- A review of Russian weapons found that many rely on aging electronics now considered obsolete.
- Other electronic parts came from countries that imposed export sanctions on Moscow.
- Russia will struggle to rebuild its war machine no matter how the war in Ukraine ends.
Some of Russia‘s most high-tech equipment relies on outdated electronics and parts they can no longer source from the rest of the world. The country’s inability to produce enough semiconductors, essential for the production of modern weapons systems, means it must use older microchips, including commercial chips imported from the rest of the world. This shortage will have serious consequences for the future of the Russian military and for Russian arms exports abroad.
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The New York Times reports that the experts of Conflict Armament Research (CAR) examined parts of several downed Russian weapon systems. (CAR “identifies and tracks conventional weapons and ammunition in contemporary armed conflicts,” according to the organization’s website.) The parts were recovered from the 3M14 “Kalibr” ship launched land attack cruise missile, 9M544 300 millimeter guided rockets from Tornado rocket launcher system, Kh-59 “Ovode” air-to-surface missiles and Kh-101 land attack cruise missiles launched by aircraft.
Together, the four weapons cover a wide range of launch systems and a considerable amount of Russia’s land attack weapons. All four used the same electronics, marked SN-99, which turned out to be satellite navigation receivers.
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Even more surprisingly, the components of the SN-99 were not manufactured in Russia but were instead purchased overseas. “After documenting the circuit boards inside the satellite navigation signal receiver blocks of these four missiles,” CAR explained, “they were all made of the same non-Russian components, manufactured between 2012 and 2020.” CAR did not explain exactly which country the circuit boards came from.
CAR explains on its website that it has identified “a total of 144 non-Russian manufacturers of more than 650 unique component models of Russian hardware used in the war against Ukraine.” In addition to the four types of air-to-ground munitions, foreign electronic components were found in the Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopter, drones including the Orlan-10, military radios and electronic warfare equipment .
Russia’s high-tech manufacturing sector is relatively underdeveloped compared to other major countries, which means Moscow has to import semiconductors and other electronics. Importing chips is not a novel tactic, but it leaves defense contractors at the mercy of international sanctions designed to deprive Russia of advanced military technology.
A CAR researcher explained that the organization intends to ask manufacturers how the chips ended up in Russia, whether through a legitimate purchase or a front company or similar cutout . Countries under sanctions often set up shell companies to purchase military or dual-use civilian-military equipment from abroad.
Will international sanctions cripple Russia’s ability to manufacture new weapons? Historically, Russia has had a lot of success getting their hands on sanctioned gear. In the 1980s, Soviet submarines inexplicably became much quieter and able to evade detection. Western intelligence followed this breakthrough until the sale of CNC machines, then advanced manufacturing technology, by Japan’s Toshiba and Norway’s Kongsberg to front companies operated by the KGB. These CNC machines were used to make advanced underwater propellers that reduced the noise a submarine made while underway.
Russia suffered a tsunami of second-order effects resulting from its invasion of Ukraine, including sweeping international sanctions. He has also used an enormous amount of rockets and missiles, all of which require technology that he cannot manufacture himself. If it cannot obtain them, Russia may find itself unable to defend itself, let alone conquer Ukraine.
Writer on defense and security issues, lives in San Francisco.