Russia’s interest in Israeli drones was sparked during the war it fought with Georgia in South Ossetia in the summer of 2008. The war lasted five days, and while Russia ultimately won, the fighting exposed a severe decline in the Russian military’s technological capabilities, particularly when it came to drones.
In the weeks leading up to the war and amid growing concern that Russia was going to annex the breakaway territories, Georgia began flying drones on routine reconnaissance missions over the conflict zone. These weren’t just any drones. They were Hermes 450s, manufactured by Elbit in Israel and used by the Israeli Air Force. In the span of three months, Russia shot down three drones.
While the downings of the drones were impressive on their own, Georgia’s use of drones highlighted a problem on the Russian side. To begin with, Russian drones were late to the battleﬁeld and failed to provide real-time intelligence, forcing Moscow instead to dispatch fighter jets and long-range bombers for standard recon missions. One drone used during the war was the old Tipchak, which Russia later admitted made too much noise, making it easy to detect and intercept.
On the other hand, the Georgian military effectively gathered intelligence, largely due to its small fleet of Israeli drones.
Weeks after the war ended, Russia turned to Israel and asked to purchase the Hermes 450, the same drone used by Georgia. Israel was initially shocked. Russia had never before purchased weapons from a foreign country, let alone from Israel. But the war was a wake-up call for Moscow, which was willing to admit that it needed technological assistance.
Everyone agreed that no matter what, Israel could not sell drones that were still in operational IAF use.
During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, Hezbollah fired dozens of Russian anti-tank missiles at Israeli tanks. The last thing Israel could afford was to have its own drones one day be used against it.
But then defense officials came up with an idea. What if, by selling drones to Russia, Israel could prevent the sale of sophisticated arms that were supposed to be delivered to Iran or Syria?
That would not only make it possible to live with the risk the drone sale posed, it could even make it worthwhile. In Israel, opinions were split. The Foreign Ministry supported the sale and claimed that it could help strengthen ties with Moscow, especially at a time when Iran was moving ahead with its nuclear program.
The sale of drones, these officials argued, would provide Israel with real leverage over Russian policy on issues such as Iran.
While the Defense Ministry was in favor of obtaining some leverage over Moscow, it had difficulty overcoming the genuine concern that the drone technology would one day find its way to Iran, Syria and then even Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
At the time, there was one Russian arms deal that everyone in Israel agreed needed to be stopped at all costs: the delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran.
The original $800 million deal had been signed secretly in 2005, but under pressure from Israel and the US, Russia was delaying delivery. Israel’s reasons to even consider such a quid pro quo were simple.
The S-300 was one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world, was combat proven, could track up to 100 targets simultaneously and had the potential to make an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities impossible.
The Russians were well aware of Israel’s concern regarding the S-300. It came up in almost every conversation.
About a week after the war ended in South Ossetia, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert spoke by phone with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Russia was upset with Israel for supplying Georgia with arms and drones.
During the conversation, Olmert agreed to a moratorium on Israeli arms sales to Georgia but also pressed Moscow on its sale of weapons to Syria and Iran.
Officially, the Kremlin gave Israel assurances that it would not transfer weapons to Iran that could destabilize the region, a message that could be interpreted as a decision not to supply the S-300.
At the same time, though, Moscow explained to Israel that if Iran met its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency – the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog – delivery of the S-300 would be reexamined positively. Anyhow, the Kremlin argued, the S-300 was a defensive system, and Israel, if concerned about it, should simply not attack.
Russia refused to reveal its true intentions.
In early 2009, for example, US Senator Carl Levin visited Russia. Levin was chairman at the time of the Senate Armed Services Committee and had come to Moscow to try to increase cooperation on missile defense in face of Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
A vocal supporter of Israel, Levin also raised the S-300 sale and urged Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to hold back from delivering the weapons system to Iran. But Ryabkov stood strong, saying that while the deal was currently frozen, it didn’t help that everyone kept talking about it.
“The less we hear from Washington about this, the better,” he said.
News of the freeze did not alleviate Israeli concerns. In Jerusalem, some thought that an attack on Iran would need to be moved up so it could take place before the S-300 arrived.
Israel made sure to get this message out to some of the moderate Arab states it was friendly with in the Persian Gulf.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) chief of staff Hamid Thani al Rumaithi, for example, met with Richard Olson, the US ambassador to Abu Dhabi, in early 2009 with an urgent request: that the US immediately deploy five Patriot missile defense batteries in the UAE.
The reason was fear that due to the S-300 deal, Israel was on the verge of attacking Iran, and Iran would then retaliate against the UAE.
“I need to be open and frank with you, there are changes in the region that concern us,” Rumaithi told Olson. The Patriot batteries, he explained, would be deployed in and around Abu Dhabi to protect against potential Iranian missile attacks in retaliation to an Israeli strike.
When pressed on what might precipitate an Israeli attack, Rumaithi referred to the delivery of the S-300 system.
“I don’t trust the Russians, I’ve never trusted the Russians or the Iranians,” he added.
Back in Israel, the drone deal suddenly became even more urgent. The final decision, though, wasn’t just in the hands of the Defense Ministry.
If the Foreign Ministry vetoed the deal, the Defense Ministry could still bring the sale to the Israeli Security Cabinet, which had the authority to overturn the decision.
The Security Cabinet convened a number of times during 2009 to discuss the proposed deal. Russia wanted to purchase long-endurance drones like the ones Georgia had used during the war. Israel made a counter offer: It would consider selling drones, but only older models like the Searcher, which the air force had retired several years before.
In June 2009, Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, flew to Moscow. That occurred during a period of flourishing Israeli-Russian ties, cultivated mostly by the Moldovan-born Liberman. By that summer, five Israeli cabinet ministers had visited Moscow, tourism was at an all-time high, a free trade agreement was in the works and Russia was talking to Israel about hosting a Middle East peace conference in Moscow.
In some Washington circles there was concern that Israel was looking to replace the US as its primarily ally. Israeli- US ties were frayed, in any case.
Benjamin Netanyahu had been reelected as Israel’s prime minister and was already knocking heads with Barack Obama, the new US president. During his meetings in Moscow, Liberman raised the S-300 sale. The Russians, who openly opposed an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, told him that the S-300 was “only destabilizing if you are planning to attack Iran” and refused to rule out supplying the system.
If Israel was going to move ahead with the drone deal, now was the time. Before it could sign with Moscow, Israel had to pass one more major hurdle, which was the United States. Russia and America were old adversaries, and Washington would not be happy with Israel selling advanced drones to a country that once was and – in some circles still is – an enemy.This excerpt from The Weapons Wizards: How Israel Became a Hight-Tech Military Superpower was published with permission from St. Martin's Press