In April of this year, the Russians announced that they had signed a $50 million deal with Israel Aerospace Industries for the delivery of three types of drones—the Bird-Eye mini-UAV, the MK150, and the Searcher MK II—which the Russians planned to re-engineer in order to beef up a capacity that had been shown to be sorely lacking during a so-called "war" with Georgia that might have been scripted by Evelyn Waugh. At a later stage, the Israelis said, they might be willing to sell the Russians the more advanced Heron drone, which is currently one of the hottest sellers in the Israeli arms catalog.
The Russian purchase of Israeli drones is an example of a larger pattern of strategic military cooperation that unites Israel, Russia, and India—a lucrative triangular trade that has some interesting ramifications for the Israeli-U.S. strategic relationship. In August, Israel delivered to India the first of three AWACS systems, which consisted of an Israeli Phalcon radar system mounted on the body of a Russian Il-76 aircraft. The AWACS were part of a $1.1 billion three-way arms deal signed by India, Israel, and Russia with U.S. approval in 2004.
The three-way alliance of Israel, Russia, and India was promoted in large part by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remembered very well his trips to America in the 1990s when he was ignored by the U.S. political and media establishment. The first principle of Sharon's foreign policy once he ended his political exile by becoming prime minister of Israel was to stick close to George W. Bush. The second principle was to build relationships with other powers besides America, starting with Russia. (Russians are also a key domestic constituency in Israel.) During his meetings in Moscow, Sharon, who spoke fluent Russian, used to joke that his opposite number, Vladimir Putin, looked like a Western leader, while Sharon was the one who looked like a Brezhnev-era Politburo member. Sharon was also very interested in India as an up-and-coming second-tier power with a Muslim problem. Where Israel would provide advanced computer systems and electronics, the Russians could provide a massive military-industrial complex, and the Indians could provide a ready market for weapons systems that would be jointly developed and manufactured by the three countries.
The commercial success of the Israeli-Russian-Indian alliance currently delivers an annualized average of more than $1 billion a year in advanced weapons to India, which is the biggest consumer of Israeli arms exports in the world. The Russians and the Indians are collaborating together on billions of dollars' worth of new projects including the development of the Su-34 fighter bomber—a deal that is also rumored to include Israeli electronic components.
The lucrative three-way partnership inaugurated by Sharon and blessed by George W. Bush gives Israel the ability to influence Russian behavior—and also Indian behavior. It also gives Israel the ability to influence American behavior. Israel's reliance on the United States for military hardware may or may not be good for either side, but it is a complex phenomenon that serves multiple interests in each country, beginning with the interests of American defense contractors—the real Israel lobby. The Lavi fighter plane is probably the most famous example of an Israeli weapons system that competed directly with some of the biggest money-makers in the American arms catalog—and was canceled because of U.S. pressure. Technology from the Lavi wound up in China's J-10 fighter during the 1990s, prompting some ugly moments in relations with the Pentagon.
As fans of The Wire will recognize, the only way to ensure that your main supplier will continue to deal with you on fair terms is to have an alternative waiting in the wings. On April 9 of this year, for example, UPI—quoting the Israeli news site Ynet—reported that Israel's planned Arrow-3 missile program, which the country was counting on to shoot down stray Iranian ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads as part of its planned three-tier missile defense shield, which includes systems to shoot down short-range and medium-range rockets, might be one of the first victims of Barack Obama's spending cuts. Obama, the article reported, is skeptical about missile-defense programs, as is U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. U.S. defense contractor Raytheon also saw the Arrow-3, which was projected to cost $1.5 million to $2 million per missile, as a competitor to its much more expensive Aegis SM-3, which costs $10 million to $12 million each. In place of developing the Arrow-3, Israel would be permitted to buy the SM-3 from Raytheon with U.S. military credits—a decision that would promote Raytheon's product at the expense of a cheaper foreign competitor while increasing Israel's dependence on American military aid.
Six weeks later, the Obama administration abruptly reversed itself and agreed to fund the Arrow-3; at the Paris Air Show in June, Israel Aerospace Industries displayed a full-scale mock-up of the Arrow-3 as well as a model of the new Barak-8 surface-to-air missile being developed in concert with India. While the reasons behind the U.S. administration's reversal are murky, it seems likely that someone (Robert Gates is a good bet) belatedly realized that denying Israel the funding for the Arrow would strengthen Israel's cooperation with the Russians. As a consolation prize, Raytheon was promised an Israeli contract for SM-3s that would serve as a stop-gap until the Arrow-3 is fully operational.