Center for Strategic Communication

The Russian military will acquire long-range, presumably jet-powered strike drones to help replace its arsenal of decrepit Cold War-era Tupolev heavy bombers, according to Moscow’s long-range aviation commander, Lt. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev.

Just one problem: The new drones won’t be ready for combat until 2040 at the earliest, Zhikharev told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. That’s a full two decades after the U.S. plans to deploy its own jet-propelled, armed unmanned aerial vehicles.

Remember when U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia America’s “number-one geopolitical foe?” Romney subsequently dialed back that rhetoric. But the two-decade gap between U.S. and Russian drone technology is still a useful reminder that Moscow does not pose a major military threat to any country that isn’t its immediate neighbor.

Zhikharev’s admission of the drone gap comes at a desperate time for the once-mighty Russian aerospace industry. Political pressure is building for the Kremlin to acquire modern weaponry on par with that of the U.S., European and the most advanced Asian militaries. This summer, newly reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to equip the air force with a new manned bomber, a new early-warning radar plane and several types of drones. “This is a most important area of development in aviation,” Putin said of UAVs.

But while Russian industry has reliably churned out upgraded versions of Cold War jet fighters while also slowly developing the T-50, Moscow’s first stealth fighter prototype, aerospace companies have struggled to design working UAVs. Drones demand lightweight materials and systems, but Russian flight hardware “tends to be overbuilt,” according to U.S. trade publication Defense Industry Daily.

Lack of technological foresight is another problem. Putin’s recent cheerleading for drones belies decades during which the Russian military willfully neglected robotic aircraft.

In 2007, Moscow’s state-owned gas and oil producer Gazprom teamed up with aerospace firm Irkut to develop two models of camera-equipped medium drone for patrolling Gazprom’s thousands of miles of pipelines. In size and endurance, Gazprom’s civil UAVs were roughly equivalent to American and European military models, including the U.S. Predator. Even so, the Kremlin was “not overly impressed” and “largely ignored” the drones, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Hurst wrote.

A year later Russia went to war with its neighbor Georgia, a country of only 4.5 million people that nevertheless had been able to equip its armed forces with Israeli-made Hermes drones, totally outclassing Russia’s surveillance forces. After the war Russia spent $53 million on its own fleet of probably a dozen or so Israeli UAVs, including Searcher and I-View models.

These remain Moscow’s only modern drones. Belated efforts to design indigenous flying robots have all fallen flat. In January 2010 a prototype of the Vega Company’s Stork UAV crashed and burned on takeoff, as seen in the video above. The crash apparently ended that particular program.

In essence, Russia is starting from scratch on homemade robot warplanes, some 20 years after other advanced nations began getting serious about UAVs. Russian officials are promising a first flight for an indigenous, Predator-class drone in 2014, but in light of past failures the plan lacks credibility. It’s not hard to see why a jet-powered drone bomber could require a full 30 years to develop, starting today.

The U.S. military, by contrast, already operates hundreds of medium drones, including armed Predators and Reapers — to say nothing of thousands of small drones and dozens of airliner-size Global Hawks.

Meanwhile, American firms have produced four different jet-propelled, drone bomber demonstrators in anticipation of a Navy contest to put armed UAVs on carrier decks by 2018. And the Air Force is planning to make its newest bomber, due to enter service in the 2020s, “optionally manned.” That means it can switch from a piloted warplane to a drone with the flip of a few switches.

Against these robots, Russia’s 2040 drone bomber could seem hopelessly late — if it enters service at all.