Russia is buying pilotless spy aircraft from Israel in hopes of improving its own unmanned drones after a poor performance in the war against Georgia last August, Russian news agencies quoted a top military official as saying on Friday.
Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said the military has signed a contract to buy an unspecified number of pilotless drones from an Israeli company he did not identify, state-run RIA-Novosti and ITAR-Tass reported. “I was in Israel and even operated one,” RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.
Russia has never before announced a purchase of military hardware from Israel. Their relations have vastly improved since the Cold War, when Moscow supplied weapons worth billions of dollars to Israel’s Arab foes, but Russia continues to anger the Jewish state by selling arms to other Mideast nations.
According to the reports, Popovkin said Russia has no plans to use the Israeli drones in combat. It wants to study the technology in an effort to improve its own seriously flawed fledgling drones, he said.
Popovkin said Russia had used a drone called the Tipchak toward the end of the conflict over Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region, but it had “very many problems,” RIA-Novosti reported.
“You could hear it flying from 100 kilometers away,” RIA-Novosti quoted Popovkin as saying. And because of flaws in the system that is supposed to identify it to Russian forces as friendly, it was hit by both Georgian and Russian fire, he said.
“It returned all shot up,” Popovkin was quoted as saying.
Popovkin, who is in charge of procurement, said Russia will use its own weapons in combat. According to ITAR-Tass, he joked that “as for the Israeli pilotless aircraft, we will work on them like the Chinese do” _ a suggestion that China uses military technology it acquires from other nations to improve its own capabilities.
Georgia used Israeli-made drones before and during the five-day war, in which Russian and South Ossetian forces routed Georgian troops who had launched an offensive in the breakaway region.
Defense Ministry officials could not immediately be reached for comment Friday, but the chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces said in December that Russia was negotiating with Israel to buy a batch of spy drones.
Despite warmer ties, there is tension between Russia and Israel over Russia’s cooperation with Iran and Syria. Israel is concerned that Russia could sell its them advanced anti-aircraft missile systems that would make any potential strike at Iran’s first nuclear power plant, which Russia building, more difficult.