Israel and Russia in UAV Deal
For the past couple of years, there has been ongoing speculation about Syria buying MiG-31s and MiG-29s with Iranian financing. Some reports even placed the Islamic Republic of Iran as the ultimate recipient, but the deal itself was mired in confusion until recently. Other reports claimed delays in delivery of advanced S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which eventually became a cancellation and refund.
What was even more interesting were the parallel reports that Israel may be selling UAVs to Russia, and speculation that these sets of events may be related. The UAV sale turned out to be true.
Quid Pro Quo: UAVs for Russia
Russia’s surveillance needs are genuine, and the recent war in Georgia demonstrated the value of UAVs – to the Georgian side. Most of those UAVs were Israeli-made.
UAVs have a much smaller field of view than manned aircraft, and at the moment they also have much higher accident rates. In exchange, they offer extremely long endurance, the potential for centralized monitoring, and much lower costs per-hour. This combination is ideal for monitoring critical infrastructure. Such as, for example, long oil and gas pipelines that are the chokepoint of a Russian economy relying on energy exports.
Russia’s UAV-related problems are two-fold.
The first problem is that they are behind in UAV technology. Russia’s defense sector is still weak as a result of the devastating budget cutbacks in the 1990s, when Russia’s economy and defense spending both collapsed. Small to medium size UAVs are not a technically difficult aerospace project. The problem is that finding production resources and time can be difficult in a centralized system that has yet to recover and modernize, and needs its available engineers to support existing strategic and/or export-oriented projects. Russia lack of progress in this field suggests that issues remain.
So, too, do reports of Russian UAV performance in Georgia. Defense Update:
“An example of Russian UAVs technology is the Tipchak system developed by the Lutch Design Bureau. According to Mr Popovkin, the drone was operational during the recent fighting with Georgia, but had demonstrated many problems, among them a distinct acoustic signature audible from long distance, which, coupled with the low ceiling, yielded high vulnerability to ground fire. The developers are currently working on a new-generation Tipchak, expected to be delivered in about three years… The new Russian UAV weighs 132 pounds, has a payload of 32 pounds and can stay in the air for two hours per sortie. The Tipchak can operate as high as 10,000 feet. The drone carries a day/night camera payload. It has an operational range of 40 km and mission endurance of about two hours.”
The second problem is less tractable, as it has been a long-standing Russian weakness. UAVs require miniaturization and lightweight components for their payloads, or their performance suffers badly. This has always been a problem for Russian equipment, which tends to be overbuilt rather than over-engineered. Russia has also traditionally had issues producing reliable electronics, which are required for the UAVs’ back-end.
Consistent reports surfaced that Israel and Russia were discussing a deal for UAVs, and a May 24/09 Jerusalem Post article raised them again with a $50-53 million UAV deal that was reportedly signed in April 2009.
The UAV systems in question reportedly include 3 IAI products. The largest is the Searcher-II tactical UAV. Searchers have an endurance of 12-15 hours. They have received excellent reviews from Russia’s traditional defense ally India, for instance, and were recently bought by Spain for service in Afghanistan. The order also reportedly includes smaller I-View MK150 short-range UAVs that use parachutes to land, and hand-launched Bird-Eye 400 mini-UAVs. Officials reportedly told the Jerusalem Post that deliveries would begin by the end of 2009.
Ultimately, according to RIA-Novosti, Russia aims to develop a fleet of at least 100 UAVs with flight ranges of up to 240 miles, and airborne endurance of 12 hours or more. That’s beyond the specifications of these Israeli UAVs, although the Searcher-II comes close.
In May 2009, Jerusalem Post also reported that a follow-on deal “is likely to include the sale of IAI’s long-range Heron.” IAI’s Heron comes in 3 variants, all of which are Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) platforms in the same class as the USA’s MQ-1 Predator. They would exceed Russia’s desired specifications several-fold, but they would also represent a transfer of more advanced UAV technology. Subsequent comments by a Russian official underlined the risks inherent in that approach – but sometimes strategy makes strange bedfellows, and the risk/reward calculus isn’t always straightforward.
Contracts & Key Events
May 24/11: Flight International says deliveries are continuing, and offers a photo of a Russian Searcher II UAV.
May 19/11: The Russians seem to be very pleased with their Israeli equipment. Flight International reports that:
“Following first deliveries of the company’s BirdEye-400 and Searcher-2 air vehicles, the Russian side is “showing great interest” in additional IAI models, sources said. Moscow signed a $400 million contract last year to acquire the systems. IAI refused to give details but sources said each new request will be evaluated “in the framework” of Israeli interests.”
See Sept 19/10 entry for more on those interests, though the Israelis could conceivably look for a non-military quid pro quo. The most sensitive IAI UAV export would be their Harop/ Harpy-2 “loitering munitions,” but IAI’s long-endurance Heron UAVs might be even more attractive to Russia. With the introduction of the larger, improved Heron TP Eitan, clearance for the popular Heron-1 Shoval UAV may be more thinkable now.
Jan 17/11: Reports surface that IAI has delivered a dozen UAV systems to Russia, including Bird-Eye 400, I-View Mk 150, and Searcher II UAVS; and trained 50 Russian UAV pilots at its main facility near Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. UPI also quotes Jacques Chemia, chief engineer of IAI’s UAV division, with an interesting statistic:
“Israel is the world’s leading exporter of drones, with more than 1,000 sold in 42 countries…”
Oct 13/10: Iran says it will seek financial damages for Russia’s failure to deliver S-300 air defense missile systems per their contract. Rosoboronexport head Sergei Chemezov has already said that Russia will return Iran’s $166.8 million initial payment. Tehran Times | RIA Novosti | UPI.
Oct 12/10: Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) CEO Itzhak Nissan, and the Oboronprom Russian Industrial Corporation Director-General Andrey Reus sign an agreement to sell UAV assembly elements and services to Oboronprom, beginning in 2011.
Globes describes the agreement as a 3-year, $400 million deal. Mr. Nissan added that “we hope to expand our joint relationship to include additional areas such as the commercial market and green energy sector.” IAI | Globes | RIA Novosti.
Sept 22/10: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signs a decree on measures to implement U.N. Security Council resolution 1929, regarding sanctions on Iran. The decree will ban supplies of S-300 missiles under the 2005 contract, as well as tanks, choppers, fighter jets, ships and other arms to Iran. That could be significant if it included spare parts, as Iran’s forces include a large proportion of Russian fighters, and all of its Kilo Class submarines. Reports have not mentioned this aspect of the decree.
Sept 19/10: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admits that despite intensive diplomacy, Israel had failed to dissuade Russia from selling supersonic P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles (SS-N-26, the basis for India’s PJ-10 Brahmos) to Syria.
On the one hand, Syria has transferred Chinese C-802 subsonic anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah before, which raises Israeli concerns. The other geopolitical angle is that Russia reportedly has an agreement with Syria to expand their naval supply and maintenance base in the Syrian city of Tartus, and turn it into a venue that can host Russian nuclear warships, and create a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. A shore battery of SS-N-26 missiles near that base would provide formidable defenses. Ha’aretz.
Sept 1/10: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak meets with Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov, and signs a long-term defense co-operation agreement. Like all such agreements, it spells out the agreed terms and procedures for further cooperation in specific areas, and for military contracts. That’s a big step, considering that Russia has traditionally been a key supplier to Israel’s enemies – and in many ways, remains so. Tensions over a pending sale to Syria of supersonic P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles are one example, especially after Chinese C-802 missiles found their way to Hezbollah. Russia’s role in Iran’s nuclear weapons program is another.
On the other hand, Russian-Israeli cooperation is growing. UAVs are one example. A proposed laser ranging station in Israel for Russia’s GLONASS GPS constellation is another. Israel’s expertise in advanced gear for soldiers and urban warfare equipment is a 3rd. Russia Today – see also RT video | TASS | Israel’s Globes | Jerusalem Post | USA’s Radio Free Europe | China’s Xinhua.
July 25/10: Russia’s Interfax reports that Russia is buying 36 more UAV systems. A subsequent RIA Novosti report places the deal’s value at $100 million, and says the UAVs are to be delivered by the end of 2010. Interfax [in Russian].
Dec 8/09: Amidst recent comments by Russian Air Force (VVS) Commander-in-Chief (CINC) Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin expressing his deep dissatisfaction with Russian-designed UAV tradeoffs, reports surface that Russia is looking to triple its Israeli UAV order. Col. Gen. Zelin expressed his unhappiness with Russian UAVs, citing issues with:
“…either with the speed, or flight altitude or the resolution capacity of their equipment. It is a sheer crime to make operational unmanned aircraft without the required tactical and technical characteristics… “I am, therefore, refusing to sign any acceptance papers.”
Not so long ago, that really would have been a crime in Russia. These days, it’s just causing the VVS to look elsewhere for a stopgap, just as the US Marines and Army did with Israeli designs like the RQ-1 Pioneer, R/MQ-5 Hunter, etc. during the 1990s. The big question is whether more capable UAVs like the Hermes 450 or Heron would be supplied this time, along with their more advanced sensors. Some analysts think that a second deal for about $100 million that results in advanced Israeli technology being stolen may be deemed an acceptable strategic price to pay – IF it actually buys Israel some time by stalling sales of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Then, too, there’s also Russia’s long-standing defense industrial issues with quality control and miniaturization, especially of sensors, which may prevent it from successfully fielding the things it steals. Turkey’s similar problems, which have hobbled their own attempts to field Israeli Heron UAVs, are instructive in this regard. Iran PressTV | Jamestown Foundation | SatNews Daily | StrategyPage | UPI.
June 22/09: Vyacheslav Dzilkarn, the deputy head of the Russian governmental Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, confirms to RIA Novosti that Russia is buying 12 Israeli UAVs for $53 million. This April 2009 contract reportedly consists of 2 Bird Eye 400 systems ($4 million), 8 I-View MK150 tactical UAV systems ($37 million) and 2 Searcher Mk II multi-mission UAV systems ($12 million).
He then proceeds to alarm and annoy the Israelis when he says that the main goal of the purchase is to study Israeli technology in order to build drones in Russia. A Jerusalem Post report added a quote from an Israeli official, who appeared to close the door on sales of more advanced UAVs. He added that:
“We have a responsibility to safeguard our ingenious technology… We were aware of this possibility, even though it was not said explicitly until now.”
May 24/09: The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has signed a $50-53 million deal with Russia for 12 UAV systems, and is looking to speed up Russia’s UAV order.
May 20-26/09: The Jerusalem Post reports that Iran has stopped funding for the Russian MiG-31E Interceptor sale to Syria, adding that “Wednesday, May 20, the official Russian arms export company Rosoboronexport announced the deal was off without explanation” A subsequent article noted Syria’s denial that the deal was off.
- DID – Syria Buying $1 billion in Russian Weapons
- DID – Russia’s Military Spending Jumping – But Can Its Industry?
- DID – Israeli Manufacturers’ $150M Turkish UAV Contract Endangered. Israel had no issue with selling Turkey Heron UAVs, which are in a similar class to the American Predator. But the Turks insisted on their own clunky sensors, and the resulting weight issues hurt the Herons’ performance to the point that it almost destroyed the deal. Russia’s problems in this area would be similar, but worse. Unless they can just outsource sensors to France’s Thales, something that Britain’s Watchkeeper program has already done for the slightly smaller Hermes 450 UAV.
- Motley Fool (May 8/09) – “Hey! Who’s Flying This Thing?” 2009 Edition. Speculates – correctly, as it turns out – that Russia’s buy is simply a prelude to theft.
- Defense Update (April 2009) – UAV Sale Marks a New Milestone in Russian-Israeli Defense Relations. It hails the long efforts to improve cooperation, but adds: “…the potential economical benefit for Israel is questionable, in retrospect of sensitive technological leakage to its enemies and, the risk of training the Russian engineers in advanced technologies. These are known to be masters of re[verse] engineering, during the days of the Cold War with the west.”
- DID (Oct 31/07) – US-Israeli Covenant Forces Review of Civilian Satellite Deal With China. It does not appear to have been an issue for the reported Russian UAV deal.