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Will the Arms Embargoes Clip the Wings of Russian Air Power?

Dr Daniel Salisbury

Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS)

17 February 2023

Western export restrictions seek to constrain Russian military power – including the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). My recent paper for the Freeman Air and Space Institute (FASI) provides insights into the challenges Russia will face in maintaining air power by examining contemporary data on Russia’s dependency on western technologies, and historic cases of air forces under embargo. The wartime pressures on the VKS will undoubtedly outweigh the effects of the embargoes in the short term. Given Russia’s significant domestic aircraft industry, yet continuing dependency on imports of certain dual-use technologies for higher-end systems, the embargo will have the greatest medium to long-term impacts on more advanced projects and the future of Russian air power.

Beyond providing material support to the Ukrainian military to counter Russia’s February 2022 invasion, a wide range of states have put in place arms embargoes and export controls to degrade Russia’s ability to replace damaged and lost hardware. This includes the US, the EU, as well as the UK and other partner states. While much discussion has focused on the impacts of economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of the invasion, less attention has been paid to the tangible impacts of these technology embargoes.

The sanctions toolset is used for a range of policy objectives, but mostly to signal, constrain, and coerce target states. Arms embargoes are a sub-section of this toolset that fulfil all three of these main purposes. However, through their ability to ‘constrain’, embargoes can have a tangible impact on the target state’s assets and means of power projection – in this case the armed forces, the air force, and air power.

There are many challenges in assessing the impact of technology embargoes due to the secrecy surrounding the defence industrial complex, and the technological contents of weapons systems. In the Russian case, much analysis has focused on the large number of western-origin components in Russian weapons systems. Real revelations have been obtained from the growing dataset of destroyed and damaged Russian systems removed from Ukrainian battlefields.

It has been more challenging to get a picture of what technologies are inside Russia’s aircraft, sub-systems, munitions, and manufacturing complex. Although around 60 jet aircraft and a similar number of helicopters have been lost by the VKS, these are mostly older systems. Aircraft wreckage that has fallen to earth at a great speed and often burned up on the ground are also more difficult to analyse than land systems that are damaged or abandoned.

Lessons from History

The VKS is far from the first air force to face an arms embargo. There is a rich historical dataset from the Cold War and even the early days of air power. In the 1920s, Germany faced constraints from the Treaty of Versailles; during the Cold War, export controls were targeted on the communist world – including the Soviet Union and China – through Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCoM); Rhodesia and South Africa faced arms embargoes in the mid-to-late Cold War; as did Iran in the 1980s following the 1979 revolution.

Analysis of these cases provides some insights into the responses of air forces to embargoes – essentially a playbook of coping strategies and tactics used to try to mitigate the impacts. This includes strategies based on continued dependency on foreign supply: stockpiling spare parts before the embargo, cannibalisation of existing airframes, procurement of spare parts, and expertise and aircraft from state and black market suppliers.

It also includes self-sufficiency strategies pursued by more technologically capable states, including enhancing or relying on domestic capabilities to produce spare parts, as well as to replicate or develop new aircraft designs. Any number of these tactics may be used by air forces under embargo. Their efficacy is determined by pre-existing technological capacity, the ability to foresee the embargo, and the types of systems operated by the air force. The VKS is likely pursuing the full range of these strategies to some degree, short of procuring foreign-manufactured aircraft.

While embargoes cut off technology, other events and circumstances may have similar characteristics and effects. This includes the pressures of operating under wartime conditions – as the VKS currently is. Other conditions can also create embargo-like conditions, or compound them. This includes supply chain fractures, changes in levels of technical support due to security situations, financial crises, and pandemic events.

Russian Air Power in Ukraine and Beyond

The Russian defence industrial base is highly developed – although plagued with corruption and more dependent on external sources of technology than previously thought. Notably, Russia is one of a handful of states that have domestically manufactured jet combat aircraft, and therefore is more technologically capable than other previously embargoed states such as Iran, Rhodesia, and South Africa. The embargo is therefore having a less clear effect than it had on states fully dependent on specific suppliers.

There is, however, evidence of the dependency of VKS systems on external sources of technology. A number of aircraft use French manufactured navigation systems, display screens, view finders and helmets transferred under contracts signed before the 2014 EU arms embargo. Other aircraft systems have been found to be full of western microelectronics. Furthermore, the Russian defence industrial base likely relies on imported advanced computer numerically controlled machine tools.

The VKS will be most impacted by the embargo on dual-use technologies that are prevalent across its military systems, and manufacturing technologies used in aircraft production and maintenance. Shortages of these components and technologies will have an impact on Russia’s ability to replace lost aircraft, maintain existing systems, and replenish stocks of weaponry in the short-to-medium term.

The greatest impact, however, will be felt by Russia’s ability to develop its next-generation aircraft projects such as the Su-57 and Su-70. These are likely to have a greater level of dependence on advanced components sourced from outside of the country. The willingness of China to supply Russia with technology in the medium-to-long term – both weapons systems and dual-use goods and technologies– will be a crucial factor in shaping the VKS’s ability to compete with the US and other NATO states in the future.

In the meantime, efforts to implement and enforce export controls –against the VKS and Russia’s military industries more broadly – will undoubtedly degrade the ability of Putin’s war machine to fight a long war in Ukraine.

Dr Daniel Salisbury is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London (KCL). He is also an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and holds a PhD from KCL. This article is based on the findings of a recent FASI paper.

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Daniel Salisbury

Daniel Salisbury

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