Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Pentagon Deputy: Russia’s Defense Industry ‘Will Feel’ Pain of Ukraine War

Russia’s vaunted defense modernization depends on precisely the Western gear it can no longer acquire.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A destroyed Russian main battle tank rusts next to the main highway into the city on May 20, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A destroyed Russian main battle tank rusts next to the main highway into the city on May 20, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A destroyed Russian main battle tank rusts next to the main highway into the city in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 20. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Putin’s War

STUTTGART, Germany—U.S. and international economic sanctions and export controls are likely to significantly hamper Russia’s ability to produce advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and space capabilities essential to the Kremlin’s efforts to modernize its military, the U.S. Defense Department’s No. 2 official said.

The Pentagon and Western governments have indicated for weeks that Russia is struggling to restock precision-guided munitions that use foreign-made computer chips and guidance systems to help them hit targets, which has an immediate impact on Russia’s war in Ukraine. But U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who is in Europe on her first international trip after a year on the job, told reporters on Tuesday that the Kremlin’s deep reliance on foreign-produced microelectronics that are now under harsh economic controls is expected to hamper a much wider range of platforms.

“The economic costs of Putin’s decision to undertake this war are going to be significant for Russia, and Russia’s defense industry will feel that,” Hicks told reporters during a press conference at U.S. European Command headquarters, where she traveled to visit U.S. and European troops helping to oversee the transit of military aid to Ukraine. “I do anticipate you’ll see that across the breadth of their major modernization areas.”

STUTTGART, Germany—U.S. and international economic sanctions and export controls are likely to significantly hamper Russia’s ability to produce advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and space capabilities essential to the Kremlin’s efforts to modernize its military, the U.S. Defense Department’s No. 2 official said.

The Pentagon and Western governments have indicated for weeks that Russia is struggling to restock precision-guided munitions that use foreign-made computer chips and guidance systems to help them hit targets, which has an immediate impact on Russia’s war in Ukraine. But U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who is in Europe on her first international trip after a year on the job, told reporters on Tuesday that the Kremlin’s deep reliance on foreign-produced microelectronics that are now under harsh economic controls is expected to hamper a much wider range of platforms.

“The economic costs of Putin’s decision to undertake this war are going to be significant for Russia, and Russia’s defense industry will feel that,” Hicks told reporters during a press conference at U.S. European Command headquarters, where she traveled to visit U.S. and European troops helping to oversee the transit of military aid to Ukraine. “I do anticipate you’ll see that across the breadth of their major modernization areas.”

“Whether it’s advanced fighter aircraft, whether it’s in their advanced munitions, whether it’s in their naval platforms, microelectronics are central,” Hicks added.

Russia’s current military modernization plan, set to conclude in 2027, is focused on backing up the Kremlin’s ground forces with a bevy of long-range weapons systems that could hold NATO nations at bay, including two varieties of hypersonic missiles, sea- and air-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, and short- and intermediate-range Iskander missiles—all of which have been used in combat in Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Russia has aimed to perfect “non-contact” warfare against the NATO alliance, using standoff strikes if it were to come to blows with European nations in a wider regional war—areas of military modernization where Russia could now face significant headwinds.

But even before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, eight years of fighting in the country’s Donbas region had helped sever vital links with Ukrainian aerospace industries and shipbuilders, delaying the rollout of new ships and submarines and forcing the Kremlin to turn to Soviet-era designs for some aircraft. Dating back to the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Putin has sought to concentrate the Kremlin’s focus on developing the nuclear triad and emerging technologies, highlighted by six novel nuclear weapons systems unveiled in 2018 that are not covered by arms control treaties.

And Russia has long struggled to get its fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jet program running, with just four aircraft entering service since the program was inaugurated in 2020. The modern fighter was missing in action during Russia’s “Victory Day” parade in Moscow at the beginning of the month, and three months into the war, Russian forces still have not achieved air superiority.

The microelectronics that Russia is struggling to get ahold of “form the backbone of modern military capabilities,” said Jesse Salazar, who was the Pentagon’s top official for industrial policy until earlier this year. He said the coronavirus pandemic has also stressed the defense industry, forcing some product lead times from six months to two years with digitization moving forward rapidly.

The sanctions on Russia will likely exacerbate this supply chain challenge and make production of advanced technology systems much harder and longer, especially in defense,” he said. 

The senior U.S. defense official said Russia’s game plan for a wider regional war, known as “active defense,” envisions using preemptive strikes to bloody the nose of NATO forces and deter them from attack. U.S. officials are still trying to understand how Russian military aspirations to field high-grade weapons compare with their actual capabilities on the battlefield, where Russian forces have struggled to ensure basic logistics and have incurred disastrous troop losses in just a few months of fighting.

The economic impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine is also taxing the Kremlin’s weapons sales abroad, officials said. Russia is responsible for about a fifth of global arms sales around the world since 2016, including to India, which the United States has been trying to dissuade from buying Russian weapons. “What we’re seeing is a significant challenge for them on arms sales because of all the economic effects that they’re experiencing from their decision to pursue this war in Ukraine,” said Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official. She called arms sales one of Russia’s “major levers” of influence in Africa.

Russia has increasingly sought to try to insulate itself from international supply chains, boosting state spending to fund the electronics industry by 800 percent in 2021 alone. “This was likely to have been used to finance the development of electronics to replace those banned by Western sanctions imposed in 2014,” wrote Richard Connolly, an expert on the Russian economy who leads the Eastern Advisory Group consultancy, in a recent report commissioned by the Pentagon. Connolly said Chinese firms could also help Russia with the production of components and with designs for advanced missiles.

Russian pilots have already struggled to navigate the skies over the battlefield, and their obstacles go beyond just Ukraine’s air defenses. In a speech this month, British defense secretary Ben Wallace said crashed Russian SU-34 jets in Ukraine had been found with GPS receivers taped to their instrument panels “so that the pilots knew where they were because of the poor quality of their own systems.” Experts expect that semiconductor and computer chip sanctions will force the Kremlin to put more Soviet-era equipment onto the battlefield. (Russia is reportedly preparing to deploy old T-62 tanks, first deployed in the early 1960s, to the fight in Ukraine due to ongoing losses of more advanced equipment.)

“They’ll not lack for basic platforms in storage that they can bring into use to replace losses, but advanced navigation, sighting, stabilization, and weapon seeker components won’t be available due to sanctions, so the quality will be lower,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London focused on air power and technology. “They’ll struggle to produce modern cockpit displays, navigation equipment, radars, and weapon seekers for their combat aircraft.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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