Israel-Russia UAV Deal Reflects Conflicting Rationales and Interests

In early April, Israel agreed to the $50 million deal to supply Russia with three different types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). According to the details of the agreement leaked to the press, the Israeli state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will provide Russia with the mid-range Bird-Eye series UAVs, including Bird-Eye 400, I-View MK 150, and Search MK II. These UAVs can remain in autonomous flight for the duration of up to five hours. The Russian purchase order consists of three drones and their ground operating systems, as well as training, maintenance, technical support and an option to purchase additional units up to $100 million. This is the first weapons deal between Russia and Israel and it marks the first time since 1940 that the Kremlin approved purchase of foreign military technology.

Russia’s interest in acquiring the Israeli UAVs stems primarily from the fact that its indigenous UAV production capabilities are severely lagging behind. This was particularly evident during last year’s armed conflict between Georgia and Russia when towards the end of hostilities the performance of Russian Tipchak UAV was fraught with “very many problems,” according to the Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin, who is responsible for defense procurements. From Moscow’s perspective the urgency of UAV acquisition was also highlighted by the fact that Georgia possesses a whole fleet of UAVs manufactured by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Tbilisi successfully deployed UAVs for reconnaissance purposes during the August conflict and prior to that. As a matter of fact, exactly a year ago on this date a Georgian UAV was shot down by the Russian MIG-29 fighter jet over the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The UN Observer Mission in Georgia subsequently produced the report describing that incident in detail.

Even though, according to the Israeli sources, the UAV contract incorporates a provision that obliges Russia not to reverse-engineer the purchased drones with the purpose of launching their domestic production, the Russian side made it abundantly clear that it intends to do precisely that. Consistent with the Kremlin’s ambitious military modernization program, the acquisition of Israeli UAVs serves one purpose – to allow Russian defense manufacturers to study the Israeli UAV designs to improve domestic production. Popovkin even tactlessly joked that “as for the Israeli pilotless aircraft, we will work on them like the Chinese do” in an apparent reference to Beijing’s extensive efforts to improve its military posture by copying foreign defense know how.

For Israel, the UAV deal with Russia represented a considerable departure from the established policy, which significantly restricts the transfer of defense technology and weapons to Moscow. With no objections from Pentagon, the deal was approved with the expectation that in exchange for UAVs Moscow would indefinitely halt its planned sale of S-300 strategic air defense systems to Iran, which is valued at $800 million. Instead, according to the Israeli defense sources, Tel Aviv received only vague assurances. Israeli frustration with lack of reciprocity was expressed by a recently retired Israeli official with knowledge of bilateral security talks, who acknowledged, “The most we have at this point is a vague assurance that the deal is not going ahead. But that could change at any time, and one of the relevant factors is Israel’s policies on Iran.”

Meanwhile, on March 18, 2009, an unnamed official from the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service acknowledged the existence of Russian-Iranian contract for the delivery of S-300 air defense systems, which was signed in 2007. The Russian official underscored that none of the weapons platforms had been delivered to Iran yet. The Iranian side, on the other hand, expressed confidence that the S-300 deal would go ahead. On April 15, 2009, at the press conference in Moscow, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari stated, “There are no problems with this [S-300] contract. After all, these are purely defensive weapons, and any country has the right to buy them. I believe this could only worry those states that have plans to attack others.”

Surely Tel Aviv did not expect Moscow to immediately drop such a valuable bargaining chip as S-300 deal in exchange for the UAV purchase, but the bitter aftertaste of lowered expectations is likely to linger among Israeli officials for some time to come.