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POLITICS

Putin's Loony Toons: Russian Wunderwaffen that never made it to the Ukrainian front

In its war against Ukraine, Russia is using weapons of all eras, from brand-new T-90M tanks and Kinzhal missiles to Stalin-era howitzers. However, almost two years into the full-scale invasion, the Russian army has yet to deploy many of the weapons Kremlin propaganda had extolled for years before the invasion (Putin had even pompously displayed some of them in his famous “cartoons” included in his address to the Federal Assembly). The Insider looks back on the most famous examples of Putin's Wunderwaffen that have never made it to the front or only appeared in very limited quantities.

Content
  • “A hypersonic missile”

  • The T-14 Armata tank

  • Kurganets-25 armored fighting vehicles

  • The 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV self-propelled gun

  • The Su-57 fighter

  • The BMPT Terminator tank support fighting vehicle

RU

“A hypersonic missile”

In his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, Putin suddenly demonstrated an animated film showing some new miracle weapons Russia was ostensibly about to add to its arsenal. Some of the new weapons presented were claimed to be hypersonic (that is, capable of exceeding the speed limit of 6,000 km/h in the atmosphere and maneuvering using aerodynamic forces). As it turned out, this was just the beginning of an animated series that dragged on for years: in July 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense viewed the next episode on the same topic, and in 2019, Putin again spoke to the Federal Assembly about the same weapons. In 2020, he revealed that “hypersonic weapons have rendered U.S. missile defense meaningless,” and in 2021, promised that sea-based hypersonic missiles would be in service as early as 2022. In 2022, Putin attacked Ukraine, but even then the world never saw any Russian hypersonic weapons.

One year into the full-scale invasion, in March 2023, Putin asserted: “We didn't have hypersonic weapons in 2014, but now we do. Indeed, we aren't using them, but we have them.” What are these weapons and why isn't Russia using them?

In his cartoons, Putin presented several types of hypersonic weapons. One of them, the Avangard intercontinental missiles, is allegedly already in service, but since such weapons are designed for nuclear war, it’s impossible to verify their existence. Another “strategic” weapon featured in the cartoons, the Burevestnik, is a missile with a small-sized nuclear power plant for an engine. It isn’t hypersonic – and neither is it applicable in the current war, having been designed for nuclear strikes. The next on the list of hypersonic Wunderwaffen, the 3M22 Zirkon missile, has allegedly entered service and was deployed on the Northern Fleet frigate Admiral Gorshkov. However, since the Zircon is an anti-ship missile and Ukraine has no fleet, no one has seen it in combat. The only missile from Putin's cartoons that was of any use in Russia’s war with Ukraine was the Kinzhal airborne missile, and we did see it used. The problem with the “invincible hypersonic” Kinzhal missile was that it turned out to be neither hypersonic nor invincible.

The 9-C-7760-E Kinzhal is a Russian aeroballistic missile launched from modified MiG-31K and MiG-31I fighter interceptors, as well as from Tu-22M3M and Tu-160 strategic bombers. In fact, the Kinzhal is nothing more than an air-launched modification of the well-known Iskander missile. The Kinzhal doesn’t meet the modern definition of the term “hypersonic missile”: despite reaching hypersonic speed (five times the speed of sound) at a certain part of its trajectory, it is incapable of maneuvering at such speeds, unlike the Avangard, for one, which is also allegedly in service.

Like any ballistic missile, a Kinzhal is hard to shoot down by most air defense systems designed to deal with lower-speed targets (like airplanes and cruise missiles). During the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military has repeatedly claimed the successful use (1, 2, 3) of Kinzhals against multiple Ukrainian targets. The situation did a one-eighty after Ukraine received U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems. Faced with failures during the Gulf War, the U.S. adapted them to combat ballistic missiles. As a result, after another shelling of Kyiv on the night of May 4, Mayor Vitali Klitschko posed with a Kinzhal warhead (identified by its similarity to the wreckage of the same type of missile that crashed in Stavropol Territory in September 2022). Soon the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported having shot down six Kinzhals. Russian forces attempted a strike on the Patriot SAMs, but all they could do was damage one of the vehicles, which was repaired on the spot.

Although the Kinzhals have fallen short of their promise, they continue to pose a threat because of the limited number of Patriot systems. Thus, on August 11, Ukrainian air defenses shot down only one missile out of four, with the rest hitting the vicinity of Kolomyia airfield in the Ivano-Frankivsk Region.

Importantly, the Kinzhal owes much of its success to its foreign components. According to the Yermak-McFaul Expert Group on Russian Sanctions, the manufacturers of the missile use at least 48 foreign components, mostly U.S.-made. As The Insider recently found out, these components are supplied to Russia through companies that are yet to be placed on foreign sanctions lists.

The T-14 Armata tank

The promising Armata tank is perhaps Russia's most hyped-up back-burner project, which has become the object of many jokes and memes. The development of the all-purpose platform (which could also be used for an IFV and a recovery vehicle) began at Uralvagonzavod back in 2009. Russian industry media lauded the tank for being “invisible,” calling it a “network-centric warfare machine” capable of continuous data exchange with other vehicles and units. The innovations setting the tank apart from Soviet models include extra protection for the crew, which has been moved from the turret to an armored crew cell in the hull, as well as the Afganit active protection system, capable of shooting down anti-tank missiles on approach.

The general public first saw the tank at the Red Square parade in 2015 (when the novelty stalled out right at the rehearsal). The production plans were most ambitious and suggested delivering 2,300 Armatas to the troops by 2020. However, its serial production didn't begin until the end of 2021 (if we were to believe Rostec, that is). In part, the delays had to do with the challenges of finalizing a fundamentally new engine (before the Armata, all Soviet and Russian tank engines were based on the T-34 engine).

In the context of the war with Ukraine, the Armata only appeared in a video from a tank range in Kazan, briskly driving through the mud past the mobilized. In April 2023, a RIA Novosti source reported the use of the tank in combat “to fire at Ukrainian positions,” probably referring to firing from closed positions, a popular technique of making up for the shortage of artillery, in which the tank is essentially used as a self-propelled gun. Surprisingly, Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance has never managed to detect the invisible Armata over the past six months, which probably confirms the tank’s stealth qualities – because how can we possibly suspect a RIA Novosti source of lying?

Kurganets-25 armored fighting vehicles

Just as the Armata was designed to replace Soviet tanks in the Russian army, the unified Kurganets-25 platform developed by Rostec Corporation was to replace the familiar BMP infantry fighting vehicles and BTR armored personnel carriers. The platform has been in the works since the early 2010s. Kurganets-based B-10 armored personnel carrier and B-19 infantry fighting vehicle also saw the light of day in 2015 alongside the Armata.

The advertised advantages of the platform included improved armor (especially mine protection), isolation of the crew and assault force from ammunition and weapons, an active protection complex, and a remote-controlled combat module with a cannon or machine gun (the latter was implemented quite a long time ago, for example, in the Ukrainian armored personnel carrier BTR-4).

However, the Kurganets hasn't fared any better than the Armata. The public got a first look at the B-10 armored personnel carrier up close at the Army-2022 fair. In 2018, the vehicles were still undergoing preliminary tests, and as we learned in 2023, the R&D effort hadn’t been completed: the chassis needed redesigning.

The 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV self-propelled gun

The Central Research Institute Burevestnik began developing the advanced self-propelled artillery unit in 2002 to counter new artillery designs emerging in NATO countries (such as the American M109A6 Paladin howitzer and its German counterpart, the Panzerhaubitze 2000). During the development, its design underwent significant changes: the turret was initially planned to feature two 152-millimeter guns, but the designers eventually settled on one.

Importantly, the Koalitsiya-SV features a fully automated loading and guidance process, unlike many operational artillery systems in which the crew performs these operations manually. A similar level of automation has been achieved only in the Swedish self-propelled gun Archer, which has recently been noticed in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The Koalitsiya-SV crew travels in an armored crew cell outfitted with control tools for all of the mechanisms. Furthermore, this self-propelled gun features the “barrage of fire” mode, in which rounds reach the target simultaneously due to varied charge mass and trajectory (the same option is available in the Panzerhaubitze 2000 or the Russian Msta-SM2). The claimed range of a conventional round is 70 kilometers – significantly more than in the majority of modern artillery designs.

The system became another long-term project; in 2010, the then-deputy defense minister even mentioned shutting down the development effort. Nevertheless, its development continued, and the Koalitsiya-SV made its public debut at the same Red Square parade on May 9, 2015. In 2017, the Ministry of Defense promised to complete state trials in 2019 and launch mass production in 2020.

In 2019, a prototype batch of systems was reported to have been manufactured. However, there is no evidence suggesting Russia’s use of these weapons in the invasion of Ukraine. Contrary to the MoD's promises, the state tests didn't begin until December 2021 and lasted until this October. Nevertheless, the launch of serial production was reported back in August despite Russia lacking plants suitable for this endeavor, according to Ukrainian military expert Andriy Tarasenko.

In addition, Tarasenko criticizes the Koalitsiya-SV for its “archaic reconnaissance profile” and the excess of “solutions that lack real-world validation” that the developers “crammed” into the new system. Russian pro-government expert Gennady Alekhin agrees with him to some extent, noting that “unless batteries, divisions, and self-propelled artillery regiments of 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV howitzers are additionally equipped with UAVs for reconnaissance and fire correction, closed into a single, real-time reconnaissance fire channel, the vast tactical and technical potential of the Koalitsiya-SV will not be unlocked in full.”

The Su-57 fighter

Propaganda refers to the latest Su-57 as a fifth-generation fighter, contrasting it with the American F-22 and F-35 and China's J-20. However, the definition itself remains questionable, with many dismissing it as a marketing ploy. Such fighters are characterized by advanced maneuvering capability, supercruise performance, low visibility in infrared and radar ranges, and highly integrated computer systems capable of networking with other elements within the battlespace for situational awareness and C3 (command, control, and communications) capabilities.

But most of these capabilities are also available to some extent in the previous, fourth-generation fighters, especially Western fighters with their integrated communications systems. In addition, there’s reason to doubt that the Su-57 meets the stated criteria, especially since its current engine was developed in the 2000s and the so-called “second-stage engine” (which is supposed to be installed from the mid-2020s) still “requires refinement.”

Despite the shipments of the first series-produced fighters and reports of their participation in the Syrian and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts, the aircraft still doesn’t exist in the version envisioned by its creators. Although the development of the advanced fighter began in 2001 (it was previously known as the T-50 or PAK FA), allowing it to complete its first flight back in 2010, in 2020, the flight tests were still ongoing. To be fair, the development of America's fifth-generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighters was also plagued by huge delays, multiple defects, and increasing budgets.

The first major contract for the delivery of 76 Su-57 fighters to the Russian Air Force was not signed until 2019. However, the first series-produced fighter, which was about to enter service, crashed in December 2019, so the first aircraft didn't reach the Air Force until a year later. According to the U.S. publication Military Watch Magazine, Russia expects to have 22 Su-57 fighters in service by 2024. The United Aircraft Corporation (Russia) made vague statements about a “manifold” increase in the production of the Su-57 in 2023 – but never offered any figures.

In any case, the efficiency of the Su-57 at the current stage of the Russian-Ukrainian war is not entirely obvious (despite Russia's claims that one such fighter shot down a Ukrainian Su-24 frontline bomber in March 2023). The rush to equip the Su-57 with a long-range cruise missile indicates at least that, despite its claimed stealth properties, the Russian command is hesitant to use the aircraft in the Ukrainian air defense target zone. In the future, it's likely to become a platform for long-range weapons, similar to how the Su-34 is being used with glide bombs.

The BMPT Terminator tank support fighting vehicle

The BMPT Terminator is another example of relatively modern Russian weaponry that has been used in the invasion of Ukraine from early on but hardly made any impact due to its limited numbers. However, the innovative vehicle also owes its bleak performance to design shortcomings and its incomprehensible tactical role.

The concept of a separate combat vehicle for engaging infantry armed with anti-tank weapons in open terrain and urban areas emerged in the USSR in the 1980s. In all appearances, such projects were inspired by the situational use of ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft systems with four 23-millimeter guns in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The efforts that led to the creation of the modern BMPT have been ongoing since the mid-1990s. The final model was mounted on a tank chassis and had an unmanned turret with two 30-millimeter guns and Ataka anti-tank missile launchers, as well as two hull-mounted AG-17D automatic grenade launchers. The variety of armaments necessitated expanding the crew to five troops.

The unusual vehicle was constantly criticized, even in relatively loyalist publications. The turret armaments were said to offer no advantage over conventional armored fighting vehicles like the BMP-2 or BTR-82A, and the automatic grenade launchers were described as “limited in action” due to their low mobility. Observers also noted that, despite the relatively high protection of the vehicle (the BMPT is based on the T-90 tank chassis with the Relikt dynamic protection), the turret armament (guns and anti-tank missiles) can only withstand bullets and small shrapnel. Finally, its fire control systems do not give the Terminator an advantage in speed of detection and target engagement over escorted tanks.

It was probably these shortcomings, along with the bizarre concept that didn’t fit into the conventional structure of combined arms combat (in which tanks and infantry directly rely on each other for support), that caused the Ministry of Defense to refuse to purchase BMPTs in 2010 (even though it was already in service). However, the project was resuscitated, with ten vehicles scheduled to be sent to the 90th Armored Division for testing in 2018. The outcome of those tests remains a mystery, but by the start of the full-scale invasion, the BMPT company in the 90th Armored Division (officially formed in 2021) was the only such unit in the Russian army.

In February 2022, the BMPTs and other vehicles of the 90th Armored Division set out for the Ukrainian border. Nevertheless, Terminators were not seen in the unit's ranks during the offensive in Chernihiv and northeastern Kyiv Region. BMPTs weren’t noticed at the front until May 2022, in the vicinity of Sievierodonetsk in the early days of the battle for this city. Subsequently, several sightings of Terminators in Russian military units were reported – including one equipped with an anti-drone visor, during the offensive on Avdiivka, which began in October 2023. According to Oryx, at least one BMPT has been destroyed and two others have been damaged during the hostilities.

Meanwhile, there's hardly any footage of Terminators actually being used for the declared purpose of tank support in combat. Commenting on yet another video of the Terminator in use, Viktor Murakhovsky (who dismissed both the BMPT and the Koalitsiya-SV as obsolete in 2010) is perplexed: “Where are the tanks? The ones the BMPT is supposed to be supporting in an attack?” The vehicles are even sometimes used from closed positions – that is, to shoot “over the horizon,” as an improvised self-propelled artillery system.

This bizarre application may be motivated by the shortcomings mentioned above. The Russian military praises the BMPT for durability, but the turret layout with poorly protected armaments must be extremely vulnerable to FPV drones (one of the vehicles indeed took a hit from such drones; according to the commander's report, the crew survived thanks to the sandbags, which burst and extinguished the starting fire). In addition, military expert Ryan McBeth remarked that the barrels of both BMPT guns are “shaking excessively” when firing, which should affect accuracy. Moreover, Andrei Morozov, a blogger and serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces, describes the firing from two guns as a “pointless waste of shells” compared to the use of a single 2A42 automatic gun mounted on a BMP-2.

Nevertheless, despite the identified drawbacks, Uralvagonzavod has continued to manufacture BMPTs in 2023. That said, as Andrei Tarasenko points out, the number of the late-September batch suggests that the plant was still assembling this year's sixth vehicle. Therefore, even if the manufacturer were to address the Terminator’s pitfalls and find a tactical niche for the vehicle, there wouldn’t be enough such vehicles to swing the course of the conflict anyway.

Earlier, The Insider wrote how, in anticipation of super-modern guns and combat vehicles, Russian forces are using Stalin-era equipment or making improvised “tankensteins” by putting together motley weapons and vehicles.

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