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Ukraine’s defense industry and the prospect of a long war

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After more than six months of war, Russia and Ukraine are now preparing for a long period of hostilities, forcing each side to find long-term solutions for their military supplies. Without military and financial aid from the West, Ukraine would be unable to maintain its army or continue to fight. Although the West has promised To supply Ukraine with materiel for as long as it takes to win the war, Kyiv wants to source as much materiel as possible to avoid any policy changes or delivery delays.

What contributions could Kyiv expect from its local defense industry? Ukraine inherited many Soviet-era defense companies, so can these produce some of the war equipment Ukraine needs?

The fact that the Ukrainian armed forces destroyed Russian flagship Moscow early April using a missile designed and produced by Ukrainian industry suggests untapped potential. More recently, the announcement That Baykar, the Turkish manufacturer of Bayraktar TB2 drones, intends to open a factory in Ukraine has also boosted optimism about Ukraine’s military-industrial capabilities.

Ukraine’s defense industry already fulfills an essential function with its ability to repair military equipment. Although only a marginal contributor to the country’s military supplies, Ukraine’s defense industry could prove significant if it manages to grow. To do this, he will have to overcome many obstacles. No Ukrainian territory is spared by the Russian strikes, and it is very difficult under these conditions to set up such strategic production lines. Above all, after years of underfunding and production problems, the Ukrainian military-industrial complex entered this war in very bad shape.

The Slow Decline of Ukraine’s Defense Industry

A common mistake is to forget that Russia is not the only heir to the Soviet Union. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine concentrate about 15% of the research, development, testing and establishment, and factories of the former Soviet military production. This represented 700 dedicated factories and a workforce of approximately 500,000 people, making the defense industry one of the largest employers in the country.

Some of these enterprises were among the most strategic for the Soviet Army. This was especially true for the navy, with the Mykolaiv shipyards located on the Black Sea. These were the only ones capable of accommodating an aircraft carrier, a heavy loss for Moscow, which subsequently had to maintain its only aircraft carrier in its northern ports, which freeze in winter.

Ukraine has also inherited many strengths in the aerospace industry. Pivdennebased in Dnipro, was the heart of Soviet intercontinental missile production; Sich engine, based in Zaporizhzhia, equipped Soviet aircraft with its engines and gas turbines; and the most famous example certainly remains Antonov, the company behind the largest aircraft of all time, the Mriia A-225, destroyed in the early days of the war. In addition, the Malyushev factory in Kharkiv is the largest center of armor production in the former Soviet Union and has been since World War II.

But as big as it was in 1991, Ukraine’s defense sector faced massive economic headwinds after independence. Contrary to Moscow’s ambition to remain a great power, Ukraine quickly opted for neutrality. Perceiving no immediate security threat, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had no urgent need to acquire equipment, nor the budget to do so. As a result, he bought little from local producers, who had to rely on exports to survive. On top of that, the lack of funding pushed away the country’s educated engineers, who were drawn to other, better paying industries.

The awakening of 2014

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of the conflict in the Donbass were a wake-up call, forcing the Ukrainian army to re-equip itself, and in the process, to place orders with local companies. Exports drastically decreasesfor the benefit of the Ukrainian armed forces, which, for example, acquired a batch of T-64 and BTR-3 tanks initially ordered by Angola and Thailand.

But this sudden wave of orders has come up against an industry that has lost its historical partners based in Russia, with whom the Ukrainian industry maintained vital links until 2014. The total disorganization of trade caused a series of problems for these producers, who suddenly had to find new suppliers. Often they couldn’t find any. Antonov, for example, hasn’t produced a single plane since 2016.

Added to the overall failure of Ukrainian industry is the current damage caused by the Russian invasion since February. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian production sites are the target of Russian strikes. Already in May, key facilities in Kyiv and Mykolaiv, as well as the Malyshev Giant Tank Factory in Kharkiv, had been destroyed or badly damaged. More recently, the Motor Sich Factory in Zaporizhzhia was hit.

Limited expectations

What can be expected from the Ukrainian defense industry in the future? The sinking of the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, the Moscow, using a surface-to-sea missile developed by the Luch Design Bureau in Kyiv, named “Neptune”, an update of an old Soviet technology which now equips the Ukrainian army, was a turning point in the war and a blow of thumb for the country’s defense sector. Luch, one of the few relatively successful Ukrainian producers, also builds the Stuhna air-to-surface missile, which was regularly used during the war. Nevertheless, the acquisition of high-tech armaments remains globally very limited. In 2021, the general manager of Luch, Oleh Korostelev, declared that his company was only able to supply “600 or 800” Neptune missiles to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which requested at least 2,000.

However, high-tech weaponry is not the only area where the defense industry matters. Steven Zaloga, defense specialist and consultant at TEAL Group, explains that “the Ukrainian army [is] well supplied with modern uniforms, small arms and soldier gear and much of it appears to be indigenous. He also notes that “in the field of armored vehicles, there seems to be a good number of BTR-3/BTR-4 in use”. It is difficult to know in more detail the contribution of local industry, he notes, because “the Ukrainians are silent on their production capacity at the moment” for fear of seeing them come under airstrikes.

This fear also casts doubt on the announcement of a future opening of a Bayraktar drone manufacturing plant in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed the arrival of the Turkish company and its joint production with Ukrainian manufacturers. The land is said to have already been purchased, but its location remains unknown. On the other hand, the Ukrainian drone manufacturer UkrSpecSystems announcement plans to relocate production to neighboring Poland. Given this news, it’s hard to imagine the Turkish producer investing in a new factory in Ukraine.

The need for maintenance

Given Ukraine’s difficulties in procuring weapons, it has no choice but to rely in part on domestic manufacturing. Talk to UkrinformVladyslav Belbas, general manager of the Ukrainian drone manufacturer, summarized the situation:

Without waiting for Lend-Lease, Ukraine is forced to place orders with domestic producers. Will lend-lease have negative consequences for the Ukrainian defense industry? Yes, there will be, but the key word here is “Ukrainian”. Because if there is no lend-lease, there will be no Ukrainian defense industry. There must be a healthy balance between import supply capabilities and domestic manufacturing capabilities.

Given the state of Ukrainian finances, there is little hope of Kyiv overloading its local producers with orders. On the other hand, maintaining production lines capable of repairing equipment seems to be a more achievable goal. “Ukraine has significant armored vehicle reconstruction facilities, which may explain its ability to recycle damaged/captured armored vehicles,” recalls Steven Zaloga. This aspect is also underlined by Vladyslav Belbas: “[the indigenous industry] should not stay away and watch this process, because without domestic manufacturers, none of the equipment provided to us will be repaired quickly. We cannot take, for example, an American howitzer to the United States for repair.

General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, echoed these concerns in one of his rare public interventions. “Ukraine can consider acquiring the relevant weapon systems from partners only as a solution for the transition period. From the very first days of the large-scale Russian aggression, the Ukrainian side faced the acute problem of restoring and establishing its own design and production capabilities for manufacturing high-tech weapon systems” , said Zaluzhny. He added that “Ukraine’s national efforts to this end open up unlimited possibilities for international military-technical cooperation with partner countries.”

Despite its challenges, the Ukrainian defense industry can still play a decisive role in the war, if only through its ability to repair equipment. In the immediate future, it will be Western arms deliveries that will have the most impact, but if Ukraine manages to save its industry, both by protecting it from Russian strikes and by providing it with sufficient funding , it could make a valuable contribution.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to publish well-reasoned, policy-oriented articles on U.S. foreign policy and the national security. priorities.