- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Soviet Union supplied Marxist revolutionaries and Third World dictatorships with military hardware for decades as part of its long struggle against the capitalist West, but 10 months after sending tanks across the border into Ukraine, the Kremlin is facing technical and commercial challenges to its once-powerful weapons industry that it hasn’t encountered since the Cold War.

Even after the fall of the USSR, arms sales remained a central element of Russian foreign policy. Russia has consistently ranked as the world’s second-largest arms exporter, behind the United States. 

Moscow exports arms to more than 45 countries and has accounted for about 20% of global arms sales since 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In addition to turning out arms for export, Russia’s defense industry provides military equipment for its own use. Since 2007, Moscow has consolidated most of it into various holding companies under the control of Rostec, a state-run conglomeration.

Then came Russian President Vladimir Putin’s all-out war of aggression against neighboring Ukraine, which commenced on Feb. 24. As a result, Western sanctions have denied Russian producers access to high-tech parts and circuitry that are essential to manufacturing modern military hardware.

Russia did not expect for this war to go on this long,” said retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank. “It just passed the 10th month, and the end is not in sight.”

The unexpectedly poor performance of Russian forces and weaponry in Ukraine has damaged the reputation of Russian arms, and analysts say the country’s technological and industrial base will now fare even worse. Maya Carlin, with the Center for Security Policy, said Moscow nearly depleted its stockpile of tactical ballistic missiles only one month into its invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin has been forced to go hat-in-hand to Tehran to secure a supply of critical Iranian drones. Russia has become increasingly reliant on these drones as the supply of home-built missiles dwindles. North Korea has reportedly been supplying Cold War-era shells from its missile arsenal to rebuild Russian stocks.

U.S. officials say the need to import weapons from rogue regimes is a sign of desperation as Mr. Putin struggles to sustain his war.

“He was buying drones from Iran. Now he’s going to buy artillery rounds from North Korea,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in September. “It’s an indication of how much his defense industrial establishment is suffering as a result of this war and the degree of desperation that he’s reaching out to countries like Iran and North Korea for assistance.”

Perhaps to cover the straits its military-industrial complex is facing, Russian officials deny the multiple reports that their armies have had to rely on imports.

“For months, the Kremlin and the Iranian regime denied an exchange of drones took place, despite the litany of evidence proving otherwise,” Ms. Carlin wrote in November. “Earlier this month, Iran fessed up to providing drones to Russia to aid its war efforts in Ukraine.”

Russian arms sales declined over the past five years as a percentage of the international market as vendors, including South Korea, India and Brazil, joined the market, said John Parachini, an analyst with the Rand Corp., an independent think tank.

“We’re also watching the nature of warfare change before our very eyes. Manned fighter aircraft are not as important as unmanned drones or short-range missiles,” Mr. Parachini said. 

The intensity of the conflict in Ukraine has led to shortages on both sides of munitions and the systems needed to keep them running. While Ukraine has been the beneficiary of a steady stream of NATO armaments, chiefly from the U.S., Russia has been forced to rely on its own industry and the few countries that are willing and able to defy international sanctions and send them weapons.

Pyongyang has supplied Moscow with artillery shells because both countries use the same caliber. 

“The quality of the North Korean shells is probably not clear, but if you’re running out, you’ve got to get them somewhere,” Mr. Parachini said. “The Russian defense industry is struggling. It’s struggling under the weight of corruption.”

Russian defense exports, a critical source of foreign currency for the Kremlin, were taking a hit even before the Ukraine invasion. Exports fell from 24% of the global market to 19% from 2017 to 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Now longtime customers such as India and Vietnam are openly questioning the quality of Russian arms and Moscow’s reliability as a supplier as it faces massive demands in Ukraine and Western sanctions.

Short of chips

Sophisticated military hardware requires a large quantity of high-tech equipment, such as computer chips to send missiles from a rocket launcher to its target potentially hundreds of miles away. Because of sanctions, Russia is forced to scramble for components needed in precision weapons such as the 9K720 Iskander missile. In some cases, Russians have cannibalized household appliances such as refrigerators for computer parts to maintain weapons training.

“It’s making people scrounge for them. But they’ll do whatever it takes to get it done,” Col. Davis said. “They’re years behind us, but it doesn’t have to be equivalent; it just has to be ‘good enough.’”

The chip shortage has clearly hurt. The Commerce Department estimated this summer that Russian semiconductor imports fell 90% after Western sanctions were introduced.

“The Kremlin is frantically trying to establish semiconductor smuggling networks,” Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, wrote last week in Foreign Policy.com. “Sanctions are almost never watertight — but any leakage will probably not be enough for Russia to replenish its missile stocks, especially if the war continues unabated in the coming months.”

Even with the challenges, Russia is continuing to crank out military hardware. The country’s national defense budget has skyrocketed from more than $57 billion at the end of 2021 to more than $82 billion projected for 2023, according to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Still, the state of affairs in Russia is complicated.

“Even the trillions of additional rubles will not make its defense industry more productive and efficient in the short term, due to a number of difficulties,” the Eurasia Daily Monitor reported.

Russia’s defense industry suffers from a serious personnel gap. The Jamestown Foundation says it is short about 400,000 workers, and analysts say the country is likely unable to solve that problem in the foreseeable future.

Russia also faces problems with the average production rate of its defense industry. From 2011 to 2020, its factories could turn out eight to 12 Su-34 fighter bombers every year. Russia now can produce just seven such aircraft annually, the Jamestown Foundation reported.
“The situation is the same with the manufacturing of combat helicopters,” the Eurasia Daily Monitor said.

Russian officials deny that their military-industrial base is unstable. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said during a late-October visit to a tank factory that the country was accelerating the supply of equipment to troops.

“The production of weapons and special equipment is increasing many times in all directions: from tanks and guns to high-precision missiles and drones,” Mr. Medvedev later wrote on his Telegram social messaging channel, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.

Russia often uses standoff weapons such as drones and artillery to destroy targets in Ukraine, apparently in a desire not to risk its expensive air force. Iran, which once sought high-tech transfers from Moscow and other countries, is now a leader in the low-cost but effective drone market. Where they were once used primarily in surveillance missions, unmanned aerial vehicles are now increasingly employed as weapons.

The Kremlin is believed to have employed hundreds of Iranian-made attack drones in Ukraine since the start of the war. The Shahed 136 drone is designed for a one-way kamikaze mission.

“For Russia, Iran’s drones represent affordable off-the-shelf weapons it can expend in Ukraine. Iran, meanwhile, gains by finding a new market for its systems and seeing them used in large numbers,” author and analyst Seth Frantzman wrote in an essay for the Atlantic Council. “No other country has used Iran’s drones in such quantity.”

Analysts fear the Russian-Iranian drone alliance could pose problems that extend further than Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Moscow is providing much-needed cash for Tehran, which also remains under U.S. sanctions. Ukrainian air defenses are shooting down the drones in large numbers, but those victories come at a cost.

Iran will likely study how Western air defense responds to the drones and try to recalibrate them based on their failure rate,” Mr. Frantzman wrote. “Expertise gained in Ukraine poses a threat to the U.S., Israel, the Gulf and other partners forces in the Middle East.”

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide