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The Russian Defense Industry: A Distressed Brand
A column of tanks marked with the Z symbol proceeds northwards along the Mariupol-Donetsk highway. (Photo by Maximilian Clarke via Getty Images)
A column of tanks marked with the Z symbol proceeds northwards along the Mariupol-Donetsk highway. (Photo by Maximilian Clarke via Getty Images)

The Russian Defense Industry: A Distressed Brand

The war in Ukraine has damaged the reputation of Russian arms. Heavy armor has proved especially vulnerable, but other weapons have also not performed to standard. The future, moreover, is bleak. Due to crushing Western sanctions, Russia’s defense technological and industrial base, which is already plagued by debt, will now fare even worse.

The Ukraine gambit of Russian leader Vladimir Putin represents a strategic miscalculation of the first order. The Russian army failed to capture Kyiv, and instead was forced to withdraw from the northern sector of Ukraine. This retreat announced a failure to achieve the major political objective of the war: toppling the Zelensky government and replacing it with a puppet regime. From a military point of view, several factors explain this development: poor logistics, ill-selected concepts of operations, and, above all, low-quality intelligence, which underestimated the Ukrainian military’s warfighting will and capacity. But a fourth factor also stands out: the poor performance of Russian weaponry, especially heavy armor, combat aircraft, and air defense systems.

Heavy Armor

Some 40 days into the conflict, the Russian military had already lost around 470 main battle tanks, the equivalent of a mid-sized European country’s entire tank arsenal. More than 230 pieces were hit by kinetic strikes, while the rest were abandoned by their crews or captured by Ukrainian forces. The kill list includes several high-end heavy-armor platforms, such as T-72B3s, T-90s, and T-80 variants – including the latest T-80BVMs.1 If present trends continue, the list will grow dramatically.

To be sure, tactical mistakes, such as the failure of infantry and armor to cooperate, have played a critical role in the collapse, and the Kremlin’s expectation of a short war also contributed. But open-source monitoring of the conflict undeniably indicates that the weaponry and platforms themselves failed to perform adequately. Above all, high-end anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), such as the Javelin and Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW) provided by Western suppliers, and Ukraine’s own Stugna-P have proven to be very effective in both penetrating Russian armor and evading countermeasures. Given the proliferation of modern anti-tank missiles and the fact that modern warfare is generally fought in urban and sub-urban terrains, which favor anti-tank capabilities, the outcomes from Ukraine will alarm existing operators of Russian tanks and their future buyers.

Apart from the threat posed by modern ATGMs in asymmetric warfare settings, twenty-first century battlespaces pose another problem for Russian heavy armor, namely, unmanned aircraft systems (drones). By providing real-time and high-quality ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target-acquisition, and Reconnaissance), drones enable artillery and rocket weaponry to target maneuver platforms and concealed defensive positions with greater accuracy. Drones also provide speedy battle-damage assessments, revealing the destructive effects of strikes and indicating whether additional salvos are needed to eliminate the adversary. Evidence suggests that the Ukrainian fire-support units have been systematically augmented by drones.2 The drone and artillery complexes became even more lethal when paired with guided shells, such as Ukraine’s very own Kvitnyk 152mm-class laser-guided munitions, which are able to hit a standard piece of paper from twenty kilometers according to Ukroboronprom.3 Ukraine’s Turkish-made Bayraktar-2 drones also carried out successful air-ground strikes on unprotected Russian armored vehicles.4 Directly and indirectly, drones tipped the balance against Russian armor.

In retrospect, Turkey’s successful Operation Spring Shield against the Syrian Arab Army in 2020 and Azerbaijan’s victory over the Armenian military during the Second Karabakh War of the same year were harbingers of the Russian setbacks in Ukraine. Mechanized Syrian formations and the Armenian forces in Karabakh, both of which relied on Soviet-Russian armored platforms, proved extremely vulnerable to artillery and rocket fire guided by drones operated in spotter roles. In both conflicts, Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones engaged in successful air-ground attacks, hunting their prey with Roketsan-made MAM-L smart munitions.

After both conflicts, analysts raised doubts about whether the vulnerability of Russian heavy armor to drones (and drone and artillery complexes) told us more about the equipment or the users. Could we be sure that Russia’s allies wielded state-of-the-art systems? Were their systems integrated in the most optimal fashion? Couldn’t the Russian military be expected to perform to a higher standard than the Syrians and Armenians? The Ukraine war has taught us that drones now enjoy an inherent advantage.

And the future is bleak. Turkey’s drone industry is in the process of incorporating even more destructive munitions (such as MAM-T) certified for unmanned platforms with larger combat payloads, such as Baykar’s Akinci and Tusas’s Aksungur, which will also be equipped with better sensors. These bigger beasts will offer more signature to air defense sensors, but, especially when engaging unprotected armor, or operating over ill-networked air defenses, they will be able to unleash significantly greater firepower. At the time of writing, the Israeli government has not cleared Baltic nations to transfer Spike anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. We have also not seen the US-made Switchblade-600 loitering munitions in action, to say nothing of more advanced American drones. Had Russian armor faced these systems, it is safe to assume their losses would have been far worse.

Aero-Space Forces

The Russian Aero-Space Forces (VKS), and its high-end aircraft, have also suffered unanticipated losses. Much to the surprise of many observers, the Russian forces proved incapable of achieving air superiority. The reasons for this are several. The story begins with the Syrian war, which accounts for the most significant recent combat experience of the Russian military. In Syria, the Russians confronted an adversary with neither an air force nor sophisticated air defenses. Consequently, the leadership in Moscow failed to estimate the difficulty of overcoming the Ukrainians, who have real capabilities, albeit those of a mid-sized state. Basic Russian planning of missions was inadequate, whether we are talking about the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) or offensive counter-air operations (OCA), which target Ukraine’s airpower infrastructure, and fighter sweeps, which are search and destroy missions targeting enemy aircraft.

The story may begin with the inadequate preparation that the Syrian war provided Russian forces, but it ends with the inherent deficiencies of Russian weaponry. To eliminate Ukraine’s strategic air defenses, the VKS’s combat air patrols in Su-30SM and Su-35S aircraft have been carrying Kh-31P anti-radiation missiles (missiles designed to detect and home-in on radar emissions). These sorties have performed below standards. To be sure, they have managed to strike some Ukrainian S-300s successfully, but Russian SEAD sorties have performed more reliably from lower altitudes, which expose the planes to the low- and mid-range Ukrainian air defense systems, including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Time and again, the Ukrainians have downed aircraft flying at lower altitudes, forcing the Russians to ascend to heights that offer only a limited kill probability against ground targets.5

Russian air-ground bombardment has fared even worse. A lack of high-quality precision-guided munitions (PGM) has forced Russian multi-role aircraft to deliver dumb bombs that must be dropped at lower altitudes, thus exposing the aircraft, here again, to Ukrainian systems. This includes even the Su-34s, which in air-ground missions in Syria have served as the traditional Russian PGM-delivery assets.

Nor were Russia’s principal air superiority aircraft as decisive as one might have expected in air-to-air missions. For weeks, Ukraine’s Mig-29s were able to fly combat sorties and score sensational kills.

These deficiencies produced a scene that is now iconic, when former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko congratulated a MANPADS operator for his downing of an Su-30SM (a modern, multirole aircraft with a large export portfolio, ranging from Belarus to India).6 In addition to this well-publicized episode, Ukraine’s Soviet-legacy short-range OSA (SA-8) air defense system also successfully intercepted another Su-30SM, and Russia’s advanced Su-35 fighter (a super-maneuverable 4.5 generation fighter aircraft, which is also operated by China) was downed over Izium.7

Air and Missile Defense Systems

On April 1, 2022, two Ukrainian Mi-24 gunships took off from their bases and flew through territory cluttered with the short and medium range air defenses of the Russian ground forces. From there they slipped into Russian territory, even though it was covered by a layered network of advanced radars and robust air defenses, which included state-of-the art strategic surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), the S-400s. Despite the dangers of this terrain, they still managed to attack a key supply facility in Belgorod. This success was not a fluke. In an earlier stage of the war, the Ukrainian forces hit Russia’s Millerovo air base in Rostov with Tochka missiles. Despite being a legacy weapons system, the Tochkas still managed to evade Russian tactical ballistic missile interceptors. These incidents cast a long shadow over Russian air defense weaponry, whose renown was, until now, unquestioned.

The problems do not end there. The war in Ukraine has exposed another weakness in Russian air defenses: their vulnerability to Turkish-manufactured drones, particularly the Bayraktar TB-2s. At the time of writing, OSINT outlet Oryx reports that the Russian military has lost fifty two air defense systems in Ukraine. Of the twenty-seven SAM systems that were lost to kinetic strikes, ten were hit by Bayraktar TB-2s, accounting for thirty-seven percent of the total kinetic eliminations. Even worse for the Russians, the kill list of the Bayraktar TB-2s includes Russia’s Tor-M2 and Pantsir systems, which were modernized specifically to intercept drones.8

The vulnerability to Turkish drones stems, ironically, from the Bayraktar TB-2’s relative lack of speed. The Russians designed their systems to target Western, manned aircraft, but the Bayraktar TB-2 has a piston engine and it is slow-moving, making it hard for the Russian sensors to recognize it as a target aircraft. The Russian radar would find any other slow-moving, piston-engine drone equally difficult to detect. Likewise, Smaller loitering-munitions also stress the traditional Russian air defenses, as we saw with the Israeli-manufactured kamikaze drones that Azerbaijan deployed against Armenian mobile air defense systems in the Second Karabakh War. Finally, it seems that Russian electronic warfare envelopes, focusing on suppressing the X band & Ku band gap (that is, the Krasukha-4 system), as well as jamming HF/VHF communications (that is, the Borisoglebsk-2 system) cannot cover the essential electronic systems and data-link configuration of the Turkish drones, especially along the C-band.9

Some experts may offer alternative explanations, but however one slices it, the vulnerability has been documented on multiple occasions and in diverse situations—in Syria, Karabakh, Libya, and now in Ukraine. If the Russian military cannot contend with drones in its most geopolitically important battleground, then the verdict is now clear: its air defense systems are simply not up to the challenge. And the problem is set to get worse. The international market for armed, military drones is on the rise. The number of suppliers and available products are growing fast. The chance that the Russian arms industry will keep pace is extremely small.

Russian Arms Exports

In recent years, Russia successfully marketed weaponry that it debuted in the Syrian conflict, but the war in Ukraine will reverse those gains. Manufacturers must now prioritize the resupply of the Russian military. Exports will take a back seat. Even longstanding clientele will be denied not just new weapons but also spare parts. The shortages will be most apparent with respect to heavy armor, aircraft, and missiles.

On top of this temporary setback, a larger catastrophe looms. Russian arms manufacturers were already in trouble before the war. In 2020, the debts of the Russian defense industries totaled $39 billion. To subsidize domestic manufacturers, the government wrote off loans worth about $10 billion.10 Today, given the Russian military’s material losses, the country’s terrible economic outlook under an avalanche of Western sanctions, and the ongoing brain-drain exacerbated by the Kremlin’s strategic miscalculation, Russia’s defense industry is set to spiral downward.

If the war becomes prolonged, and if the Ukrainians continues to bleed the invaders the spiral will intensify. The longer Russian troops operate in urban environments, the more war crimes they will commit. The Russian track record from Chechnya to Syria permits no other prediction. In today’s networked world, covering up atrocities is nearly impossible. When new war crimes to light, the sanctions will tighten, making it even harder for Russian defense industries to purchase needed supplies on the international market. Clients will find doing business with the Russians risky. They will have less trust in the quality of the products and less confidence in the ability of manufacturers to deliver on time and to guarantee a steady supply of spare parts. On top of this, some may also fear the moral stain of working with Moscow. In sum, the Russian brand has suffered a blow from which it will take years to recover.