- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel has conditioned the sale to Russia of a dozen unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, on Moscow not selling Iran an advanced anti-aircraft missile system, according to Israeli television. Tehran has sought to deploy the cutting-edge Russian anti-aircraft system against a possible Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.

The deal was reported Wednesday by Israel’s Channel Two, which also said it would mark the first time that Russia has purchased a weapons system produced by a foreign country.

Moscow became aware of its need for advanced drones during its war with Georgia last year. Tblisi operated Israeli-made drones, which proved highly effective. The Russians employed a drone of their own but it performed poorly.

“You could hear it flying from 100 kilometers [60 miles] away,” said Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin afterward. The drone was supposed to send out signals enabling Russian ground forces to identify it as friendly, but the system failed and the Russian drones were shot up by both sides.

Russian military officials have made no secret of their intention to reverse-engineer the pilotless Israeli aircraft and to use the knowledge to build their own drones.

“We must take their know-how and put it to practical use,” said Vyacheslav Dzirkain, a senior defense official in Moscow, this week. Israeli officials were surprised by Mr. Dzirkain’s frankness but said that the possibility “had been taken into consideration.”

Israel has been developing drones for more than three decades and has used them extensively in reconnaissance over Gaza and southern Lebanon.

Drones armed with rockets have played a central role in attacks on militants in the Gaza Strip and also in the intensive three-week war with Hamas in Gaza in January. Spy drones can track potential targets for long periods, and attack drones can strike with great accuracy.

The Russian air force has undertaken a number of drone development programs over the years but without great success. The lack of reliable battlefield intelligence proved a major drawback for the Russians during the fighting in Georgia.

In addition to freezing the sale of Russia’s advanced S300 Air Defense Missile System to Iran, Israeli officials said, the Russians have also agreed not to sell the system to Syria, which expressed an interest in procuring it after Israeli planes attacked a purported nuclear facility being built in Syria last year.

Also scrapped by Moscow was the sale of eight advanced MiG-31s to Syria.

In the $50 million drone deal, Russia will be getting second-tier UAVs. Israeli officials said that at a later stage Moscow might receive other models, including the long-range Heron, which is capable of staying aloft 50 hours at altitudes of up to 35,000 feet.

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