A destroyed Russian tank in Ukraine. Image: Twitter

The Ukraine war has revealed many serious weaknesses in Russian warfighting equipment.  The staggering loss of tanks and armor, the failure of the Russian air force to enforce air superiority over a comparatively tiny Ukrainian adversary and the sinking of the Moskva flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet illustrate the Russian military’s many war failures.

While some of the disaster can be attributed to poor command and poor training including a lack of troop motivation, in many cases the equipment has simply not measured up. Why? The answer tracks with modern Russian history.

During the Soviet period, Russian weaponry was built robustly, even if it lacked the bells and whistles of American and other Western armaments. Even during World War II, Russia churned out fighter aircraft such as the Yak-3, the Lavochkin LA-7 and the Ilyushin-2 Stormovik.

Russian products included the world’s most successful tank, the T-34, the first modern battle tank with sloped armor. The T-34 also featured an independent suspension system originally designed by J Walter Christie in the United States.

Russia went on to produce effective warships, nuclear submarines, fighter and bomber aircraft, missile defense systems and all kinds of rockets and missiles including heavy ICBMs.

A Soviet T-34 tank in the Victory Day parade in Volgograd on May 9, 2018. Photo: Mladen Antonov/ AFP

In the 1970s and ’80s, Russia tried to expand its fighting forces significantly, buying huge amounts of modern equipment and committing perhaps 20-25% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to the effort.

The US tried to match the Soviet buildup and by 1982 US spending for defense rose to 6.8% of GDP. It stayed there for a few years, eventually declining to around 3.2% in 2000 after the collapse of the USSR. 

The US had the advantage of more advanced technology, especially technology in the form of microelectronics and computers, and sophisticated materials including powdered metals and processes to make jet engines, as well as composites to make aircraft and missiles.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Russian equipment in the hands of Egypt and Syria was almost able to defeat Western equipment deployed by Israel. Russian equipment boasted high lethality and was, to a degree, innovative. 

A good example was the Russian introduction of Sagger (Malyutka or “small one”) wire-guided anti-tank missiles in the Egyptian Sinai campaign. Those, along with Russian RPGs, did serious damage to Israel’s armor forces.

I have had the opportunity to examine Russian equipment from those times, weapons and systems captured by Israel or acquired by the US and US allies. Much of the equipment was made well. While some of it exhibited a good deal of copying of US systems, it was nonetheless battleworthy. 

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, however, Russia’s defense industry was devastated. The newly emerged Russia faced a huge economic shock as the value of the Russian ruble plummeted and tens of thousands of ex-Soviet defense workers were laid off. 

From 1991 until 2010, Russian military spending was less than 2% of GDP and Russia’s GDP itself was a shadow of what it had been under the USSR. To be sure, there has been an economic resurgence since then. In 1990, Russia’s GDP had fallen to $554.71 billion; in 2020 it was triple that at nearly $1.78 trillion.

Nevertheless, defense production and modernization still lag badly. In practical terms, the lack of money for defense investment in Russia meant that equipment was not maintained or upgraded.

It also meant money would go first to prestige items and only after that to improving older hardware. For example, improving armor and fire control systems on tanks was very slow going. Important upgrades – including active protection systems – were never implemented.

That assessment does not account for Russian corruption. Corruption had been a major problem in the USSR and there is no reason to assume it did not continue after its collapse.  How much or what was skimmed from defense spending and diverted from defense production is unknown.

According to Oryxspioenkop, known as Oryx, a well-regarded Dutch open-source intelligence defense analysis website and warfare research group, Russia has had 990 tanks destroyed in the Ukraine war, 610 damaged, 40 abandoned and 285 captured.

Russian tanks have been destroyed by a variety of weapons but American and European antitank weapons have played a major role. These tanks (T-72s, T-80s, a few T-90s, and older T-62s) for the most part lacked upgraded armor. They were not equipped with active defense systems.

A US Javelin anti-tank missile during a live-fire combat rehearsal by US troops at Camp Fuji, Japan, April 12, 2021. Photo: WikiCommons / Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jonathan Willcox

Russia had approximately 2000 T-72 tanks in its active inventory (and another 7,000 in storage, but probably not battle-ready) before the war erupted. Adding up all the models of the T-72 lost in battle so far, Moscow has probably lost about 25% of its active armor inventory of T-72s.

Because of the lost decades, the Russians had to turn to Western suppliers for new systems. This was especially the case for electronics, cameras and sensors, including such things as thermal sensors and forward-looking infrared radar.

Russian drones are a potpourri of Western and Chinese electronics with very little Russian manufacture added. Secure phones for the battlefield, likewise, are based on non-Russian microprocessors and graphics engines, with the end products only glued together in Russia. Russia is even using American software and operating systems.

Using commercial hardware and software is a fast way to add significant capability to defense systems, but it has drawbacks:

  • Commercial hardware is usually not very secure against hacking or intrusion.
  • There are often backdoors and bugs.
  • The enemy knows almost as much as you do about the systems you are using, and
  • These systems rarely use encryption or other security tools. 

Another flaw, one that is bedeviling some Russian equipment including its drones, is that commercial electronics are typically not designed to be electronically secure against jamming or spoofing.

The S-70 Okhotnik-B, also referred to as Hunter-B, is a Russian-made stealth-heavy unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Photo: YouTube / Screengrab

This is not a problem that only impacts Russia. Such an important US system as the RQ-170 stealth drone was hacked because its electronics were not secure. It isn’t known if the RQ-170 used commercial microprocessors – but the Iranians, who hacked it, surely know the answer.

The main advantages for Russia are capability, availability and cost. Advanced microprocessors (something Russia does not produce) are powerful and can crunch numbers and parse information quickly. They are easy to obtain from the global market and, compared with building custom chips, they are cheap. These microprocessors can be used in equipment as diverse as nuclear submarines, tank fire control systems and missiles.

Commercial components have helped the Russians catch up in some categories, but not in others. The deficits are plain to see. The lack of targeting pods on Russian ground attack jets, aircraft missing global positioning systems and plenty of similar examples suggest that either the funding wasn’t available to modernize Russia’s old equipment or its military leaders had a different agenda.

It would seem that, regardless of the Ukraine war’s final outcome, Russia will need to figure out what failed and how, and hold to account those who did not do their jobs.

Unless changes are made, the Russian army will need to continue fighting with at least one hand tied behind its collective back. And Russian equipment, once robustly built, will wind up being seen by the world as junk.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen