Satellite eye: Su-35 production surges despite microchip ban

Despite the Western sanctions that limit their supply of microchips and parts for semiconductors, Russia seems capable of maintaining, and possibly even increasing, the production of their advanced Su-35 fighter jets. Evidence for this comes from comprehensive, ongoing satellite surveillance of a factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia’s Far East.  

Photo showing 'an Iranian Su-35s' has caused a flurry on the web
Photo credit: Twitter

The meticulous examination of the satellite photos, taken from the Sukhoi factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, was conducted by SpaceKnow, a highly reputable Czech tech company. They utilized their unique IMINT application, which leverages artificial intelligence to analyze occurrences over large expanses of land anywhere in the world, using raw satellite data.  

SpaceKnow’s specialized algorithm, which automatically detects and identifies aircraft, was utilized to scrutinize a series of high-quality images provided by SkySat satellites from Planet Labs, spanning from April 2020 to October 2023. The results were quite riveting.

29 Su-35 at the end of 2023

In 2020, we generally observed two planes at the Su-35 factory. The capacity for plane storage significantly increased in 2021, accommodating 11 to 16 planes at any given time. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, our system detected a surge in Su-35 plane production. By April of that year, the count had risen to 19 planes. Remarkably, by October, this number had soared to 30 fighter planes, all conveniently aligned next to the assembly buildings. 

Satellite Watch: Su-35 production surges despite microchip ban
Photo credit: SpaceKnow

This trend continued in 2023, as satellite images revealed 31 Su-35 planes at the factory in September. The most recent photograph, taken in October 2023, displays 29 planes, all primed and ready to soar into the blue yonder. 

Data is “floating”

SpaceKnow’s research indicates that determining the exact number of new airplanes being produced isn’t entirely feasible. “We’re making an informed estimate that new planes are likely being stored near the manufacturing facilities,” the researchers clarify. Injecting an element of mystery, they note that sometimes unfinished aircraft can be spotted in these areas, and these “waiting” planes often shuffle around. 

This viewpoint aligns closely with a comprehensive study by the American Center for European Policy Analysis [CEPA]. The study suggests that Russia has been consistently producing approximately 30-35 new Su-35-type planes in recent months. Further calculations imply that Russia now possesses roughly 114 Su-35s, at least theoretically.

Satellite Watch: Su-35 production surges despite microchip ban
Photo credit: SpaceKnow

The Russian claims have been confirmed

Not too long ago, the Deputy General Director of Russia’s state-run Rostech, which includes Sukhoi, the manufacturer, boldly boasted about “doubling” their Su-35 production

“Our dedicated team works tirelessly in shifts, supervised by our leaders. Our goal is to motivate and energize our workforce. The state-owned corporation ‘Rostech’ is devoted to boosting the production of weapons,” said the Deputy Head of ‘Rostech’, Vladimir Artakov, in an interview with the government television network ‘Rossiya-24’. It’s also worth noting that Iran exhibited serious interest in acquiring up to 24 Su-35 aircraft, originally planned for Egypt. 

Egyptian Su-35 Flanker-E fighters are going to Iran in March
Photo credit: Wikipedia

On the other hand, information from the British military indicates that since Russia started its aggression towards Ukraine, it has lost at least five of these aircraft. Interestingly, in one case, it seems the Russians accidentally damaged their own equipment.

Putin saw a challenge

In a recent address on February 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin unequivocally pointed out the modernization of the Russian Air Force as a formidable task requiring utmost dedication and focused commitment. “The ability to manufacture a variety of cutting-edge aircraft is something only a handful of nations globally can boast of, and Russia strongly stands in this elite circle,” Putin emphasized, as quoted by TASS, the Russian news agency.

Bypassing sanctions

Even with Western sanctions blocking Russia’s access to microchips and semiconductor parts, there is strong visual proof indicating that Russia still can keep up, and possibly even boost the production of advanced fighters currently in large-scale manufacturing. 

Leading experts believe that the production of top-level fighter aircraft, like the Su-35, involves large amounts of these chips. These chips are fundamental to the core operations of the aircraft. They control everything from the radar and flight control systems to communication and navigation. They also manage image processing, guidance, data links, display systems, and other vital cockpit functions.

Putin-declares-reserve-mobilization-and-those-who-served-in-the-Army
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Where is the market?

A recent story from Bloomberg unveils a fascinating detail: despite sanctions, approximately half of all chip and electronic component imports to Russia originate from American or European manufacturers.  

Reviewing Russian customs data reveals that in 2023, Moscow received US and EU-made chips. These goods were re-shipped through intermediary countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, and the United Arab Emirates. These nations are not subject to the same sanctions.  

Russian defense imports microchips for $33M/mo amid sanctions
Photo by Xu Congjun

These countries serve as ‘middlemen,’ making these transactions possible. The combined worth of these components, hailing from industry heavyweights like Intel, AMD, Analog Devices, Infineon Technologies, STMicroelectronics, and NXP Semiconductors, is approximately $1.2 billion.

The manufacturers deny

Manufacturers have stated that they’ve ceased all interactions with Russia and are currently investigating instances where their products might be entering the nation illegally. A common occurrence of this is through the re-exportation of items, particularly from China, as detailed in a study by the esteemed financial journal, Nikkei Asia. 

The in-depth investigation by Nikkei Asia also delved into Russian customs data, covering the period from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up to the end of 2022. Within this data set, they were able to identify 3,292 transactions, each valued at a minimum of $100,000. Intriguingly, about 70% of these transactions involved products that originated from US microchip manufacturers, such as Intel, AMD, and Texas Instruments, to name a few. 

Russian defense imports microchips for $33M/mo amid sanctions
Photo credit: AFP

Interestingly, the majority (three-quarters) of these tech supplies were supplied by small- to medium-sized businesses based in either Hong Kong or China. These Chinese companies predominantly surfaced following the Russian invasion. Furthermore, it seems these companies have facilitated the distribution of technologies from the French manufacturer Ommic into Russia, leveraging China or its influence. Ommic is significant as it produces circuits for devices like 5G network tools, satellites, and radar for fighter jets or missile guidance systems.

The beginning of the scandal

In July of last year, French authorities took action by detaining the leaders of a company suspected of engaging in dubious practices. Four individuals, two from France and two from China, who held key positions in the company, were apprehended. 

Russian 300mm 9M544 Smerch rockets use chips sold by AliExpress
Photo credit: Gagadget

Let’s unravel the story: In 2018, a businessman from China procured a massive 94% stake in a company known as Ommic. He accomplished this via an investment fund he had established in France. This acquisition gave him the majority control, and soon he assumed the role of the company’s president. Subsequently, he and his team began networking with the defense industry in their native China. 

As per the investigators, the businessman devised a strategy to obtain command over Ommic’s specialized knowledge and transfer advanced technologies back to China and Russia. To ship chips to government-controlled arms companies in these countries, deceptive invoices and incorrect technical statements were used. Certain shipments had to transit through China, India, and Turkey to reach Russian firms. 

The evidence suggests that until at least March 2023, a person chosen by the Chinese owner was either personally delivering chips to Russian clients or dispatching them under a pseudonym. Concurrently, a new pathway was being plotted to transport these products using a shell company in Belgium, also owned by the same Chinese businessman.

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