Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

Despite recent failures, Russia continues to invest in drones

The Russian Defense Ministry has reportedly given state-owned Russian Helicopters $158 million to develop a series of indigenous medium and heavy drones. Ever since its war with Georgia in 2008, when the Kremlin witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of Tbilisi’s Israeli-built drones, Russia has aspired to equip its armed forces with the same capabilities. Through 2010, Moscow invested about $172 million in a range of domestic drone designs whose speed, altitude, and airborne endurance couldn’t meet the Russian air force’s modest requirements.

Repeated failures to produce sophisticated drones domestically—much of this the result of corruption in the arms industry, a brain-drain of qualified engineers, and broad deterioration in the military-industrial base—have forced the Russians to procure what they can from abroad.

In 2009, eight months after seeing Israeli drones in action in Georgia, the Kremlin signed a $53 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for 12 early generation reconnaissance drones. The deal was probably a quid pro quo: Israel agreed to sell the drones in exchange for Moscow’s pledge to cancel delivery of its advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran and MiG-31s to Syria. A year later, IAI and Russia’s Oboronprom formed a $400 million joint venture to manufacture one of Israel’s most sophisticated reconnaissance drones, the Heron-1, in Russia.

Despite the technology transfer that Russia inevitably reaps from its cooperation with Israel, the problems associated with its current batch of indigenous drones are substantial and will be difficult to overcome.

But the Kremlin’s support for Iran may have paid dividends in this area. In June 2011, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s aerospace unit boasted that Russian experts were allowed to inspect U.S. drones supposedly downed by Tehran and “models made by the Guards through reverse engineering.”

That Iran possessed U.S. drones was questionable in June. However, doubts were dispelled last month when the Islamic Republic revealed an RQ-170 Sentinel apparently recovered by hacking into its control system. I wouldn’t be surprised if future Russian drones bear a striking resemblance to the Sentinel.

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