A US Aviation Ordnanceman checks racks of precision guided bombs. Russia appears to have a shortage of these types of high-tech weapons, but China does not. Photo: WikiCommons / US Navy / Third Class Michael S Kelly

COCOM (Coordinating Committee) was a semi-secretive export control system made up of NATO members plus Japan. During the Cold War, COCOM was an important factor in keeping high technology from the USSR. 

When COCOM was ended by President Clinton in 1996, well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was not enough to make a big difference for Russia, but its demise fueled China’s rapid expansion thanks to imports of Western technology. 

We now know that in the Ukraine war, Russia has a severe shortage of high-end precision weapons because it lacks imported technology to make them work.

In the Cold War, it became clear to the United States and some of its allies that Russia’s arms buildup needed high-tech hardware, especially computers and electronics, to be able to compete effectively with their NATO counterparts.

Under the KGB First Directorate, the Soviets organized Directorate T to manage the acquisition of Western strategic, military and industrial technology. By 1972, Directorate T had a headquarters staff of several hundred officers in addition to specialists stationed at major Soviet embassies.

The Directorate’s operations were coordinated with the scientific and technical collection activities of other KGB elements, and with the State Scientific and Technical Committee (GNTK). Western insight into Directorate T operations came from a French-run KGB insider spy, Vladimir Vetrov (code name, Farewell).

Directorate T focused on so-called dual-use technology, that is commercial technology with significant military applications. Separately, Soviet military intelligence, the GRU (the main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces) focused on acquiring, usually through clandestine means, military technology from abroad. 

Both Directorate T and the GRU were very important, but the biggest need of the Soviet Union was commercial high-tech to upgrade their guns, missiles, warships and submarines and aircraft. 

Semiconductors play a key role in advanced weapons systems. Photo: WikiCommons

NATO’s force multiplier

The Pentagon assessed that while NATO forces were smaller than the forces of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, NATO’s increasing use of computers and semiconductors gave it a significant force multiplier and the ability to field more accurate, therefore more lethal, weapons in the battlespace.

Thanks to US leadership and COCOM restrictions, plus increasingly effective enforcement, the Soviet Union was not able to import the technology it needed, and its efforts to build a high technology industrial base for computers and semiconductors floundered. 

Most famously the USSR ran a big R&D and manufacturing operation in the then-closed city of Zelenograd. Despite massive investment and heavy spying, Zelenograd rapidly fell behind its Western counterparts – estimates have it that by the mid-1980s the Soviets were at least seven years behind in electronics, with no real hope of significant improvement.

When one considers this period also witnessed exponential growth in the American silicon industry, the Soviet Union found itself overmatched.

China, however, was another matter. The US and its allies relaxed technology transfers to China with much milder restrictions, and when COCOM was scuttled in 1996, few serious trade barriers remained. 

China was able to gain access to almost all the high-tech computer and semiconductor electronics it wanted, including even sensitive supercomputers. This helped China launch and build a significant industrial infrastructure of its own, something Russia failed to do, possibly because after the USSR collapsed there was little money and an internal investment climate not conducive to partnering with western companies.

The difference now can readily be seen. Many analysts have pointed out the paucity of high-precision Russian weapons in the Ukraine war with the suggestion that Russia lacks adequate stockpiles of sophisticated weapons. 

While some Russian smart weapons have shown up in Ukraine, none of them have appeared in any volume. Moreover, some systems that should have been part of the Russian military kit, such as advanced IFF (Identification Friend of Foe) systems, active protection systems for armor and targeting pods for Russian warplanes, were missing from the battlefield. 

Russian Mikoyan MiG-31 aircraft are not as advanced as those deployed by NATO. Photo: WikiCommons

Russia’s lack of resources

While a lot of attention has been focused on Russia’s lack of military preparedness, poor tactical operations and untrained operators, some of this can be traced to a lack of resources and missing technology. 

Russian pilots, for example, have limited combat training, about 50% less than their NATO counterparts, and fly aircraft missing key components.

A recent study by the British Royal United Service Institute points out how Russia depends on technology imports for some of its key weapons, with key components coming from the US, UK, Germany, the Netherlands and even Taiwan. 

In many cases, these products are laundered through foreign companies elsewhere (eg, India and China), since their direct purchase would alert intelligence organizations in the US, UK and NATO of specific Russian vulnerabilities. 

Obviously, the imposition of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine (going back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea) makes it difficult for Russia to get needed components. Compounding the problem are at least two other factors – a lack of ready cash for overseas purchases and possible corruption in managing foreign parts acquisitions.

Russia, today is the one great superpower that almost totally lacks a commercial industrial base alongside its defense industries. Many conclusions can be drawn from the lack of a significant commercial sector, but one of them is that Russia’s military will continue to fall behind while countries with a strong commercial industrial capability, such as the US and China, will be at the other end of the capabilities spectrum. 

It is, therefore, entirely fair to say that the end of meaningful export controls fueled China’s growth, but not Russia’s.

One of the questions for the United States is whether realigning and upgrading its forces in NATO is really essential, when the growing superpower competition is in the east, not the west.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter: @stevebryen