Russia to buy UAVs from Israel

Published 20 November 2008

Russian officers were impressed with the performance of Israel-made UAVs used by Georgian forces during the August conflict, and decided to sign a contract with Israel to buy the systems

The Soviet Union sold billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry to Israel’s Arab neighbors, and Russia has been doing brisk business selling advanced weaponry to Syria and Iran (with some of these weapons being shipped, still unopened in their Russian crates, to Hezbollah). In August Russia accused Israel of providing the Georgian military with advanced weapon systems and training (which did not do the Georgians much good, since many of their soldiers chose to abandon their posts and flee in the face of the advancing Russian formations rather than stand and fight). Still, Russia is set to buy advanced UAVs from Israel — one of the few rare instances since the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia has acquired advanced military and technological equipment from Israel. Haaretz’s Yossi Melman reports that in the past, the two countries have signed several agreements for military equipment but mostly on a small scale, such as bullet-proof vests. In the biggest of these deals, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) acquired four Ilyushin planes from Moscow to be fit with the Falcon early-warning system sold to India.

Melman writes that security relations between the two countries have been characterized largely by complaints from Israel that Russia is supplying an aerial defense system and anti-tank missiles to Iran, as well as missiles to Syria, both of which eventually reached Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. A spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense said that “Russia must not forget about the support of domestic producers,” and that if the deal goes through his government will acquire several UAVs but produce the rest in Russia. Today, Russian MP Mikhail Musatov quoted General Staff chief Nikolai Makarov as saying: “The General Staff has decided that while we don’t have such drones, over the next two to three years we will buy them from Israel.”

Israeli sources confirmed that contacts were being made between the two countries. The Russian initiative comes as part of the lessons learned from last summer’s war with Georgia in South Ossetia and from Russian officials’ positive impressions of the Hermes UAV, manufactured by the Israeli firm Elbit and used by Georgian forces in that conflict. IAI, which produces the Heron UAV, is also involved in competition for the deal. The scope of the agreement remains unclear.

Melman quotes sources in Israel to say that the deal is expected to reach at least $10-20 million and will include ground stations, maintenance, and instruction. Such a contract would include provisions that the UAVs are intended for the country that acquires them. This means that Russia will not be allowed to sell them to foreign countries, even if they are produced under license in a foreign factory. The sale of the UAVs still requires the authorization of the Israeli Defense Ministry.

The U.S. administration’s stance on the sale remains unclear, but U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has said on a number of occasions that he seeks to improve relations with Moscow. U.S. president George Bush’s administration has vetoed weapons deals between Israel and Russia, and Israel acquiesced in those decisions.