By Christian Wolmar

Russia looks to the skies

The US Congress estimates that 76 countries now possess unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), loosely known as drones. Russia is planning to spend $13 billion over the next eight years to catch up with the United States and Israel.

In 2007, Russia's Military-Industrial Commission held what was described as a 'landmark meeting' in Egoryevsk outside Moscow on the development of UAVs after which it was announced that the country would begin manufacturing them for the armed forces after 2010.

But in 2010, Dmitrii Sudakov, a journalist, quoted an official that 'from a technical point of view' Russian UAVs were outclassed by foreign designs. After spending 5 billion roubles ($167 million) to build domestic drones, Vladimir Popovkin, the Deputy Defence Minister, revealed that 'none of them passed the tests'.

Interviewed by Voice of Russia, Gennady Yevstafiev, a retired lieutenant general of the Russian Intelligence Service, regretted that Russian technological knowledge had been held back because of a debate about whether UAVs were really needed. In February 2012, at the Alabino proving ground, it was reported that military intelligence and reconnaissance specialists were shown the launch of two drones made by the Zala Aero group. The first, however, crashed.

In 2008, in its war with Georgia, Russia had been put at a disadvantage by Georgia's Israeli-made Hermes drones. Soon afterwards, Russia bought its own Israeli drones, spending around $53 million. The Defence Ministry subsequently bought another 36 Israeli drones for $100 million and announced future purchase in 2010 of 15 more. The acquisition of Israeli drones provoked outcry among Russian UAV producers who, according to Novosti, 'accused the Defence Ministry of lobbying for the interests of foreign producers'.

In June 2012, President Vladimir Putin announced the need for a development programme for UAVs. He supported 'a range of all types, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance and other types.' The term 'drone' was not used. Russians refer to a bespilotnyi samolet ('plane without a pilot'). It was revealed that Russia intends to spend around 400 billion roubles or $13 billion in the next eight years on development.

Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin recently told journalists that Russia was acquiring combat drones that should be in service in 2020. But a source in the defence industry told Novosti in June that the first Russian-developed strike UAVs would be in service by the end of 2014. In August, General Anatoly Zhikharev, Moscow's long-range aviation commander, explained to Novosti that drones would not be combat-ready before 2040, 20 years after US plans for jet-propelled armed UAVs.

Russia's old Tupolev heavy bombers seriously need replacement, and this will be partly met by strike drones, thereby carrying implications for arms treaties. Russia has also revealed an intention to develop underwater drones 'for special tasks'. And back in June, Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister, said that negotiations were underway with Israel to cooperate on jointly producing an UAV which could also be sold to other countries.

Despite the delays in developing serviceable military drones, unmanned aircraft are not new to the Russian authorities in policing. In July 2006, UAVs were used by the Ministry of the Interior in St Petersburg during the G8 summit. Police in 20 regions now deploy drones in surveillance. Drones scrutinise political protests 'to maintain public order' and tackle crime.

Russian TV has been keen to impress on citizens the desirability of UAVs in tackling crime. In November Channel One showed Andrei Nikolaev, a Ministry of Interior chief in Primorsky Krai, praising the shestikopter (a tiny drone with 6 propellers) in detecting crime in inaccessible places.

Clearly, Russian leaders are keen to catch up with the world's leading manufacturers. What cannot be produced fast enough can be bought. As one observer put it, 'the Russian drone programme remains pragmatic'.

Professor Mary Buckley is a Fellow and Director of Studies in Human, Social and Political Science at Hughes Hall, Cambridge


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