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POLITICS

A farewell to arms. By year end Russia will be left almost without shells, artillery and armored vehicles

Pavel Luzin

For Russia, six months of war have led not only to colossal irreplaceable losses in manpower, but also to a huge waste of weapons and military equipment: guided missiles are already very scarce, shells for artillery and armored vehicles will be exhausted by the end of the year, and the state of military aviation precludes a full-scale air campaign. Because of the sanctions, Russia cannot continue full industrial production of weapons and replenish its arms stockpiles, which are rapidly running out.

ALL CARDS
  • Barrel wear and ammunition shortage

  • The impact of the sanctions: from industrial production to manual labor

  • Fewer rockets

  • Problems with armored vehicles

  • Problems with military aviation

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Barrel wear and ammunition shortage

One of the underestimated problems is the finite number of Russian artillery shells and guns. There is a common perception among experts, observers, and concerned citizens that Russia had inherited a vast stock of artillery equipment from the Soviet Union. The problem is that Soviet artillery shells could not be stored for long and as early as summer 2002, during the second Chechen campaign, the Russian army faced a shortage of 122 mm and 152 mm shells.

Of course, this does not mean that the entire Soviet artillery arsenal should be written off. For example, solid-propellant rockets for multiple rocket launchers are much less sensitive to long-term storage than rounds for rifled artillery, most of which, at the very least, were long overdue for restorative repair. Moreover, the arsenal was thoroughly depleted not only by the two Chechen wars and the short-lived Georgian campaign, but also by the military campaign in Ukraine in 2014-2015 and, probably, even more so by the campaign in Syria.

At the same time, it should be understood that the rate of shell consumption during the two Chechen wars was many times lower than during the current war, when it reaches 40,000-60,000 shells of all types per day during high intensity combat operations, dropping to 24,000 per day during periods of so-called «lulls».

It is worth trying to estimate the rate of Russian artillery shell production, given the fact that it was relatively small in the 1990s and 2000s, and was at its peak in the 2010s. However, even that rate of production of existing projectiles, as well as the rate of developing and creating new ammunition, did not seem to suit the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, in 2014, a large-scale program was launched to restore shells that had survived in artillery and missile arsenals. By the end of 2017, this program restored 1.7 million munitions and missiles of all types, that is, about 570,000 per year. It was particularly emphasized that their production from scratch would have cost the budget 117 billion rubles, or 39 billion rubles per year.

Based on these figures, it is possible to estimate the volume of artillery ammunition production itself. If we look at the earnings of the corresponding industrial enterprises and conglomerates, we will see that during those years they ranged between 80-100 billion rubles. The earnings, of course, also include civilian products, which in some enterprises account for 25-30% of the total revenue. As a consequence, the ratio between recovered and newly produced munitions can be estimated, albeit roughly, as 1:2. Or for each 570,000 shells restored, there are up to 1.14 million new ones. Thus, the total annual rate of replenishment of artillery arsenals in the 2010s did not exceed 1.6-1.7 million shells of all types. It is worth mentioning an interesting detail: the supply of rockets of all types in 2017, for example, amounted to only 10,700.

As a result, it turns out that during the six months of aggression against Ukraine, Russia should have spent at least 7 million shells, not counting the losses of frontline depots as a result of Ukrainian strikes. In other words, if the intensity of the war remains at its current level, Moscow will face a tangible shell shortage by the end of 2022 and will have to reduce its use of artillery in order to save munitions.

If the intensity of the war persists, Moscow will face a tangible shell shortage by the end of the year

Besides the shells, there is also the problem of wear and tear of barrels. While the guides on multiple launch rocket systems have a long service life if properly maintained, the barrels of rifled artillery guns, as well as tank guns, wear out much faster. For example, Russian tank barrels have a service life from 210 rounds of armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds to 840 rounds of high explosive and shaped charge rounds. At the same time, rifled artillery barrels, depending on caliber, projectile type and range, have a life of up to 2,000-3,000 rounds. For comparison, some of the German PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers supplied to Ukraine were out of action after a month of use at an intensity of 100 rounds per day per gun.

And even if we assume that Russian soldiers do not neglect maintenance procedures for barrels and other gun mechanisms, and that Russia has an unknown, but not an infinite, number of them in reserve (especially on guns from storage depots), by the end of 2022 wear and tear of artillery will lead to a drastic reduction in its effectiveness. In addition, the Russian military itself cautiously pointed out problems with the survivability of artillery pieces as early as 2020, as well as insufficient efficiency of the field maintenance and repair system for artillery pieces.

It turns out that the expected shell shortage should coincide with a growing shortage of artillery pieces themselves. In this regard, it is not surprising that Russia has started striking Ukrainian cities with S-300 and S-400 air defense/anti-missile systems, a regular practice that began at least five years ago. However, munitions for the corresponding systems are measured in thousands or, at most, tens of thousands, but not in hundreds of thousands, much less millions.

The impact of the sanctions: from industrial production to manual labor

In this context it is also worth looking at the state of the artillery and ammunition industry. Judging by the sudden visit of Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev to the Motovilikha Plants and Perm Gunpowder Plant on the last weekend of August 2022, things are not going smoothly in this area.

The industry is riddled with the same problems as the entire Russian military sector. There have been several expert reports on the dependence of MIC enterprises on imported items and on the actual failure of import substitution programs. The very notion of import substitution and autarchy is a dead-end, unreasonable, and generally false idea that simply rejects the division of labor and the benefits of international cooperation. However, for an authoritarian system and for the command-administrative economic model, the path to self-isolation and inevitable self-destruction is predetermined.

Enterprises producing munitions and artillery pieces underwent technical re-equipment at the turn of the 2000s and 2010s. For example, the Kazan Gunpowder Plant bought equipment from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria (meaning it inevitably had to buy some of the chemical components for its production abroad as well). The same was done in those years by the Federal Research and Production Center Altai and all the other developers and producers of gunpowder and solid rocket propellants. Artillery manufacturers also borrowed Western technologies and purchased European industrial equipment. For example, in 2011 the Motovilikha Plants signed a contract for the supply of a radial forging machine from Austria needed to produce artillery barrels (the plant itself, however, went through bankruptcy in 2018).

Since 2014, all of these cooperative ties began to snap gradually, and the equipment was wearing out faster than it was being updated (if there was any possibility of updating it at all). This was exacerbated by personnel shortages and the natural lack of regularity in government defense contracts, leading to additional losses or, at the very least, extra costs. And even if individual plants were to turn a profit, such as the Kazan Gunpowder Plant, it only meant that production costs got deferred and were eventually borne by Russian citizens, because any losses and investments in development are ultimately compensated by the federal budget.

Since 2014, all of these cooperative ties began to snap gradually, and the equipment was wearing out faster than it was being updated

It is also noteworthy that, apparently, in an attempt to improve the efficiency of the munitions industry, at the turn of the 2010-2020s it was decided to combine under one roof the enterprises owned by state corporations and those owned directly by the state. The Tekhnodinamika Concern, controlled by the Rostech State Corporation, served as such a roof. Tekhnomash, another Rostech conglomerate specializing in munitions, also joined the concern. However, the organizational transformations and consolidation of financial flows did not lead to any changes in quality. For example, Tekhnodinamika's labor productivity in terms of revenues is about 2.3 million rubles a year (less than $32,000), which is about 9-10 times lower than that of American munitions manufacturers. In Russia's political-economic and technological environment, it is only possible to increase productivity by drastically increasing manpower, which is practically impossible, given the aforementioned personnel shortage and the overall demographic situation.

Thus, being cut off from supplies of Western equipment, spare parts and materials and simultaneously limited in human capital and labor productivity, Russian artillery and munitions manufacturers will inevitably face production cuts rather than stagnation in the foreseeable future. It is possible that in 2022-2023 they will still be able to maintain the rate of production reached over the previous years, but then a decline is inevitable. The previously purchased equipment will be maintained and repaired as much as possible, but the volume and quality of production will start to decline. In essence this means a transition from mass industrial production to manual labor.

Fewer rockets

As the problems with artillery grow gradually and inevitably, it makes sense to cast a glance at other types of weapons and military equipment (a more detailed analysis has been prepared for Riddle by the author). There are three main groups of systems: high-precision weapons, aviation, and armored vehicles.

Russian high-precision weapons include several types of missiles. Missiles with a range of over 300 km: ballistic missiles for the Iskander-M complex, sea- and land-based Kalibr cruise missiles (9M729), Onyx (P-800) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles X-101, X-555, and X-22/X-32. Missiles with a range of up to 300 km: X-35 and X-59 air-launched cruise missiles. Of these, the X-555 and X-22 missiles were inherited by Russia from the arsenals of the USSR and from Ukraine in the 1990s, and they are no longer in production.

Except for the simpler cruise missiles X-35 and X-59, the number of which is difficult to estimate, there were a few hundred units of each of these types of missiles in the Russian arsenal before the war. It is evidenced by the way the intensity of their use has dropped from several dozens per day in the early days of the war to single launches, and sometimes once every few days. Meanwhile, Russia is masking the growing shortage of long-range missiles by shelling Ukrainian cities with long-range rocket artillery and by using S-300/S-400 air defense/anti-missile systems to strike ground targets.

Russia is masking a shortage of long-range missiles by using S-300/C-400 air defense/anti-missile systems to strike ground targets

An assessment of Russia's current production capacity is a matter of expert debate, but it can be assumed that the annual production of each type of long-range cruise and operational-tactical ballistic missiles is up to 50 units. Moreover, the total estimate for the sea-based Kalibr missile, the aviation missile X-101 and the ground-launched cruise missile 9M729, which are, by and large, variants of the same missile, is 100 units per year. In turn, the number of Onyx cruise missiles is slightly higher, at 55, and the number of X-32s, the production of which to replace the X-22 began in 2018-2019, barely exceeds 20. Overall, it turns out that the production volume of Russian high-precision missiles with a range of more than 300 km is 225 per year. However, this estimate may be adjusted as new data becomes available. Moreover, it should be stressed once again that this estimate does not include missiles with ranges below 300 km, the X-35 and X-59, the production of which is difficult to assess at the moment.

In this regard, it is unlikely that the Russian industry has the potential to seriously ramp up production not only due to the embargo on equipment supplies and staffing constraints, but also because of the relatively low labor productivity. The latter is constrained by the very character of work organization at Russian military-industrial complex enterprises and Russia’s political-economic model as a whole.

Problems with armored vehicles

The situation regarding armored vehicles is such that, judging by the experience of past wars, their main losses can be attributed not even to direct destruction in combat operations, but to shell damage, breakdowns and the expiration of service life. In this regard, the service life of Russia's main battle tanks, the T-72 and T-80 of various modifications, is no more than 1,000 hours. After this time, it is necessary to replace the engines, which are currently manufactured using imported equipment. Of course, there is also factory repair of tank engines, but the possibilities for such repair are limited when the engine life is exceeded on a mass scale.

Of course, tanks, armored infantry vehicles, APCs and airborne combat vehicles stand idle most of the time even during the war, but if they run at least 2-3 hours a day, they have worked 370-560 hours since the start of the war. And even if the relatively fresh, even if not new, armored vehicles are brought in from the military units and storage depots, the lion's share of them will have to be sent for repairs by the end of 2022, provided they are not destroyed, if the high intensity of combat operations continues. And here it is worth repeating: the service life of a tank gun is also finite.

Meanwhile, the rate of production and modernization of armored vehicles during the 2010s was about 650 tanks and armored combat vehicles a year. Of that number, tanks accounted for no more than 160-170 T-72B3/B3M tanks per year in 2011-2020 from Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) in Nizhny Tagil and Omsk (in 2021 the supply of those tanks went down to 34) and no more than 45-50 T-80BVM tanks in 2017-2021 from the Omsk plant. As for the production of T-90M tanks, as well as the upgrade of T-90 tanks produced in the 1990s-2000s, their serial production has started only in late 2021. And it is safe to say that so far only a couple dozens of tanks have been produced on the annual basis, and the production rate can only be increased by using the capacities currently engaged in upgrading the T-72 tank.

Thus, by the beginning of the war the Russian Army had about 2,000 upgraded tanks out of about 3,300 in service. New and upgraded tanks accounted for about a quarter of the upwards of 16,000 armored fighting vehicles of all types. It is also worth keeping in mind that the production of new armored vehicles and the upgrade of existing vehicles are also done using imported equipment and components.

Problems with military aviation

Against this background, the situation in aviation looks better at first glance. Even taking into account the fact that the engines of the Su-25 attack aircraft have the shortest service life (500 hours), and that this war is the last one in which the Su-24 front-line bomber is to be used, because it is too old, the intensity of use of Russia’s planes and helicopters is relatively low. Each machine, even at the beginning of the aggression, when the Ukrainian air defense was less organized than now, was making 1 or 2 combat sorties per day lasting 1-1.5 hours in total. At the same time today, taking into account losses and breakdowns, Russia is still able to keep about 400 combat aircraft of different types and about 360 helicopters (not all of them are attack helicopters) near the borders of Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia has not been able to conduct a full-scale air campaign since the start of the war, and now its capacity for such a campaign has only shrunk.

Here, too, production capacity turns out to be a fundamental constraint. If in the decade before full-scale aggression Russia annually produced 30-35 combat aircraft and 25-30 attack helicopters and upgraded 130 to 200 units of various aircraft, the previously planned transition to a new generation of combat aircraft in the 2020s suggested reducing their production in favor of a better quality. Now the technological embargo is likely to halt the transition, given that it had already been delayed throughout the 2010s.

In the end, despite the planned infusion of at least hundreds of billions of rubles into the MIC in 2022 alone, a long-term deterioration of production to the level where its preservation will depend not so much on organizational and economic factors as on specific engineers, workers and managers is practically inevitable. Simply put, this industry will also look more like manual than industrial production.

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