Elite Russian troops are displaying a new arsenal of body armor, individual weapons, armor-piercing ammunition and collar radios — a menu of essential gear that gives them a big tactical advantage against a lesser-equipped Ukrainian army.
If President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion, the new-generation body armor, in particular, would provide exceptional protection against small arms if Russian troops go street by street to capture Kiev and other cities.
“What we saw and what was dangled in front of the West was a clear indication that Putin is on a roll,” retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales said. “It just seems to me from watching the films that their arrows are pointing up and ours are sadly pointing down.”
Weapons specialists such as Gen. Scales have been studying images of Spetsnaz, Russia’s ubiquitous special forces, and airborne troops since they conquered the Crimea region and mobilized to strike eastern Ukraine.
What they see are the fruits of a modernization plan begun in 2008, not just in tanks and vehicles but all the way down to the individual warrior. Russia now has the world’s third-highest defense budget, at over $70 billion.
“They’ve got better equipment than they had five years ago,” said Scott Traudt, an executive with Green Mountain, a Vermont gun manufacturer. “They’ve got new grenade launchers that are awesome. The helmets are better than our helmets. The body armor is better than our body armor. They’re doing a lot of things right. I’m pretty amazed at it.”
Mr. Traudt is paying special attention to the body armor because it presents a big challenge to rifle and munition makers. It might be able to deflect NATO’s basic 5.56 mm rifle round. If so, Ukrainian soldiers face a daunting task because their AK-74 assault rifles fire a similar munition.
The Russians, in their new 6B43 model body armor, issued chest and back plates made of titanium and hard carbide boron ceramics.
“The stuff they have is impervious to 5.56, whereas our body armor is not completely proven against their weapons,” Gen. Scales said.
Gen. Scales said the Russians carry AK-74s whose magazine is loaded with 5.45 “steel core” ammunition — a round that on April 8 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives banned from importation because the agency deemed it armor-piercing.
Gen. Scales described the 5.45 as “extremely lethal against any kind of body armor.”
While some national leaders focus on big defense issues, Mr. Putin has taken a personal interest in one of the smallest: the rifle. Last year, his government consolidated rifle manufacturing into one new firm, the Kalashnikov Corp., named after the AK’s famous inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov.
“Putin actually goes out and shoots these things,” Gen. Scales said.
U.S. soldiers have complained that their main rifle and round, the M4 carbine and its 5.56, lacked lethality in Afghanistan against a Taliban enemy that does not often wear body armor. Without a shot to the head, the enemy could take several 5.56 hits and keep going, soldiers said in surveys.
“If the Russians are coming across mechanized, with airborne and infantry units wearing their body armor, it basically means the Ukrainian rifles have no ability to penetrate the body armor worn by the Russian troops, meaning you’re talking about having to shoot somebody six, seven, eight times, in the chest,” Mr. Traudt said. “They’re going to get bumped, but there’s no lethality involved.”
In all, Russian fighters, including Mr. Putin’s hired guns of ex-military commandos who wear civilian clothes, have displayed a new inventory of rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and rocket-propelled grenades. The Russians claim the RPG can kill a tank.
Photographs of masked Spetsnaz troops in Crimea show them with what might be U.S.-designed sights and silencers on their assault rifles.
Jacob Kipp, a former director of the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said what stands out to him are new mobile communications.
Spetsnaz commandos carry collar, or helmet-mounted, radios that enable them to talk to one another and to the battalion level overseeing the operation.
“A couple things stand out, and one of them is the radio equipment attached to the uniform up by the face so he doesn’t have to use his hands to communicate,” Mr. Kipp said. “That’s real new. There is also a helmet version that also has ‘commo’ gear inside. It basically allows you not to have to do hand signals to move people around.”
The Russians have employed a different communication tactic than the United States.
“There is a whole different culture about ‘commo’ in the Russian army than there is in ours,” Mr. Kipp said. “We tend to want everyone to report in whenever they do something. The Russians lay out an assignment and tasks and give it a timeline and you report in if you are not on your timeline, or if you run into unexpected opposition.”
Gen. Scales said Mr. Putin is displaying for TV cameras his best forces: Spetsnaz, airborne, naval infantry (akin to U.S. Marines) and interior security forces, or about 30,000 of the 860,000 active military force.
“We don’t know what shape the Russian military is in, really,” he said. “It would be like us highlighting a foreign adventure by only showing Delta, SEALs and Special Forces and Rangers. We’d look a lot more intimidating if we only showed that face of our force.”
On the conventional side, Gen. Scales said, the Russians do not have an answer to U.S. Apache gunship helicopters and armored vehicles.
Still, the better-equipped Russian soldier is bad news for the smaller and budget-strapped Ukraine military, which numbers about 160,000.
The wide gap in capability is spelled out in a report by retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s former top commander who directed the 1998 air war against Belgrade, and Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon adviser to Caspar Weinberger.
Financed by the nonprofit Potomac Foundation, the two spent time in Ukraine this month interviewing government officials and visiting troops on the front lines.
In a report outlined in The New York Times, they said the Ukrainian army badly needs at least four essential items: American body armor, night-vision goggles and sights, radios, and aviation fuel.
“What little Ukrainian body armor available, is only designed for smaller caliber lower velocity projectiles,” the report said. “Given that Russian troops are universally equipped with high-quality body armor, it is both militarily untenable and politically ridiculous to deny symmetrical protection to the victim of aggression.”
For now, that is just what the Obama administration is doing. It has rejected Ukrainian requests for lethal, and most nonlethal, military gear, except packaged food, blankets, sleeping bags, helmets and generators.
Mr. Clark and Mr. Karber said the administration needs to assemble a team of active or retired American officers to advise the Ukrainian army in-country.
They note that Ukraine has become a U.S. ally by sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet its military is having trouble persuading the Obama administration to provide any aid, even bedding.
“As of last week, U.S.-promised sleeping bags had not arrived in Ukraine,” the Clark-Karber report said. “Troops in the rain and mud at the front build fires to keep themselves warm and dry their wet blankets. But the fires give away their positions to Russian snipers and infiltrators.”