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Satellite images reveal Russian military factories ramping up production

Large new buildings have appeared at Russian defense factories producing aircraft, combat helicopters and cruise missiles over the past year, according to the Skhemy/RFE/RL investigation.
An aircraft at a factory in Irkutsk, Russia. Credit: Irkut Public Joint Stock Company
Satellite images reveal Russian military factories ramping up production

Analysis of new satellite imagery indicates Russia is actively expanding production capabilities at its military factories for tactical and strategic aircraft, combat helicopters, and cruise missiles, according to an investigation by the Ukrainian Skhemy/RFE/RL project. The noticeable construction at these defense industry plants over the past year suggests preparations for prolonged conflict, the journalists report.

The Kazan Aviation Plant, part of Russia’s state-owned Rostec corporation, is located near the civilian Borisoglebsk Airport in Kazan. Though it produces some civilian airliners, the plant also builds and repairs strategic bombers like the Tu-160, which Russia uses to launch missiles at Ukraine.

“The Kazan Aviation Plant in Soviet times was one of the most important strategic facilities, as it produced and serviced strategic aircraft of the nuclear triad: Tu-16, Tu-22, and Tu-160. So the plant’s capabilities now allow deep modernization and repair of remaining Tu-22M3 and Tu-160 aircraft,” aviation expert Anatolii Khrapchynskyi explained to Skhemy.

This year, a large new two-building hangar complex 300 meters long and over 180 meters wide was erected at the Kazan plant, satellite images show. Although Russian state television claimed it will be used for new Tu-214 civilian planes, experts say its size means it could also service strategic bombers like the Tu-160.

Satellite imagery of Kazan Aviation Plant. The red line marks a new hangar complex. Credit: Planet Labs RBC (RFE/RL graphics)

“The hangar has two sections. One is for large component assembly or maintenance/repair – given its size. It can fit three Tu-160 aircraft simultaneously. The other section has workshops for repairing or building aircraft components and parts,” said Khrapchynskyi.

Another state aircraft factory increasing capacity is in Irkutsk, which manufactures the Su-30 fighter jet and variants. According to The Military Balance, Russia reportedly has over 120 Su-30 aircraft. The Irkutsk plant also repairs Su-30s, notably one that crashed into a residential building in Irkutsk in October 2022. Ukraine’s military intelligence suggested the crash could have been due to “low-quality repair of the Su-30” at the plant.

Analysis of satellite photos indicates that since 2019, a large attached building with runway access has appeared at the Irkutsk plant. Construction of a similar structure was completed this year.

Satellite imagery of Irkutsk Aviation Plant. The hangar under construction is marked on the left, and the hangar that was built in 2021 is in the center. Credit: AIRBUS S.A.S. (RFE/RL graphics)

“This new hangar is intended purely for scheduled maintenance and minor repairs of any aircraft it can accommodate – including both the Su-30 fighters and civilian planes,” Khrapchynskyi said.

While named a civilian aviation plant, the Ural Civil Aviation Plant located in Yekaterinburg also repairs engines and gearboxes for military helicopters, including the Mi-2, Mi-8, Mi-24, and Ka-52 models widely used by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Ural local media reported the plant urgently hired additional staff due to increased production volumes in September 2022. Satellite photos show that since late 2021, a large newly built workshop measuring 145 meters long by 75 meters wide has appeared on the premises.

Satellite imagery of Ural Civil Aviation Plant. The red line marks a new hangar complex. Credit: Planet Labs RBC (RFE/RL graphics)

“The new construction at the Ural Civil Aviation Plant is likely a workshop for manufacturing aviation engines or auxiliary power units – aggregates providing aircraft/helicopters additional energy,” Khrapchynskyi assessed.

The Dubna Machine-Building Plant showcases Russia’s expanded drone production for its war effort. The Dubna plant hosts the Raduga Machine-Building Design Bureau, part of Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation. Raduga makes missiles like the Kh-22, Kh-55 and Kh-101 that Russia uses to strike civilian targets in Ukraine, including the Amstor Mall in Kremenchuk.

Satellite images from 2021 onward reveal a large new building has materialized near the Dubna plant, equipped with two helicopter landing pads. It is a factory belonging to Kronshtadt, an AFK-Sistema holding company tied to billionaire oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who is part of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Kronshtadt produces the Orion, Helios, and other military drone models.

Satellite imagery of Dubna Machine-Building Plant. The red line marks a new hangar complex. Credit: AIRBUS S.A.S. (RFE/RL graphics)

Management of AFK-Sistema claimed in May 2022 it was divesting from Kronshtadt. However, per the Russian registry of legal entities, AFK-Sistema still holds a 49.6% stake in Kronshtadt’s subsidiary KT-Bespilotnye Sistemy, which cooperates with Russia’s Defense Ministry and FSB, Skhemy reports. In June 2022, amid the full-scale war, a Kronshtadt manager announced its new Dubna factory was hiring personnel because it was scaling up production.

“The new unmanned aerial vehicle production plant will soon switch to round-the-clock three-shift operations in order to fulfill received orders. Therefore, Kronshtadt continues hiring personnel,” said Kronshtadt Deputy Director Aleksey Belykh, quoted by TopWar.

There are also military plants openly presented by Russian authorities. In October 2022, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu participated in a ceremony launching the construction of a future missile plant for Almaz-Antey Concern, in the Rudnevo industrial park of the special economic zone Technopolis Moscow. Shoigu stated the enterprise would produce air defense systems.

Earlier in January 2023, it became known that Kalashnikov Concern’s subsidiary Zala Aero (LLC Aeroscan) acquired and retrofitted the Italmas shopping center in Izhevsk into a production site for Lancet loitering munitions. In September 2022, Vladimir Putin visited there to observe this process.

A screenshot of a news program of a Russian propaganda TV channel, made by RFE/RL

Russian propaganda channel claimed Russia had converted a Tambov bread factory into a manufacturing facility for FPV drones, alongside the production of baked goods, to support its invasion of Ukraine. Reportedly, the Tambov plant produced 200 Bekas drones per month, costing around $450 each.

Credit: Screenshot from the video

Ukrainian military expert Mykhailo Zhyrokhov explains the extensive military plant expansion across Russia as the Kremlin leadership not intending to end the war anytime soon, spending billions on expanding its military-industrial complex.

“The increase in drone production rates is a direct result of the full-scale war. Before 2022, they did not focus on UAVs and mostly manufactured them for export to other countries. Now, we see that they have actively begun to expand this production specifically for their own military needs,” Zhyrokhov explained.

The Institute for the Study of War reported, citing Russian milbloggers, that Russia now uses new Italmas strike drones together with Iranian Shahed-136/139 models.

Russia deploys cheap DIY drones to divert Ukraine’s air defense

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not commented on or confirmed the use of this UAV type.

According to a UK intelligence report, the proposed 2024 Russian federal budget contains a 68% year-on-year increase in planned defense spending, further evidence of extensive preparations for a prolonged war.

Based on reporting by Kyrylo Ovsianyi/RFE/RL

Update. Later, Oleksii Danilov, the Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, commented on the investigation of the Skhemy in a TV interview, saying, “If everything was going well in Russia, they would not have turned to Iran for drones, they would not have turned to the famous (North) Korea for shells.” He assured that the sanctions imposed on Russia are working and that Russia “is not doing as well as they would like.”

However, in September 2023, The New Your Times reported, citing unnamed Western and Ukrainian officials, that Russia has overcome the sanctions pressure and now produces even more missiles than before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

According to estimates, sanctions forced Russia to slow down its military-industrial complex at the beginning of 2022. However, six months later, Russia’s military-industrial manufacturing began to pick up speed again. Evading sanctions is relatively easy because the microchips needed to make a couple hundred cruise missiles could fit into a few backpacks.

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