Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Investigation

French eyes for a Russian tiger

  • T-14 prototypes in Moscow on 9 May (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

Russian tanks are using French technology on the battlefields of east Ukraine. But will Russia’s new “star” tank, the Armata T-14, also rely on EU components despite the arms embargo?

France recently made headlines by cancelling its Mistral warships deal with Russia due to the Ukraine conflict.

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  • T-72 tank with Thales system, captured in Ukraine last August (Photo: rusi.org)

Russia wanted them, in part, because they contain advanced command-and-control technology for amphibious assaults.

But French transfer of military technology to Russia goes further.

Ukraine, last August near the town of Ilovaysk, captured a Russian T-72 tank from pro-Russia fighters. The fighters then recaptured it and Russian TV broadcast an image of the inside, which, according to Igor Sutyagin, an expert at Rusi, a British defence think tank, shows a thermal-imaging fire control system made by French firm Thales.

Russian manufacturer Uralvagonzavod has also published photos of its T-90 tank, which show fire control components made by a Thales subsidiary, Thompson CSF Optronique. The Russian side is also using T-90s in Ukraine.

Fire control systems are crucial to a tank’s performance.

“It’s no good having great armour and a great gun if you can’t see your enemy and if you can’t hit them when you do”, Nick de Larrinaga, an analyst at IHS Janes, a UK defence consultancy, told this website.

The Thales exports to Russia are no secret and began long before the EU imposed its Russia arms ban, in July last year.

The French firm started selling its systems to Russian arms-maker Rosoboronexport, which works hand-in-hand with Uralvagonzavod, in 2007.

It’s believed to have delivered more than 1,000 so far.

Thales, in 2012, also let Rosoboronexport manufacture the systems under licence at a facility in Vologda, north of Moscow.

Neither France nor Russia do transparency on defence contracts.

Both sides’ officials declined to tell EUobserver if Thales still works with Rosoboronexport despite the EU ban.

Thales also doesn’t do much transparency. Its spokeswoman, Sonia Le Guevel, said only that: “Thales [has] strictly respected sanctions towards Russia”.

She also said it “abides by the legislation concerning … sub-systems and components embedded in equipment”.

Compliance

Sanctions compliance need not mean no more exports, however.

The EU measures specifically target Rosoboronexport, blacklisting its CEO, and Uralvagonzavod.

But France persuaded EU states to say contracts concluded before 1 August 2014 are exempt.

This means that if Thales and Rosoboronexport have an old, loosely-worded “framework” contract, which doesn’t specify the number of units to be delivered, Thales can keep selling systems, components, and related services, while having “strictly respected” the EU ban.

In any case, EU reporting obligations show a volume of France-Russia transfers in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis in 2013.

France granted permits for €194.2 million of exports in the ML 5, ML11, and ML15 categories.

The categories cover “imaging … equipment”, “fire control, and related … equipment”, and “electronic equipment” for military use.

French documents also say that in first-quarter 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, French firms applied for €14.6 million of permits for ML5 and ML15 Russia exports.

Other French papers, published last November, after the EU sanctions, say Russia is still Thales’ third-top “priority market”.

Russian tiger

The Armata T-14 is the flagship of Russia’s rearmament programme.

It’s also a propaganda meme, featured in Russian video games, and feted as a “star” tank by state media.

It was unveiled at the 9 May WWII parade in Moscow, painted with the orange-and-black tiger stripes of the St. George’s ribbon, an old Russian emblem, which, last year, became the unofficial badge of pro-Russia irregulars in Ukraine.

Uralvagonzavod has produced about 30 T-14 prototypes.

They're being field-tested by the Russian army, with mass-producion to start in 2016, reaching 120 tanks/year by 2018.

Russian defence chiefs say the T-14 is fully Russian-made.

A French source, who asked not to be named, also told EUobserver: “The Armata … is not open to foreign suppliers (especially from the EU), so Thales is in no way involved”.

But details of what’s inside are classified.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, said: “Even if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you, because I live in Russia and I could be designated as aiding and abetting the enemy”.

IHS Janes’ De Larrinaga noted: “On the new Russian tank, the fire control system is protected by two armoured doors to shield it from small-arms fire. During the 9 May parade these remained closed, so it’s not been possible to identify it”.

He said the claim the T-14 is fully home-made might be true.

Russia imported the French systems because it was cheaper and faster than to modernise its military-industrial complex, not because it lacks know-how.

The IHS Janes expert said, for instance, that Russian-made thermal imagers for airforce missile seekers are “highly rated”.

He also said Rosoboronexport might have “replicated” the French technology by now.

Made in Russia?

But with T-14 mass-production to start next year, De Larrinaga believes it’s more likely it has French systems or components under the bonnet.

Russia began its military-industrial overhaul in 2010.

But De Larrinaga said it’ll “be very expensive, take a great deal of time, and possibly end up making an inferior product”.

He noted it would be much easier “to just take them [Thales products] off the older tanks and put them on the T-14”. He added that: “Thales might not know on what tanks its systems end up”.

Other experts agree.

Felgenhauer told EUobserver it’s “most likely” the T-14 uses French technology.

Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian expert at CNA, a Washington-based NGO, said: “Since the Russian defence industry is known to be unable to produce all components of such systems domestically, it stands to reason it [French technology] has been used to some extent”.

“They may have resorted to using shell companies to circumvent [EU] sanctions”, he added.

Components

Two components in fire control systems are microbolometer arrays and screen matrices.

Microbolometer arrays capture infrared images without requiring cooling, making systems more efficient.

The screen matrix defines the sharpness of the image, making targets easier to identify.

For its part, Taja Global, a US cyber security firm, says it has evidence Russia tried to buy arrays from EU suppliers on the black.

The firm, in May, compiled a report which it shared with The Intercept, an investigative website.

It’s based on hacked emails from Alexey Beseda, the son of Sergei Beseda, a Russian intelligence officer.

It says Russia, in 2013, created several shell firms, including Cyclone-IR and Rayfast, which is registered in Cyprus, to buy arrays from Western firms because its defence chiefs saw the EU arms ban coming.

Rusi’s Sutyagin told EUobserver the T-14 also needs Western-made matrices.

He said even the older Thales models have a resolution of 754x576 pixels, but the best Russia can make have 640x512 pixels.

“The Armata needs a certain degree of Western support”, he noted.

He added that Thales isn’t the only potential source.

French firm Sagem has supplied thermal sights for Russian T-90s and electro optical infra-red systems for Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters.

Sutyagin also said Belarus, which sells arms and components to Russia, uses French products in its thermal gun sights despite the EU’s, separate, Belarus arms ban.

Hot climate

Undesirable end-use is not new for EU exporters.

EU states, in 2013, granted €3.9 billion of permits for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is, of late, bombing Libya and Yemen despite EU complaints.

But technology transfer to Russia is alarming in the current climate.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first war of territorial conquest in Europe since 1945.

Its provocations against the Baltic States, which are Nato members, its military manoeuvres, and its revanchist propaganda have brought relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

The US recently stationed tanks in the Baltic States and Poland as a Russia-deterrent.

The FT also reports that easterly Nato countries are ordering more tanks from German manufacturers.

The ELN, a British think tank, said in July that Nato and Russia military drills in the past 18 months look like they’re “preparing for a possible confrontation”.

Thales’ approach

For her part, Le Guevel, Thales’ spokeswoman, indicated that it cares about its reputation.

She said sanctions compliance is part of its “comprehensive approach to ethical practices and corporate responsibility”.

But its “approach” hasn't stopped its products from being used by Russia’s hybrid force of “off-duty” soldiers, mercenaries, and nationalist militias to kill Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Rusi’s Sutyagin said technology transfer confers an intelligence advantage.

He said if you sell systems or components to your adversary, you gain insight into their capabilities.

But he warned the transfer works both ways.

“It means you also use the same type of thermals [gun sights], which means you don’t have superiority in the detection range or clarity over your opponent”.

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