Is it fraud? A shakedown? Punishment for program delays? The unusual case threatens to derail Russia’s drone ambitions.
The Elon Musk of Russian drones is under arrest in Tatarstan, charged with fraud — a situation that some observers say has the look of a shakedown. Either way, the unusual case could slow the Russian military’s UAV ambitions.
On April 16, local law enforcement in Tatarstan arrested Alexander Gomzin, the general director and chief designer for the OKB Simonov Design Bureau, on charges of “abuse of authority, misappropriation of budgetary funds and fraud” — in essence, lying and embezzlement, according to the Russian news site Business Online.
Simonov’s important defense contracts include a mysterious five-ton, medium- or high-altitude long-endurance armed drone, tentatively called Altair or Altius. The group is also working on the Zenitsa air-launched drone and even an unnamed turbojet drone. The firm scored a billion rubles from the Russian government to make all of these marvels of war.
The arrest could slow Russia’s military drone development, according to Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “What this means for the Altair/Altius is that its development schedule will be pushed even further to the right, although the prototypes are near completion and have been test-flown,” Bendett said. “Russia definitely needs its own medium altitude / long endurance UAV with ISR and combat characteristics. The Altair/Altius was supposed to be the first one to be completed.”
If Gomzin’s arrest leaves a void, Simonov competitor Kronshtadt could rush in to fill it, says Bendett. Last year, Kronshtadt unveiled the Orion, a medium-altitude, long-endurance ISR drone that the company claims could be modified for strike missions. “If Gomzin’s case becomes more complicated and the work at Simonov Design Bureau slows down, this may also open the door to other competitors who were so far behind – like MiG Design Bureau, which promised to unveil a UAV lineup” for the Russia Ministry of Defense, he said.
Bendett called it an unusual case. “Nothing like this has taken place with any other design bureau,” he said. “This is definitely an outlier.”
Bendett said that while it is possible that Gomzin was involved in some financial trickery, other aspects of the case suggest the arrest may be a shakedown by the local Tatarstan government to help itself to money that the designer won to build the drones. “The key component here is that he was arrested by the Tatarstan Interior Ministry — a regional organization. So far, there has been no official Federal response to this,” notes Bendett. “If the Altair/Altius UAV is so important to the Ministry of Defense, why did the defense ministry allow Gomzin to be arrested?”
One possibility, he says, is that the Russian ministry of defense “gave the go-ahead to Tatar Interior Ministry to do this as punishment for cost overruns and delays.”