Could the Kremlin regime mobilize the Russian industry to produce enough war material to tip the scales in the war? In brief, the most likely answer is “no.” Russia does not have the industrial base required to produce enough modern weapons fast enough to prevent the Kremlin from losing the war, and converting civilian industry to war footing takes too long and is unlikely to even succeed due to sanctions and export controls limiting Russian access to modern machine tools and components needed for modern weapons. Even the Russian capability to keep its existing heavy weapons in working order is doubtful, and re-activating even somewhat modern Soviet-era stocks in sufficient numbers will be difficult.
The Russian civilian industry cannot make up for these gaps. It should not be expected to produce appreciable quantities of any weapons before late 2023, even if it is speedily mobilized. As I explain later in detail, converting civilian manufacturing to weapons production takes time and generally requires new tooling and machine tools. Conversion and training of the workers for the new tasks, not to mention obtaining raw materials, take time, and quantity production is unlikely to be possible in less than six months.
Furthermore, the weapons that the civilian industry can produce with the tools available are probably limited to simple light infantry weapons, such as pistol-caliber PPD or Sten submachine guns of World War II fame, light mortars, mines, etc. Improvised weapons of dubious battlefield utility, such as “armored cars” made by armor plating civilian vehicles, may also be possible. However, even simple assault rifles like AK-47s, which fire a higher pressure cartridge and thus require more complicated mechanisms compared to simple pistol-caliber submachine guns, may be difficult to produce in larger quantities in factories and workshops that have produced only civilian goods.
Heavy weapons that are absolutely essential for any hope of battlefield success, such as artillery, tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles, not to mention missiles or airplanes, are almost certainly next to impossible to produce with the tools available in civilian factories. Of course, the easier and speedier option that will probably tempt many Russian officials facing pressure from the Kremlin is simply to frame a photo shoot of “war production” for propaganda purposes.
The Russian defense industry was in trouble even before the war
The existing Russian defense industry is unable to produce modern or even simplified heavy weapons and their ammunition at a rate sufficient to alter the outcome of the war. Analysis of captured Russian weapons shows that by and large, advanced Russian weapons are dependent on electronic components sourced from abroad. These are not easy and in some cases probably even cannot be replaced with electronics that Russian domestic production can supply. Post-2014 export controls have also hindered Russian access to modern machine tools and other equipment necessary for domestic manufacturing of weapons components. The lack of imported parts reportedly caused Uralvagonzavod, the largest armored fighting vehicle manufacturer in Russia, to cease the production of modern T-90 and T-14 tanks already in March. Other reports suggest that the plant is now fully occupied with repairing vehicles damaged in Ukraine.
Post-2014 export controls seem to have caused considerable problems for the Russian arms industry. A study published in 2021 suggests that Russian defense industry production increased until 2016, but has been declining since. The study argues that this is mainly due to wear and tear of fixed assets, such as machine tools, and lack of renewal investment. Furthermore, production infrastructure in general is aging. Buildings and supply lines, such as electric, water, and gas lines, are in poor condition and their failures hinder production. Considerable renovations would be needed to repair them to good order. To further complicate the problem, the Russian defense industry also suffers from recruitment problems and a decline in the human capacity as old, skilled workers retire and accumulated experience is lost.
For example, in 2021, the aforementioned Uralvagonzavod tank factory’s Nizhny Tagil plant apparently delivered only 34 modernized T-72B3/B3M main battle tanks to the Russian army, a distinct decrease from its 2011-2020 average output of 160-170 modernized tanks. These comprised the majority of modern Russian tank production. The main if not only additional source for main battle tanks, the other Uralvagonzavod plant in Omsk, supplied between 2017-2021 at most 45-50 modernized T-80BVM tanks in total.
Sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine are causing further problems. Even Chinese electronics manufacturers are now wary of supplying Russia, lest they lose their access to lucrative U.S. and European markets. Even though sanctions and export controls are never airtight, they complicate considerably any attempts to produce modern weapons in the quantity that modern war consumes them, as well as attempts to retool civilian production for military purposes.
Before the war, the Russian defense industry was able to produce approximately 650 armored fighting vehicles of all types per year. Even this pales in comparison to the absolutely massive losses the Russian military has already suffered. At the time of writing, there is photographic evidence for the loss of at least 1155 main battle tanks, 1280 infantry fighting vehicles, 924 armored personnel carriers, 464 support or command post vehicles, and 1611 unarmored vehicles, among a total of 6202 vehicles and pieces of equipment that can be documented as destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured by the Ukrainians. Actual losses are, of course, greater. Considering that the Russian army had probably about 1900 modernized main battle tanks before the war, such losses in about seven months are nothing short of devastating.
Factory capacity is insufficient even for maintenance
Even the equipment that remains in Russian use requires regular maintenance and a steady supply of spare parts. Heavy military equipment is maintenance intensive and requires total overhauls far more often than e.g. civilian cars. For example, even if T-72 tanks are used and maintained carefully and spare parts are readily available, their engines require factory overhaul after no more than 1000 hours of use. Considering the endemic corruption, poor discipline and morale, and general malaise afflicting the Russian military, it is unlikely that heavy equipment is used or maintained carefully, or that sufficient spare parts are available when needed.
The majority of heavy vehicles and other equipment the Russian military is now using in Ukraine probably need major overhauls by the end of 2022 if they are to remain combat capable outside very limited uses, such as static pillboxes. This probably helps explain why the outstandingly successful Ukrainian counter-attack captured more tanks and other heavy weapons than many actual militaries possess in total: it seems likely that many of the captured vehicles were not really ready for action.
Similar problems have been reported to plague the main strength of the Russian army, its artillery. Artillery tubes wear out when firing, and the quality of Russian tubes seems to be subpar, causing tubes to wear out or even fail catastrophically far earlier than they should. Lack of machine tools has already hindered the construction of replacement tubes. Eventually, tubes wearing out faster than they can be replaced will lead to a marked decrease in the firepower and effectiveness of Russian artillery, even if the Russian logistical system can keep the units supplied with ammunition. The reports that Russia is buying artillery ammunition from North Korea suggest that domestic industry cannot meet this challenge.
Furthermore, the very efficient destruction of artillery supply dumps in particular by Ukrainian long-range fires has greatly complicated Russian supply problems and already led to a marked decrease in Russian artillery fire. As supply dumps have to be located beyond the reach of ever longer ranged Ukrainian weapons, and as supply vehicles are steadily destroyed, Russian capability to keep its front-line troops sufficiently supplied diminishes and may even collapse altogether. There seem to be indications that many units do not even receive enough food.
Under these circumstances, mobilizing thousands of practically untrained reservists is unlikely to lead to lasting successes. While considerable stocks of Soviet-era equipment remain and could theoretically be reactivated for the reservists, most of it has been stored in poor conditions. Theft of valuable components is so endemic that crucial electronic equipment had been stolen from the flying nuclear command posts or “doomsday planes” as late as 2019.
Even if sufficient repair depots and factory capacity are available and replacement parts can be obtained and supplied to these depots, re-activating stored equipment takes time. One estimate suggests that re-activating a relatively simple T-62 tank (originally introduced in 1961) takes 1-2 weeks of work in a dedicated repair depot. More modern T-72 and T-90 tanks need 1-2 months, and the most complicated T-80 tanks may need even three.
The regime in the Kremlin is no doubt aware of these problems, but it is not clear what it can do to alleviate them. A recent decree ordered the construction of two tank repair plants that could in theory speed up the repair, maintenance, and re-activation process. However, a more careful reading of the degree shows that merely finding directors for these plants and registering their charters are going to take five months. Unbelievably, further four months are then needed to register the new institutions in the structure of the Ministry of Defense. In other words, the facilities would not even begin to be built before the summer of 2023, and there is no word how much time the construction is expected to take. At least one source believes that the initiative is just a sham intended to conceal the deficit in the state’s treasury and no actual plants are ever going to materialize.
While the examples above concern armored fighting vehicles, it can be safely assumed that more complex weapons such as aircraft and missiles are not going to be easier to produce or re-activate. It is not an exaggeration to believe that even under favorable circumstances, the Russian defense industry will need a decade merely to make up for the losses suffered to date.
Civilian industry cannot be simply switched to war production
As already noted, these deficiencies cannot be made up by converting civilian industry to war production. The experiences from industrial mobilizations during the world wars in particular show that with some minor exceptions, civilian manufacturing can produce only the simplest weapons and equipment. Even though many modern tools, such as computer-controlled machining centers, are more flexible than the tools used in the 1940s, modern weapons are also more complicated. In practice, any large-scale conversion of civilian production towards military ends requires new tooling and new machine tools. For example, the WW2 retooling of Studebacker car factory for aero-engine production could use only 414 of the plant’s existing about 3000 machine tools. Of these, 350 were simple drill presses.
There is a widespread but erroneous belief that the U.S. car industry for example simply “switched” to producing tanks and other weapons. In reality, the existing production lines were removed and stored for future peacetime use, and entirely new production lines were constructed in now-empty factories. This was only possible thanks to substantial machine tool production in the U.S., aided by the machine tool industry’s expansion due to pre-war British and French orders. Post-war studies and plans for industrial mobilization emphasise the importance of machine tool production if similar projects are attempted again, and note that the lead times of machine tools and tooling have a major impact on the rate that civilian manufacturing can be converted to war production.
A rule of thumb learned during the U.S. WW2 industrial mobilization is that both building a new factory and retooling an existing civilian one for war production takes about 18 months. 12 months are needed to dismantle the existing production line or construct a new factory and install a new production line. Further 6 months are needed to train the workers and work out the kinks in the production system. No substantial output should be expected before 18 months. Again, this timetable assumes that sufficient machine tools, tooling, and other supplies are readily available and that workers can be found. While based on experiences 80 years in the past, this timetable fits quite well with timetables achieved in e.g. wind power industry today, where a new wind power plant factory needs 1-2 years to construct and begin initial low rate production. 18 months is probably a reasonably realistic rule of thumb even today.
In conclusion, it is very unlikely that the Russian domestic industry can supply even simple “mobilization model” weapons in large quantities before late 2023, no matter how much pressure the Kremlin applies. Production of new weapons of sufficient quality in quantities sufficient to materially alter the outcome of the war is extremely unlikely. Even large-scale re-activation of the Soviet stockpile is doubtful at best.
Speedy Ukrainian victory is in everyone’s interests
We should therefore focus not on what Putin and his cronies can do, but on what we can do to them. The thoroughly cynical regime in the Kremlin is completely oblivious to human suffering and will do whatever it can to delay its inevitable demise. It will certainly not hesitate to throw untrained, ill-equipped reservists into the meat grinder just to delay defeat. Against battle-hardened, extremely motivated Ukrainian forces, who receive more advanced equipment by the day, Russian reservists using barely functional 1980s-era junk (if that) can do little but die. That, however, is of no concern to the Kremlin. Even now, its military leaders are throwing away their soldiers in meaningless, militarily useless, “robotic” piecemeal attacks against entrenched Ukrainian defenders. Such “leaders” are unlikely to hesitate to waste the reservists in a similar manner to please their superiors.
Russian military could not force a decision with its best troops and weapons. It certainly cannot do so now. The Russian forces can however cause completely unnecessary bloodshed to Ukrainian defenders and to the civilians in occupied areas – and, of course, to themselves. While Putin will lose a prolonged war as well, a quick Ukrainian victory would also be cheaper for everyone concerned, ordinary Russians included. The faster the Russian military is made incapable of further operations and driven from Ukraine, that is, defeated, the faster the killing will end. While the removal of Putin might precipitate a Russian withdrawal or a ceasefire, there are no guarantees that his successors would actually be willing to end the war and not just regroup for another attempt. The defeat of the Russian military, particularly its land and air forces should therefore be the objective until solid proof of an actual change in Russia emerges.
Fear of escalation should not control the thinking in Europe and in the United States. Putin has already lost and is going to be defeated. If he is going to escalate to delay the defeat, he will eventually do so. The quicker the Russian military’s ability to wage war is destroyed, the less time the Kremlin’s regime will have to prepare or use any nasty surprises. Militarily, the only threats the Kremlin can pose to the rest of the world are nuclear weapons. While their use cannot be ruled out, they cannot produce a military victory for Russia either, and bombing civilians has yet to win a war. Any use of weapons of mass destruction could not be overlooked by the U.S. or China. A retaliation could well demolish the Russian military, the Kremlin’s ability to control its population, and what is left of the Russian economy – even if no nuclear weapons are used in response.
It is now not only the right thing to do, but in the West’s own best interests to supply Ukraine with whatever weapons, equipment, and other help they can possibly use. Even the most modern weapons the Western militaries, Finland included, reserve for their own use should be sent if they can be used. If they cannot be simply donated, a lend-lease arrangement where any remaining weapons are to be returned after the war and lost weapons paid for should be used. The weapons of the West have been forged for this exact purpose. This is the moment to use them.
On the U.S. WW2 mobilization, the key sources are the following:
Herman, A. (2012). Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. New York: Random House.
Klein, M. (2013). A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II. London: Bloomsbury.
Lacey, Jim (2011). Keep from all Thoughtful Men: How U.S. Economists Won World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Thatcher, H. W. (1943). Planning for Industrial Mobilization: 1920-1940. Washington D.C.: Historical Section, Office of the Quartermaster General. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112106754952&view=1up&seq=9
Wilson, Mark R. (2016) Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Yoshpe, H. B. (1953). A case study in Peacetime Mobilization Planning: The National Security Resources Board 1947-1953. Washington D.C.: Executive Office of the President. Retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015030961018&view=1up&seq=1