WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Russia is speaking a lot more softly these days about retargeting possible U.S. ballistic missile defense bases in Central Europe with its Iskander-M short-range missiles. But it is pushing ahead hard with developing to make those Iskanders more lethal all the same.
The Russian armed forces are utilizing advances in unmanned aerial vehicle technology to make their Iskanders more accurate, RIA Novosti reported Wednesday.
The Russian military already has begun testing development prototypes of a new UAV that it wants to use to identify targets for its short-range, fast and low-flying ultra-accurate Iskander missiles to hit, a Russian defense industry official told the news agency.
"We are starting tests of a prototype of a reconnaissance/strike aerial drone, which could serve as a target designator for the Iskander tactical missile system," Arkady Syroyezhko, director of UAV development programs at the Vega Radio Engineering Corp., told RIA Novosti.
RIA Novosti said Vega's latest Aist ("Stork") multirole UAV could fly with an extended payload of up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and that it could be equipped with a range of "aerial surveillance equipment, electronic warfare devices and even weapons."
"The tests are expected to last for two years," the official told the news agency. He said work on manufacturing the prototype of the new UAV was almost finished.
RIA Novosti said the new UAV would be able to "provide effective target designation for the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which have a range of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles)."
The news agency noted that in November Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had warned in his first state of the union address that he might respond to U.S. plans to build a new ballistic missile interceptor base in Poland and an advanced radar array to guide the interceptors in the neighboring Czech Republic by basing Iskander-Ms in Russia's Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad.
But RIA Novosti cited "a high-ranking Russian defense ministry source" as saying last Wednesday Russia had not made any moves to carry out that threat and actually deploy the Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad.
The Kremlin still hopes for rapidly warming relations with the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. Obama and his new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have taken care to hit the ground running with statements aiming at warming relations with Moscow. And both of them, along with the entire Democratic policy establishment now taking power in Washington, are eager to conclude a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia to replace the current, aging START treaty as soon as possible. The START-1 treaty that was signed by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 expires at the end of this year.
However, the Russians have made clear that their price for negotiating and signing a new START treaty will be the scrapping of U.S. plans energetically pursued under the Bush administration to build the base to house the 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors.
(Part 2: How Russia is keeping its strategic options open with its Iskander missile and UAV programs)