WASHINGTON — As Russian forces fire precision-guided weapons at military and civilian targets in Ukraine, Ukrainian security service officials working with private analysts have collected parts from 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 released Saturday by Conflict Armament Research, an independent Britain-based group that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars around the world. The research team examined the Russian material in July at the invitation of the Ukrainian government.
The report undermines Moscow’s narrative of having a nationally rebuilt military that again rivals that of its Western adversaries.
But it also shows that the weapons Russia uses to destroy Ukrainian towns and cities are often fueled by Western innovation, despite sanctions imposed against Russia after it invaded Crimea in 2014. Those restrictions were aimed at stopping the shipment of goods technology that could help Russia’s military capabilities.
“We saw Russia reuse the same electronics in multiple weapons, including its newest cruise missiles and attack helicopters, and we didn’t expect to see that,” said Damien Spleeters, a researcher at the group who contributed to the report. “Russian guided weapons are packed with non-Russian technology and components, and most of the computer chips we document were made by Western countries after 2014.”
It is unclear how Russia obtained these pieces. Spleeters asks semiconductor makers how their products ended up in Russian weapons, either through legitimate transactions or front-line purchases set up to circumvent sanctions.
The researchers 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 which, upon close inspection, the team said, proved to be satellite navigation receivers that are critical to the missiles’ operation.
Mr. Spleeters said Russia’s use of the same components pointed to bottlenecks in its supply chain and that restricting the supply of SN-99 components would reduce Moscow’s ability to replenish its dwindling stockpiles of guided weapons.
“If you want to have effective control and make sure 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 is important to know how they got it, what networks? What providers did they use?
The researchers found a general reliance by Russian engineers on certain semiconductors from specific Western manufacturers, not only in munitions but also in surveillance drones, communications equipment, helicopter avionics, and other military items.
“Over time, the Russians kept going back to the same manufacturers,” Spleeters said. “Once you know that, it’s easier to target those networks.”
“Looking at computer chips in the same positions on multiple circuit boards, they were always made by the same manufacturers,” he said. “You would have different production dates, but always the same manufacturer.”
The report also revealed stark differences between Russia’s premium weapons and those Ukrainian forces have received from the United States.
Warring parties often examine captured military hardware for intelligence value. But the researchers said they were shocked by Russia’s apparent indifference to having so many weapons that an adversary could potentially reverse engineer.
“This is late 1990s or mid-2000s at best,” said Arsenio Menendez, a NASA contractor who reverse-engineers guiding weapons components as a hobby, after examining photos of Russian military electronics taken by investigators. “It’s basically the equivalent of an Xbox 360 video game console, and it seems like it’s open to anyone who wants to take it apart and make their own copy.”
By comparison, the US Department of Defense has standards that military contractors must follow to make it more difficult for adversary nation-states to build their own versions of captured weapons.
To protect this operational knowledge, which the Pentagon refers to with the nondescript term “critical program information,” military directives require the use of anti-tamper technologies designed to secure the lines of computer code and instructions that tell a weapon how to find your target. .
Publicly released Pentagon directives provide only a summary of the program’s scope and requirements, with further details classified. Military officials declined to discuss any anti-tampering technology the Defense Department may require.
“You can build a mesh around a computer chip that, if tested, will delete the content,” Menendez said, adding that such protections were used in commercial products 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 on the sale and export of defense articles, he said.
“A team of college electrical engineering students could build this,” he said.
The hodgepodge of parts 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 non-standard GPS units in satellite signal processing can ultimately cause a cruise missile to miss its target by a wide margin.
The Russian approach to weapons electronics seems to be “if you can’t keep up, steal the technology and do the best you can with it,” Menendez said.