence, he added.



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Blockaded on all fronts: Poland and Hungary threaten to cut Ukraine’s export route to the West

As Russia once again bombards and blockades Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — through which the country exports its vast agricultural produce — Poland and Hungary threaten to cut off the country’s western exit routes.

Poland will unilaterally block trade with Ukraine if the European Commission fails to extend temporary restrictions on grain imports at least until the end of the year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a meeting of agriculture ministers from five Eastern EU countries in Warsaw on Wednesday.

“I want to make it clear,” Morawiecki told reporters, “we will not open our border. Either the European Commission will agree to jointly work out regulations that will extend this ban, or we will do it ourselves.”

Hungarian Agriculture Minister István Nagy echoed Morawiecki, saying his country would “protect Hungarian farmers with all its means.”

Days after killing a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea, Moscow unleashed a wave of attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Chornomorsk — two vital export facilities — damaging the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borell, called Russia’s escalating offensive “barbarian” on Thursday. “What we already know is that this is going to create a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that EU countries needed to step up alternative export routes for Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of corn, wheat and other grains. Following Russia’s invasion and blockade of its Black Sea ports last year, the EU set up land export routes through its territory.

In the year since, export corridors set up by the EU called ‘solidarity lanes’ have carried about 60 percent of Ukraine’s exports — mostly along the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanța. The remaining 40 percent has trickled through the country’s own ports under the now-defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

But the opening of the overland routes also led to an unprecedented influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into neighboring EU countries — Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia — which was bought and resold by local traders instead of being exported further afield. The glut has put the solidarity of the bloc’s Eastern members with Ukraine in its war of defense sorely to the test.

With an election looming this fall, Poland sought to appease local farmers — a vital constituency for the right-wing government — by closing its border this spring to Ukrainian imports. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria followed suit while Romania, which didn’t impose its own restrictions, joined the four in calling for restrictions at EU level.

In May, the five countries struck a deal with the Commission to drop their unilateral measures in exchange for €100 million in EU funding and assurances that Ukrainian shipments would only pass through the five countries on their way to other destinations. 

It’s these restrictions, which will expire on September 15, that the five countries want extended.

Other EU countries have criticized the Commission’s leniency towards the five Eastern troublemakers, saying the compromise undermined the integrity of the bloc’s internal market.

Open the borders

Borrell said that, instead of restricting trade, the EU should respond to Russia’s Black Sea escalation by opening its borders further.

“If the sea route is closed, we will have to increase the capacity of exporting Ukrainian grain through our ports, which means a bigger effort for the Ukrainian neighbors,” he said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

“They will have to contribute more, opening the borders and facilitating transport in order to take the grain of Ukraine from the Black Sea ports. This will require from Member States more engagement. We have done a lot, we have to do more.”

Separately on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the EU to make “maximum efforts” to facilitate grain exports from the country.

“While Russia destroys the Grain Initiative, attacks Ukrainian ports and tries to make money on rising food prices, Ukraine and the European Union should make maximum efforts to simplify food exports from Ukraine, particularly by increasing the capacity of alternative transport corridors ‘Solidarity Lanes’ as much as possible,” he said.

During Wednesday’s meeting in Warsaw, agriculture ministers from the five EU countries signed a declaration calling on Brussels to extend and expand the trade restrictions, amid concerns that Russia’s renewed Black Sea blockade could further pressure their domestic markets.

Only Poland and Hungary threatened to take unilateral action if the restrictions were lifted.

Premature

Despite the threat, a senior Commission official said on Thursday it was “premature” to say whether there was a need to extend the restrictions beyond the September 15 deadline.

In recent months, officials have stepped up surveillance and customs checks, and Romania and other countries have significantly increased investment in infrastructure and investment to facilitate the transit of grain through their countries and to other markets, the Commission official said.

But in the year since the land-based export routes were opened, Poland has taken no major steps to improve its own infrastructure or the capacity of its Baltic ports. Analysts say it is unlikely the country will be able to repeat the feat come this summer’s harvest. The Polish government has repeatedly blamed Brussels for not providing enough help.

Despite the ongoing trade dispute, officials in Kyiv have been careful not to openly criticize their counterparts in Warsaw.

That’s because Poland has played a leading role in supporting Ukraine since the war broke out, acting as the main transit point for Western weapons and sending plenty of its own. It has also taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“We highly appreciate all the work done so far within the solidarity lanes by the European Commission and neighboring member states,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, told POLITICO.

Still, he added: “Statements by some member states of the need to extend the ban on the export of Ukrainian agrarian production [cause] serious concerns.” Without naming Poland he said that this “politicizes” the practical reality of what is a logistical challenge “jeopardizes the effectiveness of the solidarity lanes.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting



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Heads roll in Ukraine graft purge, but defense chief Reznikov rejects rumors he’s out

KYIV — Heads are rolling in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s expanding purge against corruption in Ukraine, but Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov is denying rumors that he’s destined for the exit — a move that would be viewed as a considerable setback for Kyiv in the middle of its war with Russia.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine was shaken by two major corruption scandals centered on government procurement of military catering services and electrical generators. Rather than sweeping the suspect deals under the carpet, Zelenskyy launched a major crackdown, in a bid to show allies in the U.S. and EU that Ukraine is making a clean break from the past.

Tetiana Shevchuk, a lawyer with the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a watchdog, said Zelenskyy needed to draw a line in the sand: “Because even when the war is going on, people saw that officials are conducting ‘business as usual’. They saw that corrupt schemes have not disappeared, and it made people really angry. Therefore, the president had to show he is on the side of fighting against corruption.”

Since the initial revelations, the graft investigations have snowballed, with enforcers uncovering further possible profiteering in the defense ministry. Two former deputy defense ministers have been placed in pre-trial detention.

Given the focus on his ministry in the scandal, speculation by journalists and politicians has swirled that Reznikov — one of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war against the Russian invaders — is set to be fired or at least transferred to another ministry.

But losing such a top name would be a big blow. At a press conference on Sunday, Reznikov dismissed the claims about his imminent departure as rumors and said that only Zelenskyy was in a position to remove him. Although Reznikov admits the anti-corruption department at his ministry failed and needs reform, he said he was still focused on ensuring that Ukraine’s soldiers were properly equipped.

“Our key priority now is the stable supply of Ukrainian soldiers with all they need,” Reznikov said during the press conference.

Despite his insistence that any decision on his removal could only come from Zelenskyy, Reznikov did still caution that he was ready to depart — and that no officials would serve in their posts forever.

The speculation about Reznikov’s fate picked up on Sunday when David Arakhamia, head of Zelenskyy’s affiliated Servant of the People party faction in the parliament, published a statement saying Reznikov would soon be transferred to the position of minister for strategic industries to strengthen military-industrial cooperation. Major General Kyrylo Budanov, current head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, would head the Ministry of Defense, Arakhamia said.

However, on Monday, Arakhamia seemed to row back somewhat, and claimed no reshuffle in the defense ministry was planned for this week. Mariana Bezuhla, deputy head of the national security and defense committee in the Ukrainian parliament, also said that the parliament had decided to postpone any staff decisions in the defense ministry as they consider the broader risks for national defense ahead of another meeting of defense officials at the U.S. Ramstein air base in Germany and before an expected upcoming Russian offensive.  

Zelenskyy steps in

The defense ministry is not the only department to be swept up in the investigations. Over the first days of February, the Security Service of Ukraine, State Investigation Bureau, and Economic Security Bureau conducted dozens of searches at the customs service, the tax service and in local administrations. Officials of several different levels were dismissed en masse for sabotaging their service during war and hurting the state.     

“Unfortunately, in some areas, the only way to guarantee legitimacy is by changing leaders along with the implementation of institutional changes,” Zelenskyy said in a video address on February 1. “I see from the reaction in society that people support the actions of law enforcement officers. So, the movement towards justice can be felt. And justice will be ensured.” 

Yuriy Nikolov, founder of the Nashi Groshi (Our Money) investigative website, who broke the story about the defense ministry’s alleged profiteering on food and catering services for soldiers in January, said the dismissals and continued searches were first steps in the right direction.

“Now let’s wait for the court sentences. It all looked like a well-coordinated show,” Nikolov told POLITICO.  “At the same time, it is good that the government prefers this kind of demonstrative fight against corruption, instead of covering up corrupt officials.”

Still, even though Reznikov declared zero tolerance for corruption and admitted that defense procurement during war needs reform, he has still refused to publish army price contract data on food and non-secret equipment, Nikolov said.

During his press conference, Reznikov insisted he could not reveal sensitive military information during a period of martial law as it could be used by the enemy. “We have to maintain the balance of public control and keep certain procurement procedures secret,” he said.

Two deputies down

Alleged corruption in secret procurement deals has, however, already cost him two of his deputies.  

Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who oversaw logistical support for the army, tendered his resignation in January following a scandal involving the purchase of military rations at inflated prices. In his resignation letter, Shapovalov asked to be dismissed in order “not to pose a threat to the stable supply of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a result of a campaign of accusations related to the purchase of food services.”

Another of Reznikov’s former deputies, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who managed defense procurement in the ministry until December, was also arrested over accusations he lobbied for a purchase of 3,000 poor-quality bulletproof vests for the army worth more than 100 million hryvnias (€2.5 million), the Security Service of Ukraine reported.  If found guilty he faces up to eight years in prison. The director of the company that supplied the bulletproof vests under the illicit contract has been identified as a suspect by the authorities and now faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.

Both ex-officials can be released on bail.  

Another unnamed defense ministry official, a non-staff adviser to the deputy defense minister of Ukraine, was also identified as a suspect in relation to the alleged embezzlement of 1.7 billion hryvnias (€43 million) from the defense budget, the General Prosecutors Office of Ukraine reported.  

When asked about corruption cases against former staffers, Reznikov stressed people had to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Reputational risk

At the press conference on Sunday, Reznikov claimed that during his time in the defense ministry, he managed to reorganize it, introduced competition into food supplies and filled empty stocks.

However, the anti-corruption department of the ministry completely failed, he admitted. He argued the situation in the department was so unsatisfactory that the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption gave him an order to conduct an official audit of employees. And it showed the department had to be reorganized.

“At a closed meeting with the watchdogs and investigative journalists I offered them to delegate people to the reloaded anti-corruption department. We also agreed to create a public anti-corruption council within the defense ministry,” Reznikov said.

Nikolov was one of the watchdogs attending the closed meeting. He said the minister did not bring any invoices or receipts for food products for the army, or any corrected contract prices to the meeting. Moreover, the minister called the demand to reveal the price of an egg or a potato “an idiocy” and said prices should not be published at all, Nikolov said in a statement. Overpriced eggs were one of the features of the inflated catering contracts that received particular public attention.

Reznikov instead suggested creating an advisory body with the public. He would also hold meetings, and working groups, and promised to provide invoices upon request, the journalist added.

“So far, it looks like the head of state, Zelenskyy, has lost patience with the antics of his staff, but some of his staff do not want to leave their comfort zone and are trying to leave some corruption options for themselves for the future,” Nikolov said.

Reznikov was not personally accused of any wrongdoing by law enforcement agencies.

But the minister acknowledged that there was reputational damage in relation to his team and communications. “This is a loss of reputation today, it must be recognized and learned from,” he said. At the same time, he believed he had nothing to be ashamed of: “My conscience is absolutely clear,” he said.



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