In attacking Ukraine, the Russian military is using weapon systems that rely on semiconductor chips from the United States and other western countries. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has examined, among other things, Russian cruise missiles of the type 9M727 (Iskander-K), KH-101 and 3M-1795 (Kalibr) that landed in Ukraine but did not explode.
Such “Cruise Missiles” are launched from land vehicles (9M727) or airplanes (KH-101) and then fly independently over several hundred kilometers to the target with their own computer control. To stay under enemy radar, they fly very low, following the terrain profile (contour flight). To do this, the control system must evaluate several sensors, including radar and satellite navigation (Glonass/GPS).
Cruise missile controls
In a 27-page report, the RUSI describes components of the 9M727 control computer Zarya and the Glonass/GPS sensor SN-99. Accordingly, most of the chips in Zarya come from the Russian chip manufacturer Angstrem, which belongs to Rostec Holding (or JSC Ruselectronics), and from the Belarusian company Integral.
According to RUSI, the most important chip in the Zarya is a digital signal processor (DSP) from the TMS320 series from the US company Texas Instruments (TI). The RUSI specialists also found flash chips from the US company IDT, which now belongs to Renesas, and SRAM chips from Cypress (now bought by Infineon).
The British think tank RUSI has examined electronic modules from Russian weapons used in Ukraine. Here the Glonass and GPS receiver SN-99, which is among other things in the cruise missile 9M727.
The different TI-TMS320 chip versions had designations that refer to the years of manufacture 1988 and 1990. So these are older designs; the Iskander cruise missiles probably go back to developments from the late 1980s.
The RUSI specialists found younger components in the KH-101 cruise missile, which can also carry a nuclear warhead and can fly up to 3,000 kilometers. Its control system uses, among other things, programmable logic chips (FPGAs) from today’s AMD subsidiary Xilinx.
A Kalibr cruise missile contained chips that, according to the date code, were manufactured in 2018 and 2019. At that time, export restrictions were already in place as a result of the annexation of Crimea. The RUSI does not explain whether they concerned the chips found or the Russian companies processing them. Several chip manufacturers whose products appeared in the report have, according to their own statements, carefully observed all embargoes.
According to the RUSI investigations, Russia is even dependent on Western semiconductor technology when evaluating the signals from its own Glonass satellite navigation system. In any case, the SN-99 GPS and Glonass receiver contained chips from Linear Technology, Spansion (later acquired by Cypress) and STMicroelectronics.
Russia also uses drones in the Ukraine war, both for reconnaissance (Orlan-10, Takhion) and as a weapon (“Kamikazed drone” KUB-BLA with warhead, also known as KYB). Such drones communicate with ground stations, for example for remote control or for sending camera images. This requires more up-to-date and more powerful chips than in the cruise missiles mentioned above. In addition to RUSI, the European organization Conflict Armament Research (CAR) is also examining weapons from Ukraine. The CAR also found Western components in Russian cruise missiles.
The small proportion of semiconductor components from China is remarkable. However, Chinese chipmakers have developed extremely rapidly over the past 20 years, which is why more Chinese-made chips could appear in future Russian weapons.
The Zarya guidance computer of a Russian cruise missile is equipped with many chips from Angstrem (Russia) and Integral (Belarus), but a TMS320 DSP from Texas Instruments is particularly important.
The RUSI researchers also investigated where Russia gets the imported components from. They used the “Altana Atlas” from the US-British company Altana, which brings together data on world trade from various sources. Among other things, the atlas contains data on cross-border deliveries and their respective customs tariff numbers (HS codes) that describe the merchandise.
In the five years since 2017, Russia has completed around a million import transactions with semiconductors, most frequently with China and the USA (about 15 percent each). Malaysia, Germany, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Great Britain, the Philippines and Finland follow.
The RUSI researchers assume that Russian armaments companies buy many components from intermediaries in China and Hong Kong, which actually come from other countries. The experts see clear indications that export restrictions were deliberately circumvented.
Chips from Analog Devices, Marvell and Cypress, which were probably produced in 2018, were found in the Kalibr cruise missile.
The RUSI was founded in 1831 and has been calling itself a think tank for British defense for several years. It is financed by donations, grants, membership fees and research contracts. The European Union has also been one of the larger donors in recent years.
The RUSI report confirms that Russia is far behind the Western industrial nations, the Asian chip specialists from Taiwan, Korea and Japan and also China in semiconductor technology. Despite enormous income from gas and oil exports, for example, Russia has not succeeded in developing a competitive semiconductor industry.
Many Russian companies that import chips are already on embargo lists. The replenishment of chips for weapons could therefore become scarcer. However, the report does not answer how many weapons are still stored in Russia and whether the chips previously used can be replaced by Chinese components.
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