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Irksome firm nearly ejected from Air Show
By Lyuba Pronina
Staff Writer Ivan Sekretarev / AP
ZHUKOVSKY, Moscow Region -- The jamming equipment made by Aviakonversia is so effective against U.S. planes and missiles that it apparently provoked an angry phone call to the Kremlin from U.S. President George W. Bush in the first days of the Iraq war.
Russian officials do not seem to have forgotten the scandal and on Friday tried to shut down the company's stand at the Seventh Moscow Aviation and Space Show, MAKS 2005, said Aviakonversia director Oleg Antonov.
Perhaps the company's presence was simply too embarrassing, considering that the U.S. Air Force occupied a prominent place on the tarmac, displaying a B-1B bomber, F-15 and F-16 fighters, and two bulbous tanker planes used in mid-air refueling.
Three representatives of the Federal Industry Agency and the Federal Service for Technical and Export Control, which oversees the export of defense technology, unsuccessfully attempted to close the stand on the grounds that Aviakonversia had not received clearance from the Defense Ministry to showcase its product, Antonov said.
The government representatives, concealing their ID badges, did not allow this reporter to be present during their conversation with Antonov.
"They demanded we pack up, but we have the right to be here -- we paid the rent for this stall," Antonov said after the meeting. "We have made the product using our own money and do not need the approval from the Defense Ministry, a grocery director or a banya director."
The Federal Industry Agency was unavailable for comment over the weekend.
Aviakonversia, which makes devices that jam the global positioning systems used in navigation, caused a storm of protest from Washington in the early days of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Antonov, who for 24 years worked in the State Research Institute of Aviation Systems developing defense systems for planes, founded Aviakonversia with a dozen staffers in 1992.
The company developed jammers that interfere with GPS signals and were apparently used by Iraqi forces during the U.S.-led invasion.
The Bush administration charged that Aviakonversia personnel were on the ground instructing Iraqi forces how to use and maintain the equipment, The Washington Post reported at the time.
"Our GPS jammer puts all U.S. high-precision weapons out of order," Antonov said. "They have turned billions of dollars that the U.S. government has spent into dust."
Antonov denied that his company delivered any equipment directly to Saddam Hussein but acknowledged it might have reached Iraq via arms dealers.
"Right before the war, there were a lot of people in Moscow with suitcases full of money shopping for anything that could deter U.S. troops," Antonov said.
Aviakonversia now manufactures its gear outside Russia so as not to irritate the authorities, he said, though he declined to specify where. He also refused to identify his clients, saying only that they were foreign governments that acquired the jammers through middlemen.
The German peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan recently sent Aviakonversia a letter thanking it for the jammers, which it deployed to interfere with GPS receivers used by Taliban fighters, Antonov said.
After Aviakonversia first displayed its wares at MAKS 1997, the Pentagon acquired a few dozen jammers, Antonov said.
"Then they went quiet."
A hubbub ensued, however, in the first days of hostilities, when U.S. forces had difficulty in honing in on their targets. Bush reportedly picked up the phone to voice concern to President Vladimir Putin that Iraqi forces were using Russian-made night-vision goggles, GPS jammers and anti-tank missiles.
Antonov lamented that his company did not reap more praise back home.
A representative of state-owned Phazotron-NIIR, the maker of radars for fighter jets, also said Friday that their stand had been rigorously inspected by the export control service.
Some weapons systems -- such as the S-400 air defense system -- were not even displayed at MAKS, despite previous advertisements.
The main innovation on display at MAKS was the MiG-29OVT with all-axis thrust vector-controlled engines that allow for greater maneuverability at low speeds.
Irkut Corp. demonstrated its innovative unmanned aerial vehicles for civilian use, with the Emergency Situations Ministry likely to be its first customer.
Has anyone heard of his?