Lords of War: Ukraine’s iron mongers

There’s a dual-use equipment exhibition in Kyiv right now, showcasing things like new UAVs, infantry mobility vehicles and stuff like that. Moreover, Ukraine brings its shiny new An-178 aircraft to Le Bourget, which means it’s probably time to talk about Ukraine’s military-industrial complex. Image courtesy Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia anyone can vandalize:

Problem C-27?

I had the Mriya fly over my commieblock several times, to terrifying results: all windows were trembling and the damn thing flew like a zeppelin, that is very slowly. Sadly, today Mriya takes other routes, presumably still making Antonov big bucks, or at least moderately-sized bucks. Ah, well. Ukrainian military-industrial complex, personified by the expansive Ukroboronprom concern, is actually in quite a sorry state through all these years of neglect, but at least kept itself alive. Ukraine is one of the largest arms exporters in the world – 9th place worldwide as of 2014 – yet most of that arms exports were more like an all-you-can-take arms sale. If you watched Lord of War, then yeah, it was kinda like that. What little stuff Ukraine produced mostly went to… yes, Russia. Ukraine and Russia existed in an unique relationship where a number of goods required by the Russian military-industrial complex were manufactured by the Ukrainian military-industrial complex. This is because Ukraine inherited a lot of strategic Soviet stuff after the USSR went under. Most famous is when Russia’s overweight Dmitry Rogozin was forced to admit that Russia’s ambitious shipbuilding program fell through because it was dependent on Ukrainian equipment, namely engines. Why aren’t you in your trench fighting for Novorossiya, Mr. Rogozin, are you TOO FAT? Ahem.

This is just one example. The aforementioned Antonov built new planes, including An-124s, for Russia. Russia’s spacecraft depended on control units built at Khartron, in Kharkiv. Russian helicopters used engines built by Zaporizhzha’s Motor Sich. The list goes on; on the other hand, however, Ukraine didn’t buy much from Russia. Ukraine didn’t buy anything from Russia, actually; this is why Russian claims that the fancy Russian tech in Donbass separatists’ possession is apparently ‘taken from the Ukrops’ are laughable at best. On the other hand, Ukraine didn’t buy anything from its own military-industrial complex for years.

The direst times were during Yanukovych’s Ancient Regime, when enterprises like Kyiv Armor Plant or Kharkiv’s Malyshev Factory (of the T-34 and the T-64 fame) were kept afloat by foreign contract. Even then the deal with Iraq for BTR-4s fell through because of structural defects caused by temperature difference. These BTR-4s then served in Donbass; we didn’t actually look gift horses in the mouth back then. Of course, it is a well-known fact the Iraqi army is shit, so some of the BTR-4s they actually kept are now used by ISIS. Go figure.

Ukraine also inherited other stuff: Yuzhnoe Design Bureau, of the SS-18 Satan fame, or the Nikolaev shipyards – the only shipyards in the former Soviet Union capable of building aircraft carriers. Russia has been promising to build its own for what, ten years now, but so far there wasn’t any progress. This particular slipway, however, stands unused; I’m not sure Ukraine will ever need aircraft carriers, although an amphibious assault ship or two would be nice. In fifteen years or so. But I digress.

There is actually a theory – again, just a theory – that the reason Putin started his Novoroissya adventure was because of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex. Remember: Putin actually believed that the Russian-speaking half of Ukraine would happily submit to him the instant Mr. Strelkov showed up, so this is a possibility. Putin could have gotten half of Ukraine, with all of its military industries, all for himself – things like Yuzhmash, or Khartron, or Motor Sich, or Nikolaev shipyards. So far he has to make do with Sevastopol and Kerch shipyards (which are smaller), as well as stuff like Donetsk’s Topaz Design Bureau (responsible for the infamous Kolchuga system) or Luhansk Ammo Factory. Both were ‘evacuated’ into Russia (while all technical documentation may or may not have been destroyed or transferred to Ukrainian-held territory early on). Not only Ukraine still exists, it also has most of its military industry still intact. This is what counts.

Needless to say, Ukroboronprom is now enjoying itself, with government contracts and a lot more attention paid to the military-industrial complex nowadays. Of course, it suffers from outdated equipment and a lack of qualified workers; but if you want to work three shifts a day for 5000 UAH on, Ukrainian military industry is waiting for you. I know that, at one point, half the factories in Kyiv were engaged in military contracts, which mostly include restoring old, Soviet-era weaponry to working order. This is no shit: Ukraine still has old Maxim guns and captured MG-42s in storage, and while machinegewehrs are a no-go, there is actually talk of bringing back Maxims. No surprise there; there’s probably more than enough 7.62×56 mm R bullets to go around, and a water-cooled machine gun rocks hardcore, but… yeah. A slightly less famous example is the DShK machine gun, a WWII-era antique, beloved by Somali warlords: Ukraine has them fitted to Saxons. Yes, the Saxons! Stop giving them shit: the VDV LOVES those. Of course, we didn’t give up on our own APCs, with more and more shiny new BTR-3s and BTR-4s to go around.

Not pictured: Chief of General Staff Muzhenko’s dacha

Of course, Ukrainian military industry is not entirely self-sufficient. The prime example would be tanks: the Donbass War is already the largest armed conflict in Europe since the Yugoslav wars, so of course tanks are even more important here. The separatists are supplied from Russia’s endless storage facilities (although even those are most likely out of T-64s by now), with the occasional helping from Buryat tank brigades, while Ukraine relentlessly modernizes its own tank stockpiles. Here’s the catch, though: Ukrainian military industry doesn’t make tank guns. Ukrainian military industry doesn’t make tank engines, either. Ukraine’s T-72 fleet was mothballed during independence due to a lack of spare parts (manufactured in Russia): with the war, Ukrainian industry had to improvise. New guns are basically torn out of the more-dilapidated tanks in storage. A storehouse full of spare T-64 and T-80 (!) engines (yes, the gas turbine ones) probably felt like a treasure trove.

Ukroboronprom actually gets a lot of flak for the fact that, while Ukrainian military receives modernized T-64s and T-72s (T-80s are intended for the VDV: yes, the VDV was never so badass), Malyshev Factory keeps working on T-84 Oplot tanks intended for Thailand. Same applies to literally every case where Ukraine exports something. Ukroboronprom bites back that Ukraine has to push onto the market while Russian arms exports are sanctioned, and that foreign contracts have to be fulfilled anyway; besides, do you know how much those Oplots cost? Now and then, of course, people (like Turchynov the Bloody Pastor, now Chairman of National Defense Committee and a vice-president in all but name) make bold statements that Oplots will be produced for Ukraine starting this year, but color me sceptical. Thing is, they really are expensive, while refitting T-64s is much more cheaper.


While Oplots are indeed cool and all, they are hardly Gundams; modern warfare doesn’t work that way, so a single Oplot (which is how much Ukrainian Army has nowadays) couldn’t waste unlimited numbers of separatist T-72 mooks before facing off with Russian ace Dorji Bartomunkuyev and his ace custom red T-72 (three times faster than the regular kind!). You’d need at least a platoon of those things, but this fact, however, is lost on the Ukrainian public, which knows not of neither Japanese cartoons nor modern warfare; all in all it seems, however, that Ukraine will be left with a tank menagerie comparable to Russia’s, with different T-64s, T-72s, T-80s and some Oplots galore.

However where situation is even more dire is the Navy (the Shabby Service, with lots of admirals and literally no ships) and the Air Force, but the Air Force gets a trickle of modernized MiG-29s and Su-25s (the ones that shoot down passenger planes, according to Russian media) at least. The Navy lost most of its ships in Crimea and has no replacements in sight: the new corvette has been stuck at 45% completion for three or four years or so, and the best Navy’s gonna get are two riverboats. Cool riverboats, but still. No one is disbanding the Navy (however much some Army generals would have wanted that), but its future is unclear at best. Basically the Navy’s most active unit are the Marines: a suspiciously surface-based Navy, then.

There is an interesting Navy procurement anecdote, though: the (in)famous missile cruiser Ukraina, 75% finished when Soviet Union collapsed, then 95% finished by 1998. Navy assembled crews for the ship several times, but ultimately it went nowhere, and Ukraina is stuck at the Nikolaev shipyard, gradually rusting: too expensive to finish, yet too complete to scrap. Yanukovych’s Ancient Regime tried selling her to Russia, but Russians refused to buy it, except for free. That went nowhere. The cruel and unfortunate truth, though, is that Ukraina is nigh-useless: the Black Sea is more like a small puddle for a Slava-class missile cruiser, if it had any missiles, that is – which Ukraine doesn’t have. A throughout refit is probably out of the realm of possibility for a 95%-completed ship, no matter the prestige, so Ukraina will most likely rust apart. Actually, it probably will, because it is a huge money sink maintenance-wise.

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

Ukraine famously sold Varyag, another almost-complete ship, to China, along with all the design documentation and a Su-33 carrier-borne aircraft prototype, so, yeah, you have to thank Ukraine for China becoming a major naval power. It’s kind of sad, really, but also a matter of perverse pride: Ukraine doesn’t need carriers (because, again, the Black Sea is even more of a puddle for aircraft carriers), and the Chinese were willing to pay big buck for that. Russia didn’t give them carrier technology for all their talk about their (imagined) Sino-Russian Alliance, we did! But again, I digress.

And, to wrap it off, small arms. The trusty AK is still a Ukrainian soldier’s best friend, albeit it is growing more and more festooned with Picatinny rails, red dot sights, tactical foregrips and other stuff, but lately more and more new guns are trickling into the force. The most famous of them is, of course, the TAR-21, locally produced as Fort-221, or the smaller MTAR-21, locally produced as Fort-224. In fact, no one calls them ‘Tavors’ today, and most probably don’t know they hail from the Promised Land in the first place. Ukraine’s Mayak factory is also making licensed AR-10 and AR-15 copies, mostly used by Special Forces, and apparently Barretts are trickling in steadily. Given that Ukraine had no anti-materiel rifles before, this is good news, together with the stated goal of adopting NATO standards and thus moving onto 5.56 mm firearms, as opposed to the Soviet 5.45 mm. But the Kalash is not yet perished.

All in all, these are good times for the defense industry, starved as it was in peacetime, and even better times to be in the army, too: you’ll mostly get old but shiny Soviet toys to play with, but maybe some of the new and shiny ones will come your way. Only slightly-used, yes.

But don’t let me tell you that, because I have little to do with the army in the first place. Although, since I deliberately missed my chance at doing ROTC, it is not that far-off nowadays.

Pictured below is something Ukrainian military industry sadly does not make:

zhidobendera mech battalion
The 1488th ‘Stepan Bandera’ Separate Mech Battalion

Although giant robots would rock hardcore.

Lords of War: Ukraine’s iron mongers

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