December 8, 2022
  • December 8, 2022

Western electronics found in Russian drones shot down over Ukraine

By on February 11, 2022 0

The engine came from a German company that supplies model aircraft enthusiasts. Computer chips for navigation and wireless communication were made by American suppliers. A British company provided a motion detection chip. Other parts came from Switzerland and South Korea.

“I was surprised when we looked at all of this together to see the variety of different countries that had produced all of these components,” said Damien Spleeters, an investigator with Britain’s Conflict Armament Research (CAR) group, who visited in Ukraine to dissect several drones. All were loaded with western electronics.

Without those parts, said Spleeters, who summarized his findings in a report, Russia would have found it “much more difficult to produce and operate the drones, that’s for sure.”

As tensions mount over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, US officials are considering trade sanctions aimed at depriving Russia of foreign-made computer and electronic chips. The Spleeters investigation shows how deeply the ban could harm the Russian military – and why it could be difficult to implement.

Russia is known for its scientists and hackers, but makes little of its own electronics or computer hardware, relying largely on imports. Yet blocking the flow of these goods could prove difficult.

Many drone components identified by CAR traveled to Russia via obscure intermediaries and small trading companies whose activities could be difficult to track.

Moreover, the relatively small quantities the Russian military likely needs could allow it to surreptitiously acquire components, said Malcolm Penn, chief executive of London-based semiconductor research firm Future Horizons.

“If you only want 500 or 1,000, that’s easily doable and very hard to stop,” he said. “Throughout the Cold War, when in theory there were no exports to the Soviet Union, that didn’t stop them from getting things. There are always men with suitcases going to the Far East, buying stuff and coming back.

Another big wild card is China, which could thwart any US attempt to choke tokens to Russia. CAR estimated that the drones it reviewed were built between 2013 and 2016, when Western vendors were more dominant in the chip industry. China has since become a much bigger manufacturer of electronic components and is unlikely to fully comply with any blockade attempt, tech experts say.

Russia depends on Asian and Western countries to supply most of its consumer electronics and computer chips, which are the brains that make electronics work. Russian imports of these goods in 2020 topped $38 billion, according to United Nations trade data.

The Soviet Union had a variety of small semiconductor factories producing chips, mostly for military use, according to Penn, who visited some of the facilities in the early 1990s. But the Soviet breakup plunged Russia into a long period of turmoil that thwarted the development of high-tech industries and manufacturing.

“The microelectronics industry was completely decimated in the 1990s,” said Sam Bendett, a Russian military analyst at Virginia-based research group CNA. “It was just easier to import those technologies, which were widely available in the global market.”

The Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Russia retains some manufacturers that produce older model chips, including Mikron, which was founded in Soviet times near Moscow. Companies in the country also design chips known as Baikal and Elbrus – the latter are used by the military – but send many designs to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest chip foundry, for fabrication.

Russian defense contractors have claimed in recent years to have revived some domestic manufacturing of high-tech military equipment, including drones and their components, Bendett said.

United States and the European Union already restrict their defense electronics exports to Russia and have tightened those rules in recent years. Yet Russian networks have found ways to circumvent these obstacles. In 2015, several Russian agents were convicted or pleaded guilty to federal charges of using a Texas-based company they set up to illegally export high-tech chips to Russian military and intelligence agencies.

As part of the broader blockade envisioned by US officials, the United States could force many countries around the world to reduce their chip exports to Russia by telling them that they are not allowed to use American technology to manufacture components for Russian buyers. Most chip factories around the world, including those in China and Taiwan, use American manufacturing tools or software in their production process, analysts said.

The United States could limit the ban to Russian military and high-tech sectors or could apply it more broadly, potentially depriving Russian citizens of certain smartphones, tablets and video game consoles, the Washington Post recently reported, citing administrative officials.

At the invitation of Ukraine’s security services, RCA Spleeters flew to Kyiv in late 2018 to dissect the drone downed in 2017.

Using a duffel bag full of screwdrivers, Allen wrenches and cameras, Spleeters disassembled and photographed the plane, looking for serial numbers and markings that might help identify the aircraft. origin of the parts.

He and his colleagues then contacted component suppliers to try to trace how the parts wound up in the drone.

A motion-sensing chip has been made by British company Silicon Sensing Systems, which makes components for drones, car navigation systems and industrial machinery. The company told CAR that it sold the chip in August 2012 to a Russian civilian electronics distributor, sending it via UPS in a package containing about 50 components, according to CAR’s report.

The Russian distributor told Silicon Sensing that the chip was to be used in a drone; he later added that he sold the chip to a Russian entity called ANO PO KSI, which allegedly purchased such items for educational institutions in Russia, according to the CAR report.

On its website, ANO PO KSI describes itself as a nonprofit group that manufactures high-tech products, including document scanners and cameras, for Russian government and commercial customers. The organization did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email to The Post, Silicon Sensing said it “vigorously” complies with “all export control laws and policies wherever we do business.”

“These components were sold in 2012 to a trading company that was not on an embargo list at the time. We have ceased doing business with this company and all related entities,” Silicon Sensing added.

The drone also contained US-made components designed for navigation and wireless communication. One of the suppliers, Digi International, based in Hopkins, Minnesota, told CAR that it sold the wireless communications component to a US-based distributor in March 2012, but the distributor was not able to identify the final recipient, according to the CAR. report.

Digi International told The Post that it screens all sales to ensure it is not providing any prohibited parts in violation of US export control laws.

“We do not know how the product in question ended up in a Russian drone. We do not condone the use of our modules by foreign actors for military use cases,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Maxim Integrated, of San Jose, Calif., told CAR that it made a navigation component found in the drone in 2013 and shipped it to its distributors in January 2014. He added that the component “is not intended for use in unmanned aerial vehicles”.

Maxim’s parent company, Analog Devices, declined to clarify for The Post what the component is used for. In an emailed statement, the company said it is “committed to full compliance with U.S. laws, including export controls, trade sanctions, and U.S. regulations.”

Other companies in Switzerland and the UK told CAR they were unable to trace the chain of suppliers who had handled their components.

The drone’s engine – a single-cylinder unit with electronic ignition – took a particularly mysterious route, from a small company near Frankfurt, Germany, which makes parts for model airplanes.

3W-Modellmotoren Weinhold, which did not respond to The Post’s request for comment, told CAR it sent the engine to World Logistic Group, a Czech Republic-based company, in October 2013.

The Czech company, which ceased operations in 2018, could not be reached for comment. The company was founded in the spa town of Karlovy Vary in 2008 by two Moscow residents, according to Czech business registration documents identified by CAR and reviewed by The Post.

From 2012 to 2014, a third resident of the Moscow region served as a director of the company, according to these documents. CAR researchers found that this individual was also a member of an advisory board of the Main Directorate of Public Security of the Moscow Regional Government.

The directorate was created to “implement state policy in the field of public and economic security,” according to the Moscow regional government website.

According to CAR, similar drone models were recovered after flying over Syria and Libya, countries where Russian troops or mercenaries have also engaged in military action. NATO member Lithuania discovered an identical model that crashed on its territory in 2016. It contained foreign-made components and Russian software, according to Central African and Lithuanian security services.

The case shows “that Russia uses [drones] for intelligence gathering not only in conflict areas but also in peacetime in neighboring NATO countries,” Lithuanian authorities said in a 2019 document.

Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.