Procurement: Weapons Production Stumbles and Fails in Russia


February 16, 2024: The war in Ukraine has destroyed most of the major weapons Russia has accumulated over the last two decades. In addition, about 400,000 troops have been lost, many of them when their tanks or other armored vehicles were destroyed. As of February 2024, Russia has lost 6,400 tanks and 12,000 other armored vehicles. Artillery losses have also been heavy with 9,500 howitzers, guns and large caliber mortars lost. Some of the large caliber guns literally wore out their barrels and were considered combat losses. About a thousand MLRS (Multiple Launcher Rocket Systems) were destroyed by enemy artillery or missiles. The most common Russian MLRS is the BM-21, which is a truck mounted launcher that carries 40 122mm rockets. These can be launched in small numbers or all at once and can travel up to 20 kilometers. Range is determined by the angle the launcher is raised to when the rockets are fired. Since the rockets are unguided, firing many rockets at once will cover a large area with exploding rockets. This can be used to halt or disrupt an enemy attack or support a Russian offensive by causing extensive damage and casualties to enemy forces. These truck mounted MLRS systems are a favorite target for long range Ukrainian missile attacks.

Russia has also lost 7,200 UAVs and 1,900 cruise missiles of various types. Another disabling loss was 16,000 trucks used to transport supplies, including fuel, as well as troops or casualties moved to rear area field hospitals. Russian fuel trucks are a prime target for Ukrainian armed UAVs because without fuel, Russian vehicles, especially tanks, are immobilized. Russia has lost over 300 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft as well as 670 anti-aircraft systems.

Russian efforts to replace these losses and rebuild its military required upgrading and reviving the Russian defense industry. This is complicated by the high cost of new weapons. Most Russian defense manufacturers, survivors of the post-Cold War slump, cannot build weapons at a price the Russian military can afford. This is because most of these firms have survived on export sales, where higher quality and more expensive weapons are in demand. This problem is most acute with big-ticket items like tanks, nuclear submarines, and combat helicopters. Moreover, Russia exported many of its latest tanks via licensing deals, for manufacture overseas, mainly in India. Nuclear submarine manufacturing was kept on life-support, barely functioning, for over two decades. Helicopter gunships get few export sales and are expensive.

The cost of Russian weapons sold to the Russian military is complicated by two other problems. One issue is that consolidation since the 1990s has left, in many cases, a single manufacturer for many weapon types. Another issue is corruption in Russian industry, government, and the military. This drives prices up and is very resistant to anti-corruption efforts. All this has resulted in the Russian military increasingly calling for the purchase of more foreign weapons. This is considered politically unacceptable and, due to hard currency issues, financially unwise. Some purchases have been allowed, but not nearly as much as the generals and admirals want. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, Western sanctions have eliminated sources for most weapons imports. Iran and North Korea are the exception, but they expect to be paid and that has cost Russia over $30 billion so far for Iranian cruise and ballistic missiles along with munitions and artillery weapons and some ballistic missiles from North Korea.

Currently Russian weapons manufacturers cannot deliver weapons fast enough to replace all the losses. Russia also has an increasingly more difficult time mobilizing manpower. Military age men in Russia consider service in Ukraine a high risk undertaking which few Russian troops survive. These those who survive are often wounded, many badly enough to be disabled and no longer fit for military service. Because of this Russia is unable to replace all it troops lost to death or disability in combat.

Meanwhile Russian defense manufacturers have their own problems. For example, in the 1990s Russia sought to rebuild its Cold War era helicopter industry. The first move was putting all Russian helicopter companies into one firm: Russian Helicopters. To accomplish this, the government bought most of the shares in six companies. As part of this effort, the Russian military was to order more helicopters.

The Russian helicopter companies need all the help they can get. Total annual production of all these companies had collapsed to less than a hundred helicopters in the 1990s, mostly for export. Twenty years ago, annual production passed a hundred again, and it continued to grow, but not enough to keep manufacturers profitable. Many firms have been staying alive by producing spare parts and refurbishing older aircraft. Thousands of helicopters produced by Russian manufacturers are still in service, and they needed spares, upgrades, and maintenance services. But now there are more new models coming out, the Russian armed forces are buying again, and the export market is booming. But the Russian military customers are being offered helicopters at rapidly, and frequently, increasing prices. The buyers are not happy with this, and the government is demanding changes. The Russian military is not satisfied with the cheaper, upgraded Cold War models. These are the only ones that are sold at affordable prices.

For example, in 2007 Russia decided to replace its 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 of the more recent Mi-28s. The Mi-24 is a twelve ton chopper based on the Mi-8/17 transport. The U.S. did the same thing with the AH-1, developing it from the UH-1 Huey. But rather than adopt the two seater, one pilot behind the other approach of the AH-1 and AH-64 Apache, the Mi-24 could still carry troops or cargo in the back and was not as nimble as the AH-1. The 11 ton Mi-28 looks more like the AH-64. That's because, by the end of the 1960s, the Russians realized that the AH-1 design was superior. Like the AH-64, the Mi-28 is expensive.

For several years, there has been intense competition to decide which of its two new helicopter gunship designs, the Ka-50 and Mi-28N to standardize on. The 2007 decision settled the matter. About 50 Mi-28s were bought in the next three years, with all 300 in service within five years.

The Mi-28N is a more capable helicopter, costing about the same as the earlier $15 million AH-64A. The Russians know that their weapons sell much better when a rock bottom price is offered. But you can't make a profit at those low prices. During the Cold War, the communist government was not bothered by unprofitable prices, because profit was not considered important. That's the main reason the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and now Russian firms pay attention to profit.

The first version of the Mi-28N was shown in 1996, although the manufacturer, Mil, wasn't ready to offer it for sale until 2004. Worse, when the Mi-28 went up against the AH-64 in a competition to determine which new gunship India would buy, the AH-64 was found to be decidedly superior. Moreover, the AH-64 has an extensive combat record that the Russian helicopter gunship lacks.

Another market niche that Russia has always been strong on is heavy lift models like the Mi-26 Halo. This helicopter can transport 20 tons for 550 kilometers or 15 tons for 900 kilometers. Russia has also continued production of the Mi-24, as the export-oriented Mi-35M. This is the Mi-24 with a lot of the electronics, engines, and other features of the Mi-28. But Russian helicopter companies have had the most export success, during the last two decades, by selling Cold War favorites like the Mi-17 transport.

But the Russian military believes it will take them a decade or more to replace the losses they have already suffered in Ukraine. That war isn’t over yet, and Russia continues to lose tanks, aircraft and other equipment that is increasingly short supply.




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