Leadership: Israel And Russias' Excellent Adventure

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December 24,2008: Russia wants to buy UAVs from Israel. Iran wants to buy high-end (S-300) anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. Israel wants to stop Iran from getting those Russian missiles. Israel thought they had a deal, whereby they would provide Russia with some of the most capable UAVs available, and the Russians would not sell Iran the high performance anti-aircraft missiles. Then came reports that the Russians had finally agreed to ship Iran the S-300 missile systems. Russia promptly denied this, sort of.

Meanwhile, senior Israeli military commanders were complaining that selling UAVs to Russia could backfire, as the Russians have been known to steal technology and secretly sell it to others, or build competing equipment for export sales. But the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Mossad (the Israeli CIA), is keen on arranging a deal with the Russians that would keep the S-300s from getting to Iran.

Iran and Russia have been haggling over the S-300 purchase for over two years now. Several Western nations, including the U.S., have been pressuring Russia not to sell Iran any weapons, even though the S-300s are, technically, not "offensive" weapons (which several UN embargoes prohibit anyone shipping to Iran.)

At the moment, it all comes down to how eager the Russians are to get their hands on some top-end UAVs. Russia has been building UAVs for several decades, but has not achieved the kind of performance found in Israeli and American UAVs. One model the Russians are probably interested in is the Israeli Heron TP UAVs. Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turbo prop engine, the 4.6 ton aircraft can operate at 45,000 feet. That is, above commercial air traffic, and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAV use at the same altitude as commercial aircraft. The Heron TP has a one ton payload, enabling it to carry sensors that can give a detailed view of what's on the ground, even from that high up. The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (or Predator B).

The Heron line of UAVs has been around longer than the Predators, and have a comparable track record. India and European nations are also considering the Heron TP, which would be suitable for maritime patrol as well. Thus the Heron TP would be a low cost competitor to the Global Hawk, which has far more range than most nations need for their naval reconnaissance aircraft. Best of all, the Heron line of UAVs has an even better pedigree than U.S. aircraft like the Predator.

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.

Finally, 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 in a situation similar to that of the United States in the 1970s. The Russian UAVs have short duration (a few hours) and reliability problems. Israel is offering to fix that problem, for a price.

 


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