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How did Russian defence industry perform in 2023?

Wars are good for domestic defence industry – or should be. President Putin’s ‘special military operation’ has reversed this rule. In 2022 it was possible to disguise – to an extent – the effects of sanctions and unpreparedness of Russian defence industry for a major war.  In 2023 the curtain has been pulled back to reveal the Emperor has no clothes, or at any rate is dressed in an old Soviet suit.

This article summarises unit production in the three defence sectors – maritime, aerospace and land – in 2023.  It effectively counts ships, aircraft and tanks.  This is a basic but not invalid way to check the state of Russian defence industry.  The piece does not enter into debate over shell production, missile production or other related topics that deserve articles in their own right.

In 2024, 39% of Russian central government spend will be on defence and security (14.2 trillion roubles), far in excess of health (1.6 trl) and education (1.6 trl). Is Putin getting ‘bangs for bucks’? Source: Izvestia

 

Naval shipbuilding

United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) insolvency: The big story of 2023 was the admission that United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) – Russia’s warship builder and an umbrella for 40 enterprises; shipbuilders, repair yards, and the design bureaus – had a ‘huge financial hole’ and was bankrupt. On 9 October, President Putin transferred USC by decree to the trust management of VTB Bank for a period of five years (a Russian blogger joked ‘bankrupt shipbuilder passed to bankrupt bank’). The moment must have been bitter because it was Putin who created USC with some fanfare in 2007. The day after the signing of the decree the State Duma sat to discuss a draft bill to support uncompetitive Far Eastern shipyards. For a British reader the equivalent would be the marine divisions of Babcock International and BAE Global Systems declared bankrupt and placed under the receivership of a major bank.  USC’s problems predate sanctions and indeed go all the way back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Notwithstanding Russian naval programmes face financial uncertainties.

Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates – are the engine problems solved? The second defence industry story concerns the Russian Navy’s flagship programme – the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. On 26 December, President Putin attended the commissioning ceremony of the third-in-class Admiral Golovko – a ship that was laid down in 2012. In brief, the Project 22350 frigates were intended as the foundation of the post-Soviet blue water fleet.  The programme stalled following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because the engines were Ukrainian, which Kyiv now refused to supply.  The programme subsequently resumed but the replacement Kolomna D49 engine relied on foreign components, which became unavailable due to sanctions. Two frigates were completed before sanctions (Admiral Gorshkov and Admiral Kasatonov). The only option was to start over and develop an indigenous ‘gas turbine unit (GTU)’.  Admiral Golovko was supposed to be commissioned in March this year. In the summer, ROSTEC head and Putin confidante Igor Sechin boasted the ship would be commissioned in time for Navy Day on 31 July – but this did not happen.  Admiral Golovko has finally now been commissioned but litigation documents submitted to a Moscow arbitration court by PJSC Severnaya Verf reveal the ‘technical readiness’ of the ship is a pedantic ‘93.32%’ and the firm is owed 19 billion roubles.

Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes delayed until 2030: In an unexpected announcement, shipbuilder Pella JSC announced in December that the completion of three Project 22800 Karakurt-class corvettes will be delayed until 2030. The unfinished ships are Vikhr, Okhotsk and Kozelsk (formerly ‘Storm’). Concurrently, the firm is pursuing litigation against the MOD as well Zvezda PJSC, the supplier of the M507D engine.  In the Russian procurement system, the MOD commonly forces shipbuilders to start programmes on uncompetitive terms with the understanding the firms will be financially compensated on delivery of the ships.  This leads to frequent disputes and indeed bankruptcy as has happened to USC.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, Russian yards delivered somewhat more warships and submarines in 2023 compared to last year. They included:

  • One Project 22350 frigate Admiral Golovko
  • Three small missile ships (SMRKs): Two Project 20380 Steregushchy-class Merkury and Rezkiy; and one Project 22800 Karakurt-class Tsiklon
  • One Project 21631 Buyan-M-class corvette (MRK) Naro-Fominsk
  • One ballistic nuclear submarine (ARPKSN): Project 995A Borei-A-class Alexander III
  • One nuclear attack submarine (APRK): Project 885 Yasen-M-class Krasnoyarsk
  • One diesel-electric submarine: Project 636.3 Varshavyanka-class Mozhaisk

The two Steregushchy-class small missile ships use the D49 diesel engine.  It is believed these were procured before sanctions allowing the builds to proceed.  However, this raises questions of serviceability if components fail.  The Karakurt-class uses the domestic M507D engine so is unaffected by sanctions. The Buyan-M-class uses a Chinese engine.

Third-in-class Admiral Golovko fitted with indigenous gas turbine unit (GTU) Source: Izvestia/Pavel Volkov

Set against commissioned vessels are combat losses.  In 2023, the Russian Navy (Baltic Fleet) lost or suffered damage to more vessels (12) than were commissioned.  These included:

  • An intelligence collection ship: Project 18280 Yuriy Ivanov-class SIGINT collection ship Ivan Khurs (24 May)
  • Three amphibious assault ships: Project 755 Ropucha-class BDKs Olenegorsky Miner (4 Aug), Minsk (12 Sep), Novocherkassk (26 Dec)
  • Three patrol ships: Project 22160 Vasily Bykov-class Vasily Bykov (14 Sep), Pavel Derzhavin (11 Oct), and Askold (5 Nov)
  • Two small missile ships (corvettes): Bora-class former MRK-17 re-named Samum (14 Sep), one Buyan-M class (uncertainty over the name) (13 Oct)
  • Two small landing ships: Project 11770 Serna-class Denis Nikitin (8 Nov), one Project 1176 Akula-class (uncertainty over the name) (8 Nov)
  • One diesel-electric submarine: Project 636.3 Varshavyanka-class Rostov-on-Don(12 Sep)
Black Sea Fleet ships sunk or damaged since February 2022 Source: Euromaidan Press, modifying @torger78/Twitter
Large landing ship (BDK) Novorcherkassk burning at Feodosia after a successful strike by Storm Shadow/SCALP launched by two Su-24s Source: Twitter(X)/loogunda

Aerospace defence industry

Russian defence aviation plants delivered fewer combat aircraft than last year (an estimated 22 versus 29 in 2022). There is uncertainty over the exact number because in some cases the MOD only released imagery of one aircraft, and in one case no imagery was released.  The MOD uses the term ‘batch’ in announcements. This typically means two aircraft and uncommonly four aircraft.  However, without the imagery proof some caution is necessary; fewer or more aircraft may have been delivered.  The conservative estimate of combat aircraft deliveries, based on MOD announcements, is:

An unanswered question is the fate of the MiG fleet (the only carriers of the Khinzal hypersonic missile).  Serial production ended eight years ago.  There are no known plans to revive production.

As with warships, output has not matched losses.  Nearly 90 combat aircraft have been lost of all types, or twice as many as produced in 2022-2023.  An exception is the Su-35S where slightly more aircraft have been delivered than lost.  The Russian Air Force has been careful not to risk this expensive aircraft, or the Su-34s, instead using the ‘expendable’ Su-25 fleet. However, at the end of the year as many as four Su-34s and one Su-30 were downed, believed ambushed by Patriot missiles.

Land defence industry

‘Like a Zeno paradox, the Russian Army’s tank fleet is tending to zero and not advancing one foot forward.’

At the beginning of the spring, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev made the preposterous claim that Russia would make 1,500 tanks in 2023.  In the same interview, the bombastic Medvedev boasted the T-90M was ‘the best tank in the world.  In the world!’ (Recalling Sakharov’s joke that Russian elephants are the best elephants in the world).

It is not possible to count Russian tank production accurately.  Some useful observations, nonetheless, can be made.

  • The reliable Russian Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) recorded that around 1,340 ‘modern’ tanks1 were manufactured or upgraded over 2000-2020. Annually, Russian defence industry was delivering roughly 100 new-build or upgraded tanks, an effort ramped up to closer to 200 tanks in the period immediately preceding the war.

On the eve of the invasion, there were in the order of 2,600 operational tanks, with another 400-odd mainly older T-72 variants used as range tanks.

Operational tanks in the Russian Army on the eve of the invasion Source: Voennoye Obozreniye –‘Military Review’. Note the table does not show T-90M; as many as 26-27 may have been delivered before the invasion; at least another two company batches have been delivered since 24 February 2022 with video evidence, not counting the battalion set filmed in May 2023.
  • From February 2022 to February 2023, a very limited number of company batches (ten tanks) were announced, supported by visual evidence.
  • In May 2023, Defence Minister Shoigu was filmed inspecting a battalion set of T-90Ms somewhere in southern Russia (the largest collection of T-90Ms ever seen in a single image).The film was clearly a propaganda piece. It was impossible to tell whether the battalion set was representative of UVZ’s (Uralvagonzavod) production capacity.
A battalion set of T-90Ms filmed in May somewhere in southern Russia Source: TV Zvezda
  • In June 2023, Defence Minister Shoigu visited Omsktransmash (Omsk Transport Engineering Plant Enterprise) and gave instruction to deliver 15 completed T-80BVMs to the troops. Further instruction was issued to produce at least another 153 tanks before the end of the year.  Sceptical Russian defence journalism noted these targets implied Omsktransmash would have to manufacture one tank per day which was not realistic.  There is no evidence Omsktransmash has produced any new-build T-80BVMs in 2023 (and indeed General Director Alexander Valerievich Potapov gave an interview in Septemberdescribing the difficulties of restarting production).  Repair or upgrade of existing T-80B/BV variants has been undertaken.
  • In July 2023, another TV Zvezda video clip showed Defence Minister Shoigu inspecting at least two company-sets of T-72B3M tanks at an unidentified training area in southern Russia, resembling the training areas west of Volgograd. Three T-90-Ms also appeared in the clip.
    • Finally, in an end-of-year summary, General Gerasimov asserted troops fighting in Ukraine received 1,500 new or upgraded tanks and 3,000 other armoured vehicles. There is no evidence this assertion is remotely true.From July to December, there has been very limited reporting in the Russian Military District weekly newspapers of delivered tanks or other combat systems. What was reported is summarised in the table below:
      Date Equipment
      Mid-Oct ‘Almost 200 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces and missile systems entered service with motorized rifle and artillery units of the Central Military District. The fleet of combat vehicles of motorized rifle units was replenished with T-80BVM and T-72B3M tanks, BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, Gibka-S anti-aircraft missile systems. and 120 mm mortars. Self-propelled 152-mm howitzers “Msta-SM” entered service with the artillerymen.’
      24 Nov ‘…a new batch of BMP-3’
      15 Dec ‘A batch of 15 modernized T-90M Proryv tanks…’; ‘In addition, this month the tank and motorized rifle units of the Central Military District received modernized T-72B3M tanks, as well as about 100 units of BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles of various modifications, including those equipped with Berezhok combat modules.’
    • Set against real rather than claimed production, attrition of the Russian tank fleet continues to be significant. Commercial satellite imagery revealed that the recent attacks on Avdiivka resulted in the loss of over 200 vehicles including scores of tanks. A drone unit like the SBU (Ukranian Security Service) White Wolves has been a prodigious tank killer (using Mavic-style drones to drop grenades on tanks). The unit recently broke its own record hitting 20 targets in one night, including eight tanks.
    • At the time of writing, the Oryx database tracking Russian and Ukrainian losses from visual evidence shows Russia has lost around 2,500 tanks (the accurate numbers will be higher because not all losses are visually recorded). In effect, the equivalent of the entire pre-war operational fleet has been lost in 22 months of war.
    • It can be stated with confidence that Russian defence industry (UVZ and Omsktransmash) has no realistic prospect of matching tank attrition rates. Like a Zeno paradox, the Russian Army’s tank fleet is tending to zero and not advancing one foot forward.

      Defence Minister Shoigu will not be filmed next to this vehicle. This is the other reality of the Russian war: a vintage MT-LB armed with twin 25mm naval cannons and protected with improvised armour Source: LostArmour

      Concluding thoughts

      From the beginning, the ‘special military operation’ was ‘pumped up’ (to use the Russian phrase) with an arrogance and delusion that conflated the Russian Army with Soviet/imperial armies of the past.  The ‘little Russians’ in Ukraine were merely ‘sub-Russians’ that needed the rod of Russian discipline and some re-education. The ‘second army in the world’ (how embarrassing these phrases now sound) would send the ‘Nazis’ in Kyiv packing. Putin’s ally and friend Dmitry Medvedchuk would be placed on the vacated throne and Muscovite imperial greatness restored.

      This all proved a hallucination.  The Russian nationalist delirium has transformed into a grotesque tragedy for the people of Ukraine and particularly the southern regions now laid waste by Russian ‘liberation’.

      None of the defence companies and their CEOs that make up the Russian defence industry had an inkling of what was about to happen in February 2022.  They were caught unprepared. Land defence industries have struggled to meet production targets and have no hope of matching the colossal attrition suffered by Russian armed forces. If Putin is counting on his defence industries to save his war he is courting one more delusion.

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. ‘Modern’ tanks are the T-72B3, T-72B3M, T-80BVM, T-90A, and T-90M

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