Secretive Ukrainian arms production a ‘threat’ for Russia, says manufacturer

(NEW YORK) — A leading Ukrainian arms manufacturer said Russia increasingly views the growth of Ukraine’s own domestic military-industrial sector as a “threat.”

Ukrainian Armor, a firm that produces mortar launchers and shells as well as several models of armored infantry fighting vehicles, said Russia has been increasingly targeting Ukrainian arms production sites lately when it launches barrages of missiles and drones.

“That means that they now consider Ukrainian military industry as a big threat,” the company’s director general Vladislav Belbas, told ABC News during an interview at one of the firm’s secret production facilities.

The threat from Russian missiles and drones is so acute that Ukrainian Armor said it spreads its production base thinly across multiple sites to minimize the impact of a potential strike.

“Whenever they attack, we have to be sure that only (a) small part of the manufacturing process will be destroyed,” Belbas added.

Employees have access to bunkers because, Belbas said, the lives of his workers are paramount, and any destroyed equipment can be rebuilt.

ABC News was given exclusive access to a series of non-descript industrial hangars at an undisclosed location in Ukraine.

Visits to these sensitive sites are restricted in order to minimize the risk of Moscow discovering their location.

Ukrainian efforts to increase domestic arms production have taken on added urgency amid the hold-up in Congress over securing additional American military aid for Kyiv.

Ukrainian Armor said it now produces around 20,000 mortar shells every month and around 100 mortar launchers of varying calibers.

The largest version, which is wheeled and towed around the battlefield, can hit enemy positions at more than four miles, the firm claims.

Mortar shell production in Ukraine surged last year, with the country manufacturing 42 times the number of shells compared to 2022, Oleksandr Kamyshin, the minister for Strategic Industries announced in December.

Ukrainian Armor also manufactures infantry fighting vehicles. Its “Novator” model, a 5-seater armored personnel carrier, is built on top of a reinforced chassis of a Ford SUV and runs off a Ford engine.

The company claims the Novator can be made at about 70-80% of the cost of a similar model produced abroad.

Belbas, the company’s director general, said an added bonus of making the hardware in Ukraine is that most of the repairs and maintenance can be performed close to the war’s frontlines, which is not the case for some western-supplied military equipment.

However, he emphasized that the U.S. and other Western support for Ukraine was critical, both in terms of military aid and financial support for the country’s war-ravaged economy so that the government in Kyiv could continue to invest in its own arms industry.

Even during the last two years of war, Ukraine’s defense industry has been expanding rapidly, officials said. The sector employed 300,000 people last year, according to Ukrainian media.

In his New Year’s message, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy predicted that in 2024 Russia “will feel the wrath of domestic production.”

Key for the sector’s growth will be help from Ukraine’s allies.

At the end of last year, Ukraine said it had signed “dozens” of new contracts with Western arms companies.

That announcement followed a joint Ukraine-U.S. defense conference in Washington.

Joint ventures between Ukraine and western defense firms will typically mean that weaponry is produced inside Ukraine, with those western companies providing guidance, technology and expertise.

For security reasons a senior Ukrainian official was unable to comment on the overall scale of planned arms production under these joint ventures but said work is already “moving” and called it a top priority for the Ukrainian government to ensure the country’s sustainability in the longer-term.

Ukrainian Minister Kamyshin also announced in December “agreements with two leading American companies” to jointly produce, in Ukraine, much-needed NATO-standard 155-mm artillery shells.

Ukraine has warned its stocks of those munitions are running low.

However, in an indication of the time needed to build up some areas of its manufacturing base, production of the 155-mm artillery shells is not expected to begin for at least two years, Kamyshin said.

A report published in December by the American think tank the Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine and its partners were “executing a realistic plan to create a sustainable basis for Ukraine to be able to defend itself over the long term, with dramatically reduced foreign military assistance.”

Belbas, the boss of arms firm Ukrainian Armor noted, said Russia started building-up its military industrial base when Vladimir Putin first became president 24 years ago so. He said it will take Ukraine “years and years” to catch up with Russia.

Ukraine might struggle to match the quantity of weaponry Russia can produce, he added, but Ukraine’s strong industrial base, together with Western technology and know-how could, he hopes, give it a qualitative edge.

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