Western Microchips Still Find Their Way To Russian Missile Manufacturers

‘Made in Germany’ components found in Russian Iskander ballistic missile.

Microelectronics produced in the United States and allied countries are crucial components of Russian weapons systems used in the Ukraine invasion, according to a report by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

The RUSI report, Silicon Lifeline: Western Electronics as the Heart of Russia’s War Machine, says more than 450 foreign-made components have been found in Russian weapons recovered in Ukraine. The report’s authors say Moscow acquired critical technology from companies in the United States, Europe and Asia in the years before the invasion.

A Russian short-range ballistic missile, believed to be an unexploded Iskander missile, was found near Kramatorsk, Ukraine. National Guard of Ukraine/Reuters

Ukraine says Russia fired more than 3,650 missiles and guided rockets into its territory in first five months of the war. Most of the weapons rely highly on Western-made microelectronic technologies, according to report co-author Gary Somerville, a research fellow at RUSI’s Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis Research Group.

“It doesn’t appear that they actually have the ability to reproduce – at least to the same level of sophistication and at scale – a lot of these critical microelectronics. These are the ones that would be absolutely essential for, for example precision-guided munitions which have very sophisticated processing units,” Somerville told VOA.

That includes Russia’s Iskander 9M727 cruise missile, one of its most advanced weapons. RUSI researchers recovered some missiles in the field inside Ukraine and inspect the microelectronics inside.

They found several Western-sourced components, including digital signal processors, flash memory modules and static RAM modules made by U.S.-based companies including Texas Instruments, Advanced Micro Devices and Cypress Semiconductor, along ethernet cabling that originated from American, Dutch and German companies.

Russia’s Kh-101 cruise missiles, some of which targeted the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, were found to contain 31 foreign components.

Common microchips

All the microelectronics companies cited in the report said they comply with trade sanctions and they have stopped selling components to Russia. There is no suggestion in the report that the companies broke any export control laws.

“How is Russia possibly getting hold of this stuff? When we actually looked through a lot of these components, they are quite prosaic and in many ways ubiquitous, they can be found in any sort of electronics really – microwaves, dishwashers,” Somerville said.

Such microelectronics were freely available to Russia before its invasion of Ukraine.

However, RUSI also identified at least 81 components classified as “dual-use” by the U.S. Commerce Department and subject to U.S. export controls.

They include a high-performance CMOS static RAM microchip originally made by U.S.-based Cypress Semiconductor, found inside a handheld navigational system used by Russia’s special forces to pinpoint their position and estimate coordinates for precision artillery and air strikes.

“The component is a high-speed, ultra-low-power memory chip148 that is classified as a dual-use good for export purposes,” according to the RUSI report.

Two-thirds of the foreign components found in Russian weapons systems were manufactured by U.S.-based companies. Japan was the second-biggest supplier.

Export bans by Western countries

Many of the microelectronics found in the weapons were decades old and, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many states have banned the export of such components to Russia.

Somerville pointed to Russia’s history of using elaborate methods to procure technology, Somerville said.

“It’s through the use of a number of front companies that, on the surface when you conduct a due diligence check, appear to be legitimate — but in reality are actually, or can be somewhat affiliated with, large Russian companies that are actually members of the military-industrial complex,” he said.

The report details how Russia also uses false end-user certificates and transshipment companies based in third countries, including several in Hong Kong, to obscure the final destination.

It cites Russian customs records showing that in March 2021, one company imported $600,000 worth of electronics manufactured by Texas Instruments through a Hong Kong-based distributor. Seven months later, the same company imported another $1.1 million worth of microelectronics made by Xilinx, according to RUSI.

U.S. and allied sanctions imposed on Russian weapons manufacturers and companies supplying them with components must be tightened, Somerville said.

“What the sanctions and effective enforcement of these sanctions can do is raise the costs on Russia to acquire these particular microelectronics,” he said.

The report’s authors say Russia is now scrambling to procure microelectronics in bulk, and that its military could be permanently weakened if the supply can be cut off.

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