How can it be that a large Russian army attacking force, capable of causing untold destruction, is being checkmated and systematically devastated by Ukraine’s military, in particular its special forces?
And what impact will this have on the Russian army and its industrial backbone, the Russian companies that build the tanks, armored personnel carriers, mobile air defenses and aircraft including fixed-wing and helicopters – all of which have suffered extreme losses in the conflict?
Russia’s exports consist of various commodities, most prominently wheat, oil and gas, and armaments. Before the Ukraine war, Russian arms sales were doing brisk business with an order book running at around $55 billion.
Russia was able to offer capable weapons at a considerable discount over Western companies jousting for the same market and, in some cases, systems that outmatched the competition, such as the Russia-made S-400 air defense system.
But now, with Russian armor, fighter jets, helicopters and mobile air defense systems being blasted by Ukrainian fighters for the world to see, a once rosy sales outlook for Moscow’s arms builders is looking grim.
Interestingly, Russia was able to avoid blame for the crushing defeat of Armenia’s forces (equipped by Russia) by the hybrid forces in Azerbaijan (equipped by Russia, Israel and Turkey).
The key to the Nagorno-Karabakh war was the impact of armed drones and Israeli loitering munitions that zeroed in on enemy air defenses, radars and missile launchers, and crushed them.
One would have thought, given what the Russians surely should have learned from Nagorno-Karabakh, they would have recognized the need to have defenses against drones and loitering munitions in their invasion forces in Ukraine.
While some of the attacking Ukrainian drones have been knocked out, enough of them have survived to do considerable damage to Russian equipment, including to mobile artillery emplacements and air defenses.
For example, one of the notorious BUK missile systems (the same one that downed Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in May 2018) was knocked out by a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone. There is video of the drone strike on the BUK platform.
The evidence also shows that modern Russian tanks, upgraded T-72s with reactive armor, are being destroyed in large numbers by US and British supplied anti-tank weapons such as the US Javelin and the British-Swedish NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon system).
These are carried by individual soldiers and can be used effectively to ambush enemy armor forces. Both systems can be used on the battlefield or even in urban environments. There are numerous photos of Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles smashed and destroyed by these weapons.
In fact, these weapons have been so successful that thousands more are being shipped in to help Ukraine fend off more brutal Russian attacks.
Russia says that it has developed an active defense system, called Arena-M, for its armored vehicles similar to the Israeli Trophy active defense system. That system is now being mounted on Israeli Merkava tanks and other equipment, and used by some US M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.
An active defense system consists of a small, specialized 360 degree radar that can detect incoming projectiles. Systems such as Israel’s Trophy then launch explosively formed projectiles that intercept and destroy incoming rounds, including shells fired by other tanks.
Unfortunately for the Russians, either they sent in tanks not yet equipped with any active defense system, or the Russian version of Israel’s Trophy does not work.
Quite possibly, Russia cannot afford to modernize its tanks, but risking them against highly effective Western anti-tank systems such as Javelin and NLAWS looks like a major blunder. Indeed, potential buyers will now wonder about the future survivability of Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
The same appears true for the Russian Air Force, which appears to be poorly equipped with countermeasures against both man-portable air defense systems such as the US Stinger MANPADS (which became famous when the Mujahadeen used them to shoot down scores of Russian fighter planes, bombers, and attack helicopters in Afghanistan) and mobile air defense systems in Ukraine such as the S-300PT/PS, an older Russian-made mobile air defense system.
The Ukrainians have done considerable damage to Russia’s Air Force, even though Ukraine is very short on fighter planes, thanks to Ukraine’s ground-based air defense system. They have even reportedly knocked out some modern SU-34 “Fullback” fighter bombers.
While details are still scarce, it appears that Russian on-board countermeasures and radar warning systems are not good enough to protect Russia’s Air Force equipment.
It may be the lack of warning systems and countermeasures that explains why some of Russia’s best front-line jets, such as the Su-35, have not been seen in this conflict (notwithstanding Ukrainian claims some have been shot down). Potential foreign buyers of Russian equipment will now likely think twice about buying from Russian aircraft suppliers.
In modern warfighting, the first order of business is air superiority. The Russians, in fact, did target Ukrainian airports and tried to knock them out of action. But Russia did not commit any large number of aircraft to the fight, perhaps fearing the 250 S-300 air defense systems Ukraine could field.
This suggests that Russian fighter jets and fighter bombers don’t have countermeasures that can defeat modern air defense systems, such as the ones originally supplied by Russia to Ukraine. This suggests that if NATO upgrades its ground-based air defense systems it can yield significant benefits in offsetting Russian air power.
Whether Russia will learn any lessons from the ongoing Ukraine war remains to be seen. But, as a practical matter, Russia will not have time to upgrade its fielded equipment even if it had the technology its needs in hand.
Foreign arms buyers may, therefore, choose to look elsewhere – even if the various state embargoes on Russia are lifted in future. Russia thus stands to lose revenue critical to its future military modernization, setting Moscow further back in its competition with NATO.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen