The Cable

Russian Drone Tech May Include Help From Iran

Russia is behind the United States but trying to catch up.

An Iranian Shahed 129 drone displayed during celebrations in Tehran marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian Shahed 129 drone displayed during celebrations in Tehran marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

When Russia unveiled its Orion-E drone at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2017, near Moscow this summer, it bore a “striking resemblance” to an Iranian “Shahed” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) already flying.

“Orion and Shahed look very much alike,” said Samuel Bendett, an associate research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses’ International Affairs Group, speaking Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

The aviation conference where the Orion drone debuted was designed in part to bring together Russian officials and potential foreign business partners.

Russia has some operational drones already and is developing multiple unmanned systems for land, sky, and sea, but many are at a relatively early stage, Bendett said. The country is focused on improvements in drone intelligence, speed, flight time, and the ability to gather drones in swarms.

Working with foreign countries has been part of Russia’s strategy to catch up to advanced drone programs in the United States and China. Russia has cooperated with Israel, for example, as a strategic play to learn fast, Bendett said.

“Russia saw a distinct advantage in very quickly acquiring a system and learning from its operations, and obviously Israelis knew that that was going to happen,” he said.

The Russians’ acquisition process is still trying to catch up with technology developments, according to Bendett. “They’re going from zero to 100 in six seconds when it comes to UAVs,” he said.

The United States, meanwhile, has had a “near monopoly on unmanned military systems over the past quarter century,” Bendett said.

Russia has made internal changes to foster the development of drones, Bendett said. “Until a few years ago, Russia had no official or coordinated policy on unmanned military systems,” he said. “This has now changed.”

Still, internal hurdles include “skimmed off” money within programs, Olga Oliker, a senior advisor and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS, said at the CSIS event.

“The Russian defense industry delivers slowly and over budget just like every other defense industry,” she said. “There’s a lot of room for inefficiency, and the inefficiency happens.”

There is no official confirmation of collaboration between Russia and Iran on the Orion drone, Bendett cautioned, though the two countries cooperate already in the war in Syria.

“Iranians travel to Moscow on a regular basis,” he said, “Perhaps they shared.”

Developing drones based on foreign designs can be faster than developing the technology from scratch, Oliker said.

“If you’re trying to catch up, you can use off-the-shelf stuff, you can emulate, you can reverse-engineer,” she said.

Russia is also making progress in land-based unmanned technology efforts, including a humanoid robot that can hold and shoot guns. That project helps reveal attitude differences between the United States and Russia toward military technology, according to Oliker.

“‘Terminators’ don’t seem like a good idea from here in the United States,” she said.

In the United States “you get a certain amount of terror that the robots are coming,” she said. “In Russia, there’s this notion that this can be controlled.”

Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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