Weapons: The Russian Gift


June 7, 2019: Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014 and that had one beneficial side effect in that it revitalized Cold War defense industries to provide refurbished as well as new weapons for the Ukrainian forces. This work enabled Ukrainian firms to revive research and development of new weapons systems as well as revive stalled ones. A recent example of this is the Barer V ATGM (Anti-tank guided missile) with a new fire control and targeting system to accompany it (or other similar weapons). A consortium of Ukrainian firms, led by Motor Sich, developed the PM-LKT fire control/targeting system so it was housed in a dome type structure that could be mounted in helicopters, UAVs, armored vehicles or ships. The PM-LKT is gyro-stabilized (so the target remains stable to the operator no matter how much the aircraft moves) and contains a vidcam with zoom, a thermal imager, laser rangefinder and laser designator. The laser designator has a range of 7,500 meters, which is the max range for the Barer V. This missile is 130mm in diameter and weighs 47 kg (104 pounds). It comes in a storage/firing container and has a tandem shaped charge warhead that can penetrate 800mm of armor and defeat ERM (Explosive Reactive Armor). The PM-LKT and Barer V are being installed in Ukrainian helicopters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Since these systems will be used in combat against Russian-backed rebels in Donbas it will have any needed upgrades implemented and marketed as “combat proven” and at a competitive price compared to Russian, Chinese and Western systems.

Since the 1990s Ukraine has been trying to develop new ATGMs. In 2017 that resulted in the Skif ATGM. This missile was based on work done with neighboring Belarus to develop the Shershen ATGM. The two countries differed on the design of the joint project and each went their own way with Ukraine developing the Skif. The Ukrainian ATGM is a 29.5 kg (65 pound) missile stored and fired from an 8.5 kg (18.7 pound) container that is mounted on 32 kg (70 pound) control unit. Max range of the laser-guided missile is 5,500 meters. The control unit contains a thermal sight and allows the operator to manually guide the missile to a moving target or designate a stationary target in “fire and forget” mode.

The firing unit can be detached from the tripod and operated up to 50 meters away from the rest of the system. Skif has two types of armor-piercing warheads (130mm and 152mm), one capable of penetrating 1100mm of reactive and composite armor. There is also a fragmentation warhead that is useful against structures. Skif is touted by the manufacturer as being comparable to the Israeli Spike-LR but as a practical matter the Spike uses more advanced technology and the main advantage Skif has is a lower price. The shelf life of the missiles (in their sealed containers) is 10 years but few of those produced over the next year or so are expected to remain on the shelf long.

Ukraine has a long history with the development of ATGMs, but has been less successful marketing them. For example, in 2013 Ukraine tried to interest buyers in its new Corsar ATGM, which appears to be a scaled down Skif. The 105mm (diameter) Cosar missile and its storage/launch container weigh 18 kg (40 pounds). The missile is laser guided with a range of 2,500 meters, and its tandem warhead can penetrate 550mm of armor that is behind ERA armor. At the time Poland expressed some interest, even though Poland has been using the Israeli Spike LR for several years. But Corsar is cheaper than Spike and uses laser guidance rather than the more expensive “fire and forget” system Israeli missiles employ. The Spike LR, along with the sealed storage/launch canister, weighs 13 kg (28.6 pounds). The canister is mounted on a 13 kg fire control system (10 kg without the tripod) for aiming and firing. The missile in its canister has a shelf life of twenty years and a range of 4,000 meters. The Spike uses a fiber-optic cable so that the operator can literally drive the missile to the target, although the missile can also be used in "fire and forget" mode. Israel is apparently flexible on what they charge for the Spike LR, saying only that it's cheaper than the similar U.S. Javelin. So the Ukrainians found that the export market was more crowded and competitive than they anticipated. The larger, longer range and cheaper (than Spike LR) Skif may not have been the answer but because it did well in Donbas, that was a powerful assist for sales efforts.

Ukraine has a lot of other potential new weapons and has made progress in finding customers. Before the Cold War ended in 1991, many Soviet weapons design and production operations were in Ukraine. These were inherited by the newly independent Ukraine after 1991. But most of these organizations went out of business because there were no more Soviet Armed Forces placing large orders each year. Most of the foreign sales disappeared as well. Ukraine salvaged some weapons and design capability by selling off its large Cold War stocks of Soviet weapons at low prices and developing a willingness to sell to anyone who could pay. Ukraine now has a lot of customers in Africa and Asia and noted a demand for ATGMs. These weapons are popular not just for their ability to destroy or disable most tanks but as highly portable and accurate artillery against all sorts of targets. Corsar and Skif are old technology but the Ukrainians knew how to produce it cheaply and reliably enough to attract some customers. The work on Corsar and Skif also made possible the more capable Barer V.

One of the generally unmentioned side effects of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the damage done to Russian weapons production because of their dependence on Ukraine. Although only 4.4 percent of Russian imports are from Ukraine, many of those imports are key components that are crucial for the Russian armaments industry and the current modernization program for the Russian armed forces.

These industrial links date back to Soviet times and many remained active after the USRR collapsed in 1991. In many areas, Russian arms producers, and users are highly dependent on the Ukrainian industry and most of these items cannot be quickly or cheaply replaced by Russian made substitutes. This is mainly due to insufficient production capacity of Russian industries. The most severe shortages occur in key areas. Prominent examples include IBCMs, air-to-air missiles, aviation and engines for warships.

Then there are the Ukrainian made guidance systems used in Russian air-to-air missiles. This includes the infrared (heat seeking) guidance systems for short-range R-73 and medium-range R-27T. These missiles are the main armament for MiG-29, Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters.

One of the most important Ukrainian aviation suppliers is Motor Sich, which produces many of the new engines (and modernizes old ones) for the Mi-8/17 transport helicopters and Ka-50/52, Mi-28 and Mi24/35 attack helicopters. Despite the considerable effort, the Russian industry has been not able to produce more sufficient helicopter engines for planned aircraft production over the next three years. Without Ukrainian engines, Russia will be unable to produce the number of new helicopters for their own forces and export orders. They will also be unable to refurbish older engines to keep existing helicopters operational.

A lot of Russian combat vehicles are using Ukrainian components for fire control, laser warning and other complex electronic and optical systems. Even if the Russian industry has alternative sources, getting them up to speed will take time. Meanwhile, Ukraine widened its lead over Russia in many areas, especially fire control and guided missiles. Worse yet for Russia, Ukraine is making sales at the expense of Russian competition.


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