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Suggesting The Unthinkable
by James Dunnigan
December 13, 2009

To no one's surprise, the commander of the Russian Air Force has refused to accept any of the new UAVs offered by Russian manufacturers. Colonel General Alexander Zelin put it rather bluntly; "To put such drones into service is simply a crime." Russian military commanders have known of the shortcomings of Russian UAVs for years. They learned the hard way when they tried to use them in the Caucasus. Russian UAVs have short endurance (a few hours) and are unreliable. They are difficult to operate and not popular with the troops. Several years ago, Russian generals began suggesting the unthinkable; that they be allowed to buy Western UAVs. American ones were unobtainable (all that were being built were taken by U.S. forces), but the Israelis were willing to sell.

Earlier this year, the Russians placed an order for over fifty UAVs, including the Bird-Eye 400, I-View MK150 and Searcher 2. The Bird-Eye 400 is a nine pound micro-UAV with a maximum endurance of 80 minutes, max ceiling of 1,000 feet and can operate 15 kilometers from the operator. It is mainly for the use of small infantry units. The I-View MK150 is a 550 pound aircraft with an 7 hour endurance, max altitude of 17,000 feet and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 44 pound payload, which enables day and night vidcams. It can take off using an airfield or from a truck mounted launcher. It can land on an airfield or via parachute. It is usually employed to support brigades. The Searcher 2 is a half ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 23,000 feet and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 264 pound payload. This is closer to the U.S. Predator, and usually supports a division or brigade.

Russia has been building UAVs for several decades, but has not achieved the kind of performance found in Israeli and American UAVs. With this $50 million purchase of Israeli UAVs, the Russians get some hands on experience with the best stuff out there, and their engineers get a close look at how competitive UAVs are put together. Russian manufacturers now say that, once they get a close look at the Israeli UAVs, they can have adequate Russian ones built in a year. Russian commanders will believe it when they see it, and will use the Israeli equipment in the meantime.

The United States had a similar problem with UAVs, and were also rescued by Israeli success in this field. The U.S. lost interest in UAVs after Vietnam, while in Israel, work proceeded. And UAVs figured prominently in the spectacular Israeli aerial victory over the Bekaa Valley in 1982. Using UAVs in cooperation with their warplanes, Israel was able to shut down the Syrian Air Force (and destroy 86 aircraft) in a few days. Israel pioneered the use of UAVs for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare and decoys. But in the U.S., there was either no interest, or some inexplicably botched UAV development projects. Americans wondered how the Israelis did it while the Department of Defense continued to screw up attempts to create useful UAVs. Russia is now in a situation similar to that of the United States in the 1970s. The Russian UAVs consistently had short duration (a few hours) and reliability problems.

But the U.S. eventually solved its problems. With some urging (and ridicule) from Congress, the Department of Defense began to buy UAVs from Israel. The Navy bought the Israeli Pioneer UAV, which is still in use. Many of these Israeli UAVs (plus some newly developed U.S. ones) were used in the 1991 Gulf War. There weren't that many of them, but the army and Marines noted that the Air Force and Navy were stingy with answering requests for recon missions. This made the ground troops aware of how they could create their own Air Force of UAVs. All of a sudden, the Army and Marines were back in the UAV development business. This time they were serious and a number of successful UAVs were developed. The Predator entered service in 1995. Russia is apparently seeking to shape up using the same route the U.S. choose.

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