TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Israeli Aerospace Industries has delivered a dozen unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia under a $400 million contract that will eventually allow Moscow to manufacture advanced drones that will significantly enhance its military capabilities.
The delivery of the short-range Bird-Eye 400 and I-View Mk 150 aircraft, plus the longer-range Searcher II, in recent weeks is part of an Israeli effort to encourage the Russians not to provide Iran and Syria with advanced weapons systems that could threaten the Jewish state, The Jerusalem Post reported.
"It is reasonable … to argue that Israel viewed UAV sales and joint military technology activity as a means of bringing influence to bear on Moscow," Jane's Defense Weekly observed.
The UAVs delivered by state-owned IAI, flagship of Israel's high-tech defense industry, stemmed from a ground-breaking April 2009 contract worth $53 million. That marked Russia's first purchase of a foreign weapons system.
That, in turn, led to the $400 million deal between IAI and Russia's Oboronprom OPK Group in October 2010 under which the Russians will independently manufacture the Heron 1, one of Israel's most advanced UAVs capable of strategic missions.
As part of the deal, IAI trained some 50 Russian pilots at its main facility near Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.
It isn't clear whether IAI will provide Russia with the Heron TP, or Eitan, a 4.5-ton aerial titan that is understood to be able to carry air-to-ground missiles.
That seems unlikely, in the short term at least, given the Heron's strategic capabilities, which Israel is reluctant to share. But JDW says Moscow has expressed an interest in the Heron TP.
The craft is 79 feet long and has a wingspan of 86 feet and can stay aloft for 20 hours at high altitudes, making it capable of reaching Iran from Israel.
UAVs have become a major export of Israel's defense industry.
"Israel is the world's leading exporter of drones, with more than 1,000 sold in 42 countries," Jacques Chemia, chief engineer of IAI's UAV division, said recently.
Moscow's decision last June to scrap an $800 million contract to provide Iran with powerful S-300PMU air-defense missile systems clearly has helped Israel overcome its reservations about providing technology to Russia.
Tehran wanted the systems to protect its nuclear installations, which the Israelis have threatened to attack. The S-300s would have been a formidable obstacle for Israeli warplanes.
Israel wants Moscow to ditch plans to sell Syria the advanced supersonic P-800 Yakhont cruise missile that could pose a series threat to Israel's navy, particularly if they are passed on to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From the Russian point of view, the deals with Israel underline how Moscow is accelerating efforts to obtain major military platforms from the West, a fundamental revision of Russian military procurement strategy.
Securing licenses from foreign defense manufacturers, such as IAI, to produce the equipment in Russia is significant as it will bolster the Kremlin's plans to revive its moribund defense industry over the next decade.
"While design bureaus and major builders have experience building major platforms such as fighter aircraft, tanks and submarines, they are hopelessly behind European and U.S. manufacturers in their ability to produce modern electronics and advanced equipment," according to an Oxford Analytica assessment in August.
The Russian air force received no new aircraft from 1994-2003 and only three since then. These were early models of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter that was supposed to revitalize the air force by 2015. But because of design problems, particularly with the power plant, the air force is unlikely to start taking delivery of the first jets until 2018 at the earliest.
Russia has been unable to get off the ground with advanced UAVs, a shortcoming that became all too evident during the brief 2008 war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
It was Georgia's use of long-endurance Hermes 450 tactical spy drones, built by Israel's Elbit Defense Systems, to provide battlefield reconnaissance that caught Moscow's interest.
This issue was sufficiently sensitive that the Israelis were uneasy about to selling UAVs to Russia, particularly since Moscow was providing advanced weapons systems to Iran and Syria.
Washington was concerned enough about the proposed UAV sales that it "requested clarifications" from Israel's Defense Ministry, the liberal daily Haaretz reported in June.