December 16, 2022 | FDD's Long War Journal

Estimating Russia’s Kh-101 Production Capacity

December 16, 2022 | FDD's Long War Journal

Estimating Russia’s Kh-101 Production Capacity

Ukraine’s Air Force Command reported today that Russia had launched at least 76 missiles, including Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), in its latest wave of strikes against Ukrainian critical infrastructure. This ongoing campaign has led some to ask how Moscow has managed to continue conducting strikes despite Western assertions that Russia is running out of missiles and struggling to replace them due to Western export controls.

Data from downed Kh-101s — some of them found through open-source research, others documented by the Conflict Armament Research group (CAR) — shed some light. The data suggest that although Russia is likely running low on missiles and expending them at an unsustainable rate, production of Kh-101s and perhaps other missiles not only continues but is probably greater than some analysts believed. What is more, Russia may now be producing more Kh-101s per day than it was before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These findings underscore that while Western export controls pose significant challenges for Russia’s defense industrial base, it is too early for the West to take a victory lap.

Background

The Kh-101 (AS-23A Kodiak) is a stealthy conventional strategic ALCM launched from Tu-160 and Tu-95MS bombers. After entering service in 2012, the missile first saw combat in Syria and has been used extensively in Ukraine.

Western officials have publicly boasted that export controls imposed since February 24 have hobbled Russia’s defense industrial base, particularly its ability to produce precision-guided munitions. Despite Moscow’s efforts to promote self-reliance in its defense industry, many Russian missiles and other weapons, including the Kh-101, remain chock full of Western components, leaving Russia vulnerable to export controls. Prior to February 24, restrictions imposed following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine had already hampered Moscow’s space program, for example.

As early as March, a senior Pentagon official said Russia was running low on “cruise missiles, particularly air-launched cruise missiles.” Russia’s overall missile usage rates have certainly plummeted over the course of the conflict, particularly compared to the war’s early days and weeks, indicating dwindling stocks have forced Moscow to conserve.

Still, Russia continues to conduct periodic missile strikes, including with modern cruise missiles such as the Kh-101. In addition to today’s strikes, Russia used the Kh-101 in major missile strikes on December 5November 23November 15October 31October 22, and October 10 as well as in other, more minor strikes during that timeframe.

The Data

Serial numbers and other data (listed below) obtained from 16 downed Kh-101s provide insight into Russian production rates. Russian military equipment and weapons bear unique serial numbers or other identifying information, often indicating their date of manufacture. The format of these numerical identifiers varies, but some principles are consistent across certain products.

Each Kh-101 bears a unique 13-digit serial number. The first three digits are “315,” the code for the Raduga Design Bureau, which developed and manufactures the missile. The next three digits denote the specific product version. In every observed Kh-101 serial number in which these digits are legible, they are either “648” or “263.” The former may correspond to an earlier version of the missile, as the Kh-101s bearing that number all appear to have been manufactured in 2020 or earlier, while those marked “263” appear to have been produced later. This can be discerned from the next two digits, which correspond to the quarter and year of manufacture, respectively. The ninth and 10th digits likely reflect the batch number, with the final three digits indicating the number within the batch.

In addition, at least some of the Kh-101’s parts and components also bear serial numbers or other identifying information. The first six digits of these serial numbers are different from those on the Kh-101 itself, presumably corresponding to the parts’ respective subcontractor and product code. Two photos were found showing legible serial numbers on Kh-101 engines. Both begin with “528084,” with the first three digits likely referring to the company UEC-Saturn, which manufactures the engines used in the Kh-101 (and other Russian missiles).

Data From Downed Kh-101 ALCMs


Note: “?” indicates the digit was indiscernible or otherwise unavailable.
* For unclear reasons, the serial number on the first engine (from the Kh-101 downed on December 5) comprises 14 digits, whereas the serial number on the second engine (from the Kh-101 downed in November 2015) has 13 digits. It is possible the engine batches became large enough to require a fourth digit. More plausibly, UEC-Saturn may have simply altered how it formats the latter part of the engine’s serial number, as has been known to happen with other systems.
** For unclear reasons, Russia appears to have jumped back and forth between the 33rd and 34th batches from Q4 2019 to Q3 2020. Perhaps some sort of issue delayed completion of some of the 33rd batch’s missiles until after production of the 34th batch had already begun.

Analysis

The fact that Russia appears to be using Kh-101s fresh off the production line could indicate Moscow’s stocks of those missiles are dwindling. Since October, the Russian military has launched at least six Kh-101s produced this year, two of them made in Q4 2022. Conversely, the other Kh-101s listed above, launched earlier in the war, were produced years beforehand. But one cannot necessarily assume this means Moscow has exhausted its stocks of Kh-101s produced earlier, as the data demonstrate that newer missiles are sometimes expended after older ones.

At the same time, the data indicate that Kh-101 production continues despite Western export controls. As Janes and other experts have noted, Russia likely entered the war with stockpiles of microelectronics and other critical components, although it is unclear how large such stocks may be. The first deputy chairman of Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission indicated as much back in June, saying the Russian defense industry would draw on its stocks while seeking alternative supplies. A former Russian defense industry executive said something similar in late October, while also noting that Russian stocks will need to be replenished.

To that end, Moscow has likely ramped up its longstanding efforts to covertly procure Western components and technology, as U.S. officials confirmed earlier this year. Moscow gained extensive experience in this field during the Soviet era and has since continued that tradition, particularly after the West tightened export controls against Russia following its 2014 aggression against Ukraine. Many sensitive Western components found in Russian weapons used in Ukraine were procured after 2014, some as recently as this year. In fact, a joint investigation by Reuters and RUSI, a UK-based think tank, indicated that Russia’s imports of microelectronics may have actually increased since February thanks to sanctions-evasion schemes.

In addition to demonstrating that Kh-101 production continues, the data presented above allows one to deduce the minimum number of these missiles built in a given time period. (This, in turn, provides a useful data point when assessing Russia’s capacity to produce other missiles, as various Russian cruise missiles use some of the same parts and components, including Western-made ones, as CAR has documented.)

While some analysts have previously asserted that Russia could only produce around three Kh-101s per month, the data suggest Russia has manufactured an average of at least one Kh-101 every four days since at least 2018. This conclusion is tentative, based on partial information, and may require revision as additional information comes to light.

Russia produced at least one missile from the 24th batch (serial number ?????82824???) sometime in Q2 2018. The sixth digit is “8,” meaning the product code is likely “648.” The batch numbers appear to start over sometime after the 34th batch, apparently coinciding with the switch from product code “648” to product code “263.” The serial number on a Kh-101 downed on October 22 indicates it was the 20th missile of the seventh batch, manufactured in Q2 2022, so one can tentatively assume all other batches also comprised at least 20 missiles.

Russia had made at least the first missile of the 11th batch (serial number 3152634211001) of product code “263” by November 23, 2022, when that missile was downed in Ukraine. This means that from Q2 2018 to November 23, 2022, Russia produced at least 10 full batches of product code “648” and at least one missile from batch 24, plus at least 10 full batches of product code “263” and at least one missile from batch 11.

Assuming each batch comprised at least 20 missiles, Russia manufactured at least 402 Kh-101s during this timeframe. If the missiles from the 24th and 11th batches were manufactured on April 1, 2018, and November 23, 2022, respectively, then Russia produced those 402 Kh-101s in 1,698 days, a rate of 0.24 missiles per day. (Those figures could obviously be significantly higher if the former and latter missiles were made later or earlier, respectively, if the batches comprised more than 20 missiles, or if Russia made more than 34 batches of product code “648.”)

This low-end estimate appears more than plausible based on recent Ukrainian assessments. Ukrainian Defense Minister recently declared that Russia had produced 120 Kh-101s from February 23 to November 18, or roughly 0.44 per day. On December 12, The New York Times cited Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, General Vadym Skibitsky, as saying Russia had built 240 Kh-101s since the war began, or roughly 0.82 per day.

Interestingly, the data could indicate Russia’s daily Kh-101 production rate has actually increased since the war began. Russia produced at least 52 Kh-101s from the 10th missile of the eighth batch (produced in Q3 2022) to first missile of the 11th batch (made in Q4 2022 and launched on November 23). If the former and latter missiles were made on July 1 and November 23, respectively, then Russia would have produced at least 0.36 per day.

By contrast, the available data indicate Russia’s average daily Kh-101 production rate from Q2 2018 to Q3 2022 hewed closely to the overall rate of 0.24. This can be discerned by recalculating the average daily rate using the aforementioned Kh-101 from the 24th batch and each of the other missiles in the dataset. The same is true if one compares the first missile from the 11th batch and the Kh-101s made prior to Q3 2022.

Although the apparent uptick in Q3-Q4 2022 could merely be an illusion resulting from incomplete data, it could also indicate Russia’s production rate increased somewhere around that time. Notably, UEC-Saturn, which manufactures the engines used in the Kh-101 (and in other Russian missiles), said in March that it planned to hire 500 additional employees to increase production. Likewise, the jump between Reznikov’s and Skibitsky’s estimates could provide further indication that Russia’s Kh-101 production capacity increased during the latter part of this year.

A key question is how long Russia can continue firing Kh-101s and other missiles. While the drop-off in Russia’s missile usage rate indicates that conservation is a concern for Moscow, the exact state of its stocks remains unclear. The answer obviously depends in part on how many missiles Russia had when the war began. Open-source estimates of Moscow’s pre-invasion missile inventories are shaky at best. But most analysts believe Russia keeps a portion of its precision-guided munition stocks in reserve for a potential war with NATO, and Western and Ukrainian officials have appeared to confirm as much.

According to Reznikov, Moscow entered the war with 144 Kh-101s. He did not specify whether he was referring to Russia’s total Kh-101 inventory or just the portion Moscow would permit itself to use in Ukraine. The latter seems more plausible given that Kyiv’s own estimates of Russia’s Kh-101 production capacity, as well as the analysis presented above, indicate Moscow could have accumulated far more than 144 of these missiles by February 2022.

Regardless of however many Kh-101s Moscow has left, it seems clear that Russia is expending its stocks of these and other missiles faster than it can replenish them.

At the same time, Western triumphalism over the supposed demise of Russia’s defense industrial base appears premature. Many Western officials have put forward questionable claims about what post-invasion Western sanctions have achieved to date.

For example, the White House, echoing claims initially made by Ukraine’s General Staff and military intelligence directorate, has said Russian tank maker Uralvagonavod has ceased production due to a shortage of Western-made bearings. This shortage has reportedly caused problems for Uralvagonzavod’s civilian arm, which produces railcars, and it is possible it has affected defense production as well. But Uralvagonzavod has released substantial visual evidence indicating production of tanks and other equipment continues. In fact, Uralvagonzavod’s military division, like many Russian defense companies, has hired more workers (including 250 convicts) and scheduled additional shifts in an effort to meet the Russian military’s heightened demand. That hardly sounds like a firm that has closed its doors.

Conclusion

Western export controls have already undermined Russia’s defense industrial base and will likely pose even greater challenges for Moscow in the future. But the new measures will need time and strict, multilateral enforcement to achieve their full potential. The challenge for the United States and its allies will be to improve their ability to thwart Russian evasion schemes — something at which they have a spotty record to date.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Military and Political Power Russia The Long War Ukraine