How Russia uses low tech in its high-tech weapons
By John Ismay
As Russian forces fire precision-guided weapons at military and civilian targets in Ukraine, officers in Ukraine’s security service working with private analysts have collected parts of the crashed missiles to unravel their enemy’s secrets.
The weapons are top of the line in the Russian arsenal. But they contained fairly low-tech components, analysts who examined them said, including a unique but basic satellite navigation system that was also found in other captured munitions.
Those findings are detailed in a new report issued Saturday by Conflict Armament Research, an independent group based in Britain that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars around the world. The research team examined the Russian materiel in July at the invitation of the Ukrainian government.
The report undercuts Moscow’s narrative of having a domestically rebuilt military that again rivals that of its Western adversaries.
But it also shows that the weapons Russia is using to destroy Ukrainian towns and cities are often powered by Western innovation, despite sanctions imposed against Russia after it invaded Crimea in 2014. Those restrictions were intended to stop the shipment of high-tech items that could help Russia’s military abilities.
“We saw that Russia reuses the same electronic components across multiple weapons, including their newest cruise missiles and attack helicopters, and we didn’t expect to see that,” said Damien Spleeters, an investigator for the group who contributed to the report. “Russian guided weapons are full of non-Russian technology and components, and most of the computer chips we documented were made by Western countries after 2014.”
How Russia obtained these parts is unclear. Spleeters is asking the manufacturers of the semiconductors how their goods ended up in Russian weapons, whether through legitimate transactions or straw-man purchases set up to skirt the sanctions.
The investigators analyzed the remains of three types of Russian cruise missiles — including Moscow’s newest and most advanced model, the Kh-101 — and its newest guided rocket, the Tornado-S. All of them contained identical components marked SN-99 that on close inspection, the team said, proved to be satellite navigation receivers that are critical for the missiles’ operation.
Spleeters said that Russia’s use of the same components pointed to bottlenecks in its supply chain and that restricting the supply of SN-99 components would slow Moscow’s ability to replenish its diminishing stockpile of guided weapons.
“If you want to have effective control and make sure that the Russians can’t get their hands on them, you need to know what the Russians need and what they use,” Spleeters said. “Then it’s important to know how they got it — what networks? What suppliers did they use?”
The investigators found an overall reliance by Russian engineers on certain semiconductors from specific Western manufacturers, not just in munitions but also in surveillance drones, communications equipment, helicopter avionics and other military goods.
“Over time, the Russians kept going back to the same manufacturers,” Spleeters said. “Once you know that, it gets easier to target those networks.
The report also revealed sharp differences between Russia’s top-shelf weapons and those that Ukrainian forces have received from the United States.
Warring parties often examine captured military hardware for intelligence value. But the investigators said they were shocked by Russia’s apparent indifference to having so many weapons that an adversary could potentially reverse-engineer.
By comparison, the Defense Department has standards that military contractors must follow to make it harder for adversarial nation-states to build their own versions of captured weapons.
To protect this operational knowledge, which the Pentagon refers to with the anodyne term “critical program information,” military directives require the use of anti-tampering technologies meant to secure the lines of computer code and instructions that tell a weapon how to find its target.
Publicly released Pentagon directives provide only an outline of the program’s scope and requirements, and further details are classified. Military officials declined to discuss any anti-tampering technologies that the Defense Department may require.
“You can build a mesh around a computer chip that if probed will delete the contents,” Menendez said, adding that such protections were used in commercial goods like credit card readers to reduce theft and fraud.
The Russian navigation system resembles the open-source architecture of GPS receivers, which is not subject to federal restrictions regarding the sale and export of defense articles, he said.
“A team of college electrical engineering majors could build this,” he said.
The hodgepodge of parts that Russia uses to build its guided weapons may also help explain why its cruise missiles are sometimes not very accurate, Menendez said.
Errors made by nonstandard GPS units in processing satellite signals can ultimately cause a cruise missile to miss its target by a wide margin.
The Russian approach to weapons electronics appears to be “if you can’t keep up, steal the tech and do your best with it,” Menendez said.