The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has reportedly opened negotiations to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) in Israel for use within the FSB border guard service. On January 13, Kommersant claimed that the FSB had entered discussions with the Israeli defense company Aeronautics Defense Systems, citing a starting price of $3 million dollars for an unspecified number of UAV’s. The FSB is interested in procuring at least five Orbiter high-performance UAV’s in order to enhance border security. The Orbiter has a tactical operating radius of up to 50 kilometers, capable of carrying a 1.5 kilogram payload (video camera and other equipment), with a flying time of two to three hours at a maximum altitude of 5,500 meters and a speed of 140 km per hour. Fitted with a noiseless electric engine, it can be controlled by a single operator requiring only ten minutes for a catapult launch (https://www.aeronautics-sys.com/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/Orbiter.pdf; Kommersant, January 13).
That the FSB should express interest in UAV’s is unsurprising; there are a number of locations where they would enhance border security, ranging from the Russian-Kazakh border to potential conflict zones such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia as well as in the North Caucasus. The deterioration of the security situation in the North Caucasus is undoubtedly a factor in the timing of the FSB initiative, since special services are at the forefront of combating the rising tide of insurgency. The possible UAV procurement follows an earlier defense ministry purchase of twelve UAV’s from the same Israeli company at a cost of $53 million. Since the border service was subordinated to the FSB in 2003, the FSB has studied issues relating to the operational use of UAV’s and gained experience in conducting aerial reconnaissance using domestically produced platforms. For instance, the Voron helicopter UAV was designed for special operations in urban areas (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, November 29, 2007). The FSB has used the Eleron-10 UAV in the North Caucasus and reportedly requested further technical modifications. Lieutenant-General Nikolay Rybalkin, the Deputy-Chief of the FSB border guard service claimed in May 2008 that his service constantly used domestically made UAV’s, describing them as the “least expensive” and the “most efficient means” of protecting the state borders. He made passing reference to possible interest in foreign systems, but emphasized that the FSB relied upon the achievements of the Russian defense industry (Kommersant, January 13).
In August 2008, as tension increased in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Army-General Vladimir Pronichev, the First Deputy-Director of the FSB and head of the border service claimed that border aviation including UAV’s had been mobilized. Earlier, in 2007, the Izhevsk Company Bespilotnyye Sistemy (Unmanned Systems) won a tender to deliver ZALA UAV’s to the FSB (both the aircraft and helicopter versions, ZALA 421-04M and ZALA 421-06 respectively). Pronichev stated in May 2009 that drones were deployed in border areas with “challenging terrain” (RIA Novosti, May 31, 2009). Two of these new platforms were delivered in October 2009, although the exact numbers in the contract remain unknown. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 both the defense ministry and the FSB carried out unsuccessful tests of domestically manufactured UAV’s. Not only were these unable to accomplish their assigned missions, there was also a case of one UAV (Irkut-10) crashing during the tests. In October 2008, Anatoliy Mikheyev, the Deputy-Chief of the technical development directorate of the FSB Border Guard Service said that advanced command and control systems and UAV’s were being considered for wider introduction. He noted that the border troops had experimented with UAV’s on the Russian-Kazakh border and in the Caspian region (Interfax, January 12; Kommersant, June 23, 2009).
While the Russian defense ministry procurement of UAV’s from Israel has undoubtedly set a precedent that can be utilized by the FSB, the distinction between the platform types is significant. The defense ministry purchases from Israel related to new generation tactical I-View MK150 (operating radius of up to 100 km) and the medium-class Searcher MKII (operating to a maximum of 250km). Whereas, the lightweight Orbiter is in direct competition with the domestically produced Eleron-10 and Irkut-10, the FSB interest in foreign procurement may indicate service dissatisfaction with these Russian made UAV’s (Kommersant, January 13).
On January 16, Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye assessed the reports of FSB interest in foreign procurement. Analyzing the possible reasons for leaking the fact that this option is being considered, the article portrayed the FSB as using this mechanism to exert additional pressure on the defense industry. Such pressure is now mounting from various quarters, including the defense ministry, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. However, this seems limited to dressing down the management of defense companies, calling for greater competitiveness and expressions of confidence that the country is still capable of manufacturing high quality products (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 16). Yet, despite fresh injections of capital, protection from the impact of the financial crisis and the optimistic pronouncements of government officials, the system is simply failing to meet the needs of domestic security customers.
The FSB has now joined the chorus of complaints from the army and air force, demanding superior quality drones. In November 2009, Colonel-General Aleksandr Zelin, the Commander-in-Chief or the Russian Air Force rejected domestic UAV’s, characterizing them as inadequate in terms of “speed, altitude or the resolution of the equipment installed on them” (Interfax, November 27, 2009).
However, whereas the defense ministry purchased foreign platforms that were beyond the present capability of the Russian defense industry, the FSB’s expression of interest in lightweight UAV’s is the clearest signal yet of the underlying weaknesses in domestic produce. It may also indicate that the FSB has proven unable to procure sufficient numbers of these drones, and is consequently compelled to look abroad, perhaps also in the hope that it might stimulate future domestic orders. Moreover, it also inadvertently reveals that the Russian state cannot adequately protect its borders using modern technology without foreign assistance.