The horror in Gaza has shone light on the military links between Australia and Israel, as well as Australia’s growing role as an arms manufacturer and exporter.
In the past six years, the Australian government has approved 350 individual “defence” export items to Israel, including 52 items this year alone.
As Antony Loewenstein, author of The Palestine Laboratory, said, there is “damning evidence” that Australia has been selling weapons that are “potentially being used in Gaza as we speak”.
The Albanese government refuses to reveal details of any military sales. Greens Senator David Shoebridge says Australia has “one of the most secretive and unaccountable weapons export systems in the world”.
The links with Israel go back a long way. As NSW Premier Chris Minns bemoaned in relation to the protest at Sydney’s Port Botany against an Israeli shipping company, ZIM, Israel is “a long-standing trading partner and an ally of Australia”.
Australia’s rulers have long wanted a strong military manufacturing sector to underpin their control of the region. In May 1968, Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton said during a visit to Washington that Australia should consider creating an “Israeli-type capacity for defence”.
In early 2018, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a plan to increase Australia’s military exports from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion as part of a push to make Australia one of the world’s top 10 weapons exporters within a decade.
By 2019-20, the estimated value of Australian defence export permits had climbed to $5.2 billion.
In 2022, Australia was the 15th largest exporter of major arms globally, according to Sweden’s International Peace Research Institute.
Military manufacturing is highly profitable. It is also linked, as Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted in 2020, to building “sovereign industry capability”—increasing Australia’s contribution to the arms race with China.
Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Deputy PM and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, are continuing with the Coalition strategy.
The government spends $25 million a year to run the Australian Defence Export Office, to promote sales overseas.
Its strategic goal by 2028 is “to achieve greater export success to build a stronger, more sustainable and more globally competitive Australian defence industry to support Australia’s Defence capability needs.”
Australia exports not just to Israel but to other brutal regimes, like the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, which uses Australian weapons in its bloody war on Yemen.
Other buyers include Sudan, where the military has been using its firepower to try to quell a revolutionary upheaval; Burkina Faso, where the military is accused of executing hundreds of prisoners; Zimbabwe, where the government is suspected of abducting and torturing political opponents; and Eritrea, a country run for decades by a dictatorship.
The Australian government is ramping up its efforts to grow military manufacturing.
In October 2022, the US-based Breaking Defense newsletter reported that the US-owned Lockheed Martin and Raytheon [now RTX] were chosen by the Albanese government for a missile contract “to build highly advanced defense manufacturing capabilities in Australia to bulk up the nation’s ability to make and stockpile weapons at home”.
The groundwork for the missiles project was laid by the Morrison government in March 2021, which allocated $1 billion for the “Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise”.
What Australia doesn’t need for itself will be sold to other nations, with profits ploughed back into developing further military capacity.
Indeed, it is possible that military export earnings will go part of the way to paying the $368 billion bill for the eight nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under the AUKUS deal.
Australia has always had its own military capacity, with munitions factories in Melbourne (now closed), Benalla (Vic), and Mulawa, Lithgow and Newcastle, all in NSW.
Benalla and Mulawa are still government-owned but are run by the French arms company Thales.
The Mulawa plant “is the only manufacturing site of military propellants and high explosives in Australia”. It was built in 1942-43 and refurbished from 2001 at a cost of $415 million.
One of Australia’s oldest engineering and manufacturing companies, the Varley Group in Newcastle, has set up a joint venture with Israeli military-owned arms company Rafael Advanced Weapons Systems to make Spike anti-tank missiles.
Rafael is one of Israel’s largest companies and it also has an office in Melbourne. Varley has a US subsidiary which specialises in aerospace and defence programs—thus linking Australia, Israel and the US.
Military weaponry has become increasingly technologically-based. The Australian military, like many others, is expanding the use of unmanned systems.
In early September, at a military robotics expo in Perth, Lachlan Mercer, the head of the Australian subsidiary of Smartshooter, an Israeli arms company, said the expo’s key message was that Canberra “wants the ability to send a robot before they send a soldier, so they are looking at robots to generate … warfare effects”.
This technological warfare requires both large amounts of investment and scientific know-how. Both these requirements have led Australian manufacturers and universities to deepen commercial ties with Israel.
In 2022, Israel was the ninth largest exporter of military weapons in the world, thanks to huge US investment and military aid. This investment means Israel has the second largest number of start-up companies in the world and the third-largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies, after the US and China.
More than 400 high-tech multinational corporations have opened R&D centres in Israel. Australia wants to plug into that capital and technical expertise to develop Australian warfare technology.
State governments are keen to get investment in arms manufacturing going in their own state.
In 2021, the Victorian government signed a deal with Elbit for a training centre. In June 2022, Victoria’s former Minister for Trade, Martin Pakula, noted the Elbit deal with RMIT University was “the first of its kind outside Israel and the USA”.
He said, “It adds to the growing number of universities, research organisations and businesses in Victoria’s growing defence sector.”
Amid continual protests by pro-Palestinian activists, RMIT confirmed in October that it had abandoned the Elbit deal. But there are still many other projects underway.
Victoria contributes 40 per cent of all military R&D undertaken in Australia, double that of the next state. In March this year, the Victorian government, then led by Daniel Andrews, celebrated the “startup connections with Israel … particularly in defence”.
It boasted that it had established a Trade and Investment office in Tel Aviv in 2017 through an exclusive agreement with the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce.
Much of the military research is being conducted by universities, which are increasingly operating like corporations.
The rogues gallery of military connections include:
- University of Sydney, Thales, RTX
- University of Melbourne, Lockheed Martin, Leonardo
- University of Adelaide, BAE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, RTX and Thales
- University of NSW, the same links as Adelaide
- Flinders University, US Navy.
An important task for the movement for Palestine is to break these interconnections between US, Israeli and Australian capital. The links are being forged at Australian universities—staff and students can campaign to break them.
By Tom Orsag