How Russia relies on old technology in weapons aimed at Ukraine

WASHINGTON – As Russian forces fired precision-guided weapons at military and civilian targets in Ukraine, officers in the Ukrainian security service working with private analysts collected parts of the system. Missiles crash to unravel the enemy’s secret.

These weapons are at the forefront of Russia’s arsenal. But they contain fairly low-tech components, analysts who have tested them say, including a basic but unique satellite navigation system also found in the bombs and ammunition seized. other.

Those findings are detailed in a new report released on Saturday by Conflict Armament Research, an independent UK-based group, dedicated to identifying and tracking weapons and ammunition used in wars around the world. The team examined the Russian matériel in July at the invitation of the Ukrainian government.

The report pointed to Moscow’s story of having a rebuilt military in the country, once again on par with Western rivals.

But it also shows that the weapons Russia is using to destroy Ukrainian towns and cities are often powered by Western innovationdespite sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Crimea in 2014. Those restrictions aimed at preventing the shipment of high-tech items could help Russia’s military capabilities. .

“We found that Russia reused the same electronic components on a variety of weapons, including cruise missiles and attack helicopters,” said Damien Spleeters, an investigator with the group that contributed to the report. their latest, and we didn’t expect to see that.” “Russian guided weapons are full of non-Russian technology and components, and most of the computer chips we have seen were made in Western countries after 2014.”

How Russia obtained these parts is unclear. Mr. Spleeters is asking semiconductor manufacturers how their goods end up in Russian weapons, whether through legal transactions or a straw trade set up to avoid sanctions. .

The investigators analyzed the remains of three types Russian cruise missile – including Moscow’s newest and most advanced model, the Kh-101 – and its newest guided missile, the Tornado-S. They all contain identical components marked SN-99 which, upon close examination, the team says, have proven to be a satellite navigation receiver crucial to the rocket’s operation. .

Spleeters said that Russia’s use of similar components pointed to bottlenecks in its supply chain, and that the limited supply of SN-99 components would slow Moscow’s ability to replenish its arsenal. its ever-decreasing guiding gas.

“If you want effective control and make sure the Russians can’t get their hands on it, you need to know what the Russians need and what they use,” Mr. Spleeters said. “Then it’s important to know how they got it – which networks? What providers did they use? “

Investigators found the overall dependence of Russian engineers on certain semiconductors from specific Western manufacturers, not only in weapons but also in surveillance drones and equipment. communications, helicopter electronics and other military goods.

“Over time, the Russians kept coming back to the same manufacturers,” Mr. Spleeters said. “Once you know that, it’s easier to target those networks.”

“Looking at the computer chips in the same locations on many circuit boards, they are always made by the same manufacturer,” he said. “You’ll have different production dates, but always the same manufacturer.”

The report also reveals a stark difference between the top Russian weapons and the weapons Ukrainian forces receive from the US.

Warring parties often examine seized military assets 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.

“This is the late 1990s or the mid-2000s at best,” Arsenio Menendez, a NASA contractor who reverse engineer guides weapons components as a hobby, said after reviewing photos of Russian military electronics taken by researchers. “It’s basically the equivalent of the Xbox 360 video game console, and it looks like it’s open to anyone who wants to take it apart and build their own copy.”

By comparison, the US Department of Defense has standards that military contractors must follow to make it difficult for adversary-states to build their own versions of captured weapons.

To protect this operational knowledge, which the Pentagon refers to by the term anodyne “critical program information,” military directives require the use of tamper-proof technologies to secure private information. lines of computer code and instructions that tell the weapon how to find a target. .

The publicly released Pentagon directives provide only an outline of the program’s scope and requirements, and other details are to be classified. Military officials declined to discuss any tamper-proof technology the Department of Defense might request.

“You can build a mesh around a computer chip that, if probed, deletes the content,” Menendez said, adding that such protections have been used in the past. commercial items such as credit card readers to reduce theft and fraud.

Russia’s navigation system, he said, resembles the open-source architecture of GPS receivers, which are not subject to federal restrictions regarding the sale and export of defense items.

“A group of university electrical engineering students could build this,” he said.

The parts that Russia uses to make guided weapons may also help explain why its cruise missiles are sometimes not very accurateMr. Menendez said.

Errors caused by non-standard GPS units in satellite signal processing can eventually cause cruise missiles to miss their targets a wide distance.

Russia’s approach to weapons electronics seems to be “if you can’t keep up, steal the technology and do your best with it,” Menendez said.

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