Since Russia made its first purchases of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles for its military, Moscow has been pushing hard for a co-production deal.
As part of its campaign, Sergei Chemezov, CEO of the State Technology Corporation Rosteknologi, announced on April 21 that a joint venture with Israel Aerospace Industries was in discussion. "We have already bought 15 drones for testing and we do not rule out joint production," he said.
This decision followed Russia's failure to develop its own brand of drones, despite an investment of some 5 billion rubles ($172 million).
Russian Air Force commander Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin said the Russian UAVs did not meet the necessary standards of speed and altitude. This admission of weakness in robotics followed the Georgia conflict of August 2008, when Russian military operations were severely hampered by their home-made UAVs' failure to come up with reliable intelligence.
Last year, Moscow placed an order with Israel's Aerospace Industries for $70 million worth of BirdEye-400 systems and is now negotiating the purchase of IAI's Searcher-3 and Heron drones.
But Russia's ultimate object is to build a plant in Russia licensed to manufacture the Heron TP ("Eitan" in Hebrew).
A high-prestige deal for Israel's arms industry
This UAV is also a bomber of medium size similar to the advanced Hawkeye-2D, the US spy plane still under development. "Eitan" is powered by a 1,200 horsepower turbo engine. When fully laden with munitions, primarily 250-kilogram air-to-surface missiles, it can reach an altitude of 11,000 meters; flying empty, it can go as high as 13,700 meters, rising above civil aviation traffic and equipped with special protection against the build-up of ice on its various parts. This is a valuable feature for use on any Russian battlefront in the harsh winter months.
Other Heron TP attractions include its ability to fly long distance and stay aloft for 52 consecutive hours during which it performs intelligence monitoring and target selection functions; it can also perform complicated maneuvers such as in-flight refueling and participate in strategic anti-ballistic defense tactics.
For Israel, Russia's interest in co-producing this highly sophisticated system is timely.
Israeli-Turkish military and intelligence cooperation is petering out. Israel is running down its weapons sales to Ankara, not just because of the Erdogan regime's diplomatic hostility, but for fear the Turks will share advanced its technological secrets with their new allies, Iran and Syria.
In search of new markets for its sophisticated military hardware, an entrée to the Russian market suits Israel very well. Supplying the Russian Army's demand for up to 100 UAVs and at least 10 guidance systems for effective battlefield reconnaissance would be a prestigious breakthrough for Israel's arms industries.
Israel bids for Washington's go-ahead
But these transactions are not quite plain sailing. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow and military sources note that Israeli-Russian relations have never been untroubled.
Israel will not build a UAV plant in Russia without Washington's go-ahead – not because the Heron TP has any American-made components – it does not, but in view of the close strategic ties between Jerusalem and Washington. Israeli defense officials therefore applied to the Pentagon, asking if there were any objections to the transaction with Moscow. The reply just received in Tel Aviv was, more or less, that we are not saying no but need more study before reaching a final decision.
Meanwhile, Israel was asked to slow down the negotiating momentum with Moscow and refrain from signing final deals.
Russia's strong-arm tactics to secure deal
Even without US objections to the UAV plant going up in Russia, Israel would still require Moscow's guarantee for the non-transfer of its technologies to a third party, more necessary than ever in view of the Russia's deepening ties with Turkey and Syria.
Should Israel stall on the deal, the Kremlin is not above certain strong-arm tactics.
Without anything being said openly, Russian circles have indicated that Moscow could hurt Israel's vital interests. Asked what this meant, one source said Russia might consider going back on its denial of advanced weapons systems to Iran and Syria – such as the S-300 anti-ballistic weapon system for securing Iran's nuclear facilities against a possible US or Israeli attack; and the Iskander E Tactical Missile System for Syria to have one of the most advanced surface-to-surface missiles systems on the market today.
The other side of the coin, from Moscow's point of view, is that if Israel does allow Russia to build its own Israeli UAV plant, Moscow will be sure to keep on withholding those weapons from Tehran and Damascus.
According to a source familiar with the complicated relations between the Russian and Israeli arms industries, Israel may have lost its enthusiasm for dealing with Moscow and put the UAV negotiations on ice.