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Russian Killer UAVs Could Target US Missile Bases

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Sieff
Washington (UPI) Feb 2, 2009
Russia is speaking a lot more softly these days about retargeting possible U.S. ballistic missile defense bases in Central Europe with its Iskander-M short-range missiles. But it is pushing ahead hard with developing to make those Iskanders more lethal all the same.

The Russian armed forces are utilizing advances in unmanned aerial vehicle technology to make their Iskanders more accurate, RIA Novosti reported Wednesday.

The Russian military already has begun testing development prototypes of a new UAV that it wants to use to identify targets for its short-range, fast and low-flying ultra-accurate Iskander missiles to hit, a Russian defense industry official told the news agency.

"We are starting tests of a prototype of a reconnaissance/strike aerial drone, which could serve as a target designator for the Iskander tactical missile system," Arkady Syroyezhko, director of UAV development programs at the Vega Radio Engineering Corp., told RIA Novosti.

RIA Novosti said Vega's latest Aist ("Stork") multirole UAV could fly with an extended payload of up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and that it could be equipped with a range of "aerial surveillance equipment, electronic warfare devices and even weapons."

"The tests are expected to last for two years," the official told the news agency. He said work on manufacturing the prototype of the new UAV was almost finished.

RIA Novosti said the new UAV would be able to "provide effective target designation for the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which have a range of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles)."

The news agency noted that in November Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had warned in his first state of the union address that he might respond to U.S. plans to build a new ballistic missile interceptor base in Poland and an advanced radar array to guide the interceptors in the neighboring Czech Republic by basing Iskander-Ms in Russia's Baltic Sea region of Kaliningrad.

But RIA Novosti cited "a high-ranking Russian defense ministry source" as saying last Wednesday Russia had not made any moves to carry out that threat and actually deploy the Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad.

The Kremlin still hopes for rapidly warming relations with the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. Obama and his new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have taken care to hit the ground running with statements aiming at warming relations with Moscow. And both of them, along with the entire Democratic policy establishment now taking power in Washington, are eager to conclude a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia to replace the current, aging START treaty as soon as possible. The START-1 treaty that was signed by U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 expires at the end of this year.

However, the Russians have made clear that their price for negotiating and signing a new START treaty will be the scrapping of U.S. plans energetically pursued under the Bush administration to build the base to house the 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors.

How Russia is keeping its strategic options open with its Iskander missile and UAV programs
The Russian government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made clear that its price for negotiating and signing a new strategic arms-reduction treaty with the United States will be the scrapping of U.S. plans, energetically pursued under the Bush administration, to build a base to house 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors in Poland.

Those 10 GBIs were not even intended to be used against Russia's mighty Strategic Missile Forces, which vastly outnumber them by a factor of at least 15 to 1 in warheads. They were intended by Bush policymakers to protect the United States and Western Europe against any future threat from Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

In November, Medvedev warned in a state of the union message to the Russian people that if the United States built its GBI base in Poland and an accompanying radar tracking base in the Czech Republic, he would deploy the short-range but extremely accurate Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region neighboring Poland.

However, on Jan. 28 a senior Russian defense official told RIA Novosti the Iskander-Ms had not been deployed yet in Kaliningrad and there were no immediate plans to do so.

Russia's restraint over the past three months in holding back from deploying the Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad appears to be a clear olive branch to the Obama administration that the Kremlin is eager to talk serious business on negotiating a new strategic arms-reduction treaty to replace the old START treaty that expires at the end of this year. But Russia's crucial condition is that those two bases in Central Europe not be built.

The Obama administration looks almost certain to accept the olive branch and make the trade. The entire Democratic Party foreign policy and national security establishment was always opposed to building the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. They recognized correctly that building those two bases would enrage the Russians, but they also downplayed and, critics argue, gravely underestimated the threat that Iran's nuclear and longer-range missile development programs will present in the foreseeable future.

The Russians closely monitor internal policy debates in both the major U.S. political parties and in Congress. They are, therefore, well aware that, as we have reported previously in these columns, the previous Democrat-controlled 110th Congress was reluctant to fund the two European BMD bases and slashed Fiscal Year 2009 funding for them by one-third.

Democratic opposition to building those bases is certain to be far more strongly expressed in the new Congress since the Republicans suffered serious losses in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the Nov. 4 elections. With Democratic President Barack Obama now safely elected for a full four-year term, the Democrats are likely to be far more open and vigorous in their moves to strip funding from the BMD bases program.

Kremlin policymakers are clearly eager to win a bloodless victory in getting the new U.S. administration to scrap those BMD bases. They know that any short-term escalation of tensions by deploying the Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad now, or taking action against pro-Western Georgia in the Caucasus, could endanger the new START negotiations and the hopes of killing the BMD bases program.

Besides, being moderate and restrained over the next year or so will not foreclose Russian strategic options in the slightest. Once the BMD bases are safely scrapped and the new START treaty is signed, the Russians, in fact, would be free to deploy the Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad and target other military bases or major population centers in the Czech Republic, Poland or other neighboring nations within range anyway.

The Iskander-Ms are already being built. Building and deploying them doesn't come under the old START treaty -- and is unlikely to come under any new one -- because the Iskanders are far too short-range and low-flying to be considered intercontinental or even intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

However, the reported decision to push ahead with UAV development in coordination with the Iskander-M program shows that the Russian government is not looking to voluntarily scrap or slow down its program to make its short-range nuclear-capable tactical ballistic missiles in Central Europe more formidable. On the contrary, it is pushing ahead energetically with those arms programs.

Therefore, even if a new START treaty in Europe is signed, it will not mark the end of the shifting dynamics of nuclear, ballistic missile and power policies in Europe, but only a new stage in an old and continuing contest.

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