Weapons makers boost output, dispersing production to avoid attacks

By Alistair MacDonald

May 1, 2023

The Wall Street Journal

For Ukraine’s largest weapons maker, the war started with a barrage of Russian missiles that destroyed one factory and several of its giant Antonov cargo planes. Despite a persistent onslaught, Ukroboronprom says it has delivered more than eight times the weapons to Ukraine’s military over the past year than the one before. To avoid Russian attacks and boost production, Ukroboronprom and other local defense companies have spread manufacturing across Ukraine and set up shop in neighboring countries.

Ukraine’s ability to keep making its own shells, missiles and drones despite continued bombardment and struggles to acquire foreign components plays a key role on the battlefield. Munitions from local companies, for instance, help feed Ukraine’s Soviet-era gear—mostly obtained before the war—that analysts say makes up more than 70% of the country’s artillery. Local companies are also able to fix Soviet-spec weapons, while a host of new entrants have also begun churning out drones and other equipment.

Still, Ukraine’s ability to fight both today and into the future remains largely dependent on weapons supplied by the West. Local companies, for instance, aren’t able to produce more sophisticated arms such as the U.S. Himars rocket launcher or the Anglo-Swedish NLAW antitank weapon that have had a high-profile impact on the war.

Made-in-Ukraine equipment has, though, handed the country some notable successes. Last April, Ukroboronprom’s antiship Neptune missile sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva. Meanwhile, the Bohdana self-propelled howitzer, made by Kharkiv Tractor Plant, bombarded Russian positions on the strategic Snake Island in the Black Sea before Moscow evacuated. “Despite the missiles, despite some of our factories being in occupied territories, we are producing even more,” said Yuriy Husyev, Ukroboronprom’s chief executive.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, Mr. Husyev said he immediately decided to switch Ukroboronprom’s production to a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. With the state-owned company’s facilities an obvious target for Russian missiles, it transferred what operations it could to secure locations and began contacting companies abroad for help. So far, more than 150 Russian missiles have targeted the company’s facilities, several of which have been destroyed, it says.

Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, the SBU, last year arrested a Ukroboronprom employee alleging they had given Russian forces the location of an armored-vehicle factory that was then shelled, the company said. Several Ukroboronprom workers have been arrested, accused of Russian interference, it added.

Relocating arms manufacturing during war isn’t entirely novel. During World War II, Britain and Germany both dispersed production nationwide to avoid each other’s bombers, including into mines and the London Underground.

But moving plants fitted out to make heavy weaponry isn’t easy. Dispersing production adds to costs and assembly times. Earlier in April, Ukroboronprom said it had agreed to produce tank shells in Poland. The Ukrainian company will provide technology and staff for the project with Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa SA, a defense company based in the east of Poland. Ukroboronprom also makes artillery and mortar shells in another neighboring country, which Mr. Husyev declined to name.  These munitions are of a Soviet caliber, different from those used by Western militaries. Ukraine quickly ran through its inventory, prompting the U.S. and other allies to search for stocks elsewhere on its behalf. Despite the U.S. and its allies sending weapons to Ukraine, up to 70% of Kyiv’s weapons and heavy vehicles are still of Soviet origin, Mr. Husyev estimates.

All of the nearly 1,000 main battle tanks that Ukraine started the war with, for instance, were from the Soviet era, or based on designs from then, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank. And more than 70% of Ukraine’s artillery is Soviet-designed, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. All these weapons need Soviet-caliber ammunition. While Ukroboronprom helps satisfy some of that demand, it isn’t enough. “We need 10, and more, times bigger production,” Mr. Husyev said.

The company is also in the process of establishing production of 155mm caliber shells—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization standard—with a NATO member. That ammo would be used to feed Western artillery, including the U.K.-made M-777 howitzer and Germany’s Panzerhaubitze, being used by Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine was a key part of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex, manufacturing ships, helicopter engines and ballistic missiles. But for many years the industry had little investment, leaving it with a lot of old production, said Tom Røseth, an associate professor at the Norwegian Defence University College, a research-and-training arm of Norway’s military.

Ukraine doesn’t produce, or can’t make to the same standard, much of what the U.S. and its allies have sent to Kyiv, including multiple-launch rocket systems like Himars, antitank weapons and tanks themselves, Mr. Røseth said.

And some Ukrainian-made products such as drones are reliant on foreign components, which have become harder to get amid increased demand.

Still, the Ukrainian arms industry has undergone a revival in recent years, spurred by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow-backed rebellions in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Vadym Yunyk, an engineer with no military experience, decided to build drones after witnessing the 2014 Maidan street protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian then-president.

His company, ISR Defense, now makes drones that are used to drop explosives on enemy targets, such as tanks. Despite difficulties sourcing components, Mr. Yunyk said ISR was now making up to 70 drones a month, up from four previously.

While being in a war zone poses challenges for manufacturing, Mr. Yunyk said the conflict was beneficial in terms of the frequent feedback ISR receives from soldiers on how its drones work in

the field. For instance, drones soon switched from navigating via the Global Positioning System, after users said the U.S. system was being jammed by Russia.

UkrSpecSystems, another local drone maker formed after 2014, designed a new surveillance drone called the Shark around soldiers’ requests. The company’s factory was bombed and it now makes drones around the country and in Poland.

Soon after Russia invaded, shells landed beside AeroDrone’s factory in Kyiv, prompting Dmytro Shymkiv, one of the company’s partners, to evacuate its unfinished products in a truck.

Within weeks, AeroDrone had relocated its production and was adapting its drones from agricultural to military use. “We moved from several locations, and switched locations multiple times,” said Mr. Shymkiv. “The whole industry in Ukraine is evolving.”


Oksana Pyrozhok contributed to this article.

Alistair MacDonald is a senior reporter for The Wall Street Journal in London, where he covers European defense companies and Ukraine, in particular stories related to arms supply, corruption and the war’s effects on the global food chain. Alistair also takes an interest in the intellectual and developmental disabilities community, writing about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine on people with autism, Down syndrome and other conditions. Alistair has won several awards, including six Sabews and an OPC. He has held a variety of jobs at the Journal, including markets editor for EMEA, senior Canada correspondent, and U.K. politics and general news reporter in London. Alistair has also worked at Reuters and outlets in his native North East of England.