Vladislav Belbas – Director General of Design and Manufacturing company “Ukrainian Armor” gave comments concern the activity of the enterprise to the information agency “Defense-Industry Courier”.
In 2015, Design And Manufacturing Company “Ukrainian Armor” began active work in the field of development and production of specialized armoured vehicles (SAV). At present, despite its relatively young age, the company is already a well-known supplier of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine’s defence forces.
At the proper time the company began with the production of specialized armoured vehicles “Varta” and “Novator” for the Armed Forces and the National Guard of Ukraine, but now the competence range of DMC “Ukrainian Armor” has significantly expanded. It is quite revealing that the company conducts a wide range of research and development works independently at its own networking capital and at the request of the Ministry of Defence, as well as it has self-confidently launched a new production, including mortars and mortar rounds to them. And in 2021 the company became one of the five enterprises of the domestic military-industrial complex (MIC), which took part in the competition of the defence establishment to develop a new vehicle to replace the Soviet vehicle UAZ-469.
In fact, “Ukrainian Armor” is one of the compact, high-tech enterprises, shaping the appearance of Ukraine’s modern MIC. To find out what the company is doing today and what plans it is implementing, the editorial board of the “Defense-Industry Courier” agency asked to tell Vladislav Belbas – Director General Of Design And Manufacturing Company “Ukrainian Armor”.
Vladislav Vladimirovich, I would like to start with the question of the idea of creating armoured vehicles? How did you come to this and what was the beginning of the company’s path at the market?
Any ideas arise from demand. And if we take Ukraine at the starting time of the Russian aggression, this means an acute demand. In 2014-2015, there were no armoured vehicles in Ukraine. Then a search of such vehicles for Ukraine was conducted throughout the entire world in order to buy them for the army and other security, defence and law enforcement agencies. Remember, in those days the old British vehicles SAXON were bought, which turned up to be unserviceable in modern warfare. It was important to solve this problem quickly and furthermore maximum security of the army vehicles was extremely important. This gave rise to the corresponding motivation, but the creation of an armoured vehicle is far-from-simple because it is a symbiosis of creative activity and business. But just then we created an initiative employee group at the company, and we risked implementing such an idea. I would like to note that we had some initial preliminary studies – our company was engaged in armoring the bank vehicles before the war. In addition, in 2015 there were already experienced army men who had just returned from the war due to the corresponding rotation. In other words, they spent more than a year in war and already understood exactly what kind of equipment is required to ensure successful warfighting. Based on this, we quickly began to master a new business – to create a modern military vehicle and prepare operational customer proposals. It was an initiative, but it is understood that it would not be possible to produce military equipment without the customer. After a some time, our team was able to get the terms of reference and prepare the required documentation – there was a lot of paperwork, but without it we would not have advanced with the development implementation. These were official documents, they also contained the army man’s wishes. Therefore, the technical characteristics of our equipment, in particular special armoured vehicles “Varta”, are not invented from the head, but fully conform the customer request and requirements.
Can you tell us about this first vehicle of “Ukrainian Armor” in detail? How did it win back it`s niche in the state defence forces?
According to the terminology of the domestic defence establishment, “Varta” is classified as the “Special Armoured vehicles”. Such vehicles, first of all, are designed for personnel transportation. According to the international classification, “Varta” is an MRAP vehicle, i.e. mine-resistant ambush-protected, which means: the vehicle is resistant to mines. Such vehicle is also designed for soldier transportation in dangerous zones, where there may be sabotage groups and explosive demolitions. Our company passed the explosive demolition tests and successfully defended the shelling. If anyone thinks that this process was a walk, it is a misplaced belief. All test stages were carried out in sharp competition conditions and rather strict approaches to military acceptance. Any stated characteristic should be proved in practice. We had to update a lot, but due to these efforts an armoured vehicle was created, which we are proud of. It is worth pointing out that “Varta” fully copes with its task. Moreover, during its operation there was no case that at least one serviceman, who used our equipment, was killed during the combat mission. It is evidence that the development team was moving in the right direction.
And how did you carry out the mine resistance test?
Within the state tests, it was carried out together with the Ministry of Defence. As an aside, our vehicle is the only one that has passed the specified tests in the most complete compliance with STANAG requirements. Unfortunately, appropriate laboratories and equipment are not yet available in Ukraine, so we didn’t get a chance to carry out the test explosive demolition in Ukraine, under the control of an international laboratory, for obtaining a full STANAG certificate. However, as practical results have shown, we are quite ready for such test.
And why did the “Varta” get to the army under resolution No. 345?
It is no surprise here. All vehicles, purchased in those years, were mostly supplied under resolution No. 345 – this decision was made during the war, so that the latest equipment can be immediately got without waiting for its approval for service use. In other words, the vehicles were put into operation within the departmental tests. The same was with “Varta” and “Novator”, which were developed in accordance with the customer terms of reference. The compliance tests were carried out, and on the basis of them, the vehicles were further supplied. Of course, there are two sides of the same coin. The Ministry of Defence urgently needed such equipment, and we supplied the armoured vehicles. On the other side, we are interested in approving “Varta” and “Novator” for service use, as this could significantly contribute to the product sale to foreign customers. But resolution No. 345 helped us. We currently have the vehicles that went through a baptism of fire in a real war, confirmed the characteristics, and proved their high operational performance.
When do you expect vehicles to be approved by the Armed Forces of Ukraine for service use?
To date, “Varta” completes the state tests, and “Novator” passes them within the controlled operation by the state customer. I think that such an event will take place this year. We need this, first of all, to enter these products into the world arms market.
And how was the “Novator” project created? Perhaps, the army men needed additional functions at some stage?
There is the awareness that it is a tactical vehicle. In other words, TWAV is a tactical wheeled armoured vehicle. But it is still not MRAP, in other words, the vehicle does not have the same protection as “Varta”. The MRAP vehicle protects against explosions, so the height above ground to the vehicle bottom in quadratic dependency has an impact on the explosion action force to the vehicle and, accordingly, the crew safety. The lower vehicle is easier to protect and, of course, can not withstand such explosive demolitions. Now all, who engage in active combat, are representatives of the Soviet-style tank building. They insist that the high vehicle is a good target for a hand-held anti-tank rocket launcher (HHATRL) or anti-tank missile system (ATMs).
“Novator” has a lower silhouette, it is lighter, faster, more maneuverable. Its creation philosophy is completely different – now most of the world’s manufacturers have gone in the production direction of such vehicles. In other words, it is a five-seater pickup vehicle for transporting cargo or payload (for example, the same JLTV, which is the most popular now). This structure makes it possible to create various weapons systems ( strike or scout-attack) based on the “Novator”. It is possible also to locate lasers, unmanned aircraft anti-weapons, MANPADS (man-portable air defence), ATMs, radars, and other weapons or equipment on them. Our vehicles completely satisfy the TWAV military operational requirements and can be used as a wheelbase for various types and branches of troops for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Studying the demand, our team is trying to be ahead of the sophisticated weapons systems based on the “Novator”, including through the creation of joint projects with other military companies. For example, in a few days at the exhibition “Weapons and Security-2021” we will introduce the “Novator” with a remote weapon station NSVT 12.7 mm and the modification possibility for installing the machine gun Browning M2. Through the use of RWS (remote weapon station) the “Novator” is classified as the combat armoured wheeled vehicles of the front edge with full functionality of both offensive and defensive nature. Support of armoured infantry divisions in defensive combat, escort of air assault troops and fire damage of the enemy in case of breakthrough battle, checkpoint duty – this is an incomplete list of functional tasks of AWMV (armoured wheeled military vehicle) “Novator” with station 12.7 mm of the third generation.
Or another indicative example in the field of modern weapons development is as follows: during the same exhibition, we will also introduce a new reconnaissance and strike unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) RAM II based on the “Novator” armoured vehicle. The RAM II UAV is a high-precision strike unmanned aerial vehicle designed for accurate and effective strikes on enemy forces and for minimizing collateral damage when used in urban areas at a distance of up to 30 km.
These examples should convince the potential customers that DMC “Ukrainian Armor” is able to offer comprehensive solutions in order to provide the defence forces with sophisticated weapons.
Why was the MAZ chassis chosen for “Varta” and the Ford chassis for “Novator”?
The MAZ-5434 vehicle chassis was chosen for the “Varta”, as at that time it was the most affordable vehicle chassis with an extensive dealer network, sufficient technical specifications and convenient price parameters. Regarding the technical part, this chassis fully met the terms of reference requirements. According to the test results the vehicle has fully confirmed its characteristics. In addition, MAZ occupies about 20% of the entire Ukrainian market. The third parameter is the life-cycle cost. Now, by the way, even the law has appeared, which clearly states: it is possible to import equipment or components for the state customer, if it is 10% cheaper than domestic. By the way, MAZ was just noticeably cheaper than KrAZ. In addition, in those years AvtoKrAZ was loaded and had its own projects. At present, MAZ still supplies products to Ukraine without any problems, in addition, there are no problems with export.
As for the Ford chassis, it is the world’s most used chassis on all armoured vehicles up to 10 tons. Analytically, we came to this chassis choice. We took it as a basis, and significantly improved it – strengthened the bridges, suspension, adapting to operation in the most difficult off-road conditions. And time points to the fact that we have made the correct decision.
In the process of the development and production of automotive equipment, certain technologies were created. Some of them are even patented. Can you tell us more about it?
I think that the key one is welding technology. At the Ukrainian market, we are the only ones who are working with Swedish steel. This steel has a hardness of 560 HB and is the hardest compared to the steels chosen by other domestic manufacturers of the combat vehicles – 500 HB. In this regard the material processing issue is unordinary, it is one of the main ones and is directly connected with the mine resistance of the vehicle. During the tests our vehicles have never been shot through, including at welding sites.
It is important to realize that there is a welding method of various elements. It was developed by us with suppliers and together with the E.O.Paton Electric Welding Institute. During the tests all seams, locks, etc. are shot through. As a result, our technology has passed all tests. It is a convincing victory achieved due to a combination of modern technological solutions and successful material choices.
In addition, our vehicle has a steel-armoured V-shaped bottom, followed by the vehicle suspension elements, and then another steel V-shaped element, which is an effective protection against the explosion wave. By the way, the strength of our company was in the price all the years at the market – we have always been cheaper than competitors while maintaining the high quality. Although any company is, first of all, a commercial structure, our team philosophy is to preserve our servicemen’s lives and healths. In particular, when designing and producing our equipment for the army or the guards, we always assign primary importance to the following principle: where there are welcoming security issues, we choose the best.
And what are the anti-mine seats in your vehicles?
We equip our armoured vehicles with imported NATO-certified seats. We have a number of the elements and components that are supplied by the import partners and have NATO certificates. Our fire-fighting systems are also imported – Turkish. But we make the tire inflation system ourselves – it is our own high-tech development. By the way, our vehicles have a very good cross-country ability. The armoured vehicles were in operation at various points and conditions, and there were no complaints about the structure.
How can you comment on your interaction with the military, in particular, with the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine? Many say that there is a great need for the enterprise orientation of the military-industrial complex. What are the procurement plans of the weapons and military equipment, the quantity plans of the procurement list, as well as the research and development work? Is it orientation for 3 – 5 years appropriate?
Of course, the key goal of any MIC enterprise is order. There are several ways to get and implement them. It is my understanding that the Ministry of Defence should diversify the suppliers of various weapons systems, including the wheeled equipment. In my opinion, it is riskily to buy the products from only one specific company. The military-political leadership of the state has many mechanisms for testing and inspecting the suppliers of the weapons and military equipment – the only thing that matters is such actions to be transparent and all participants to stand on equal competitive footing. For example, in the fall of 2019, the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine organized the tests of all armoured vehicles represented in Ukraine. We appeared with both the “Varta” and “Novator” for these tests, although some of our competitors simply refused to participate. I am proud that both of our vehicles have been ideally tested and fully confirmed the compliance with the stated TTC (tactical and technical characteristics).
Last year, in an interview, you mentioned that about 55% of “Ukrainian Armor” vehicles have imported components and about 45% have Ukrainian components. Are you planning to correct this situation?
To date, it remains the same. The production of these vehicles is formed and tested. Moreover, when our vehicle passes the state tests, the component and supplier lists, etc. are formed for it. In order to change it, we would have to pass additional tests. Therefore, it is better to increase the production localization in new developments, it will be more appropriate and based on the experience gained in the production organization. We are working on such plans, but it is too early to talk about them publicly.
In addition, we as a developer and manufacturer are always linked to finance. Our profit from the Ministry of Defence is minimal, it does not automatically provide us with further development conditions, in particular, the development of new equipment. In general, the project profitability appears under the order condition from one hundred vehicles. Therefore, we need to acutely understand what the mid-range and long-range customer policy will be. After the presidential and parliamentary elections, we have undergone some changes in the perception of the military conflict severity that Russia has unleashed. There is no escaping the impression that the military-political leadership does not see the need to purchase weapons and military equipment with a view to large-scale rearmament. It seems riskily, taking into account the fact that Russian forces deployed against Ukraine in the immediate vicinity of our borders are by average 60 percent re-equipped with sophisticated weapons. In addition, in this year the general guidelines of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine for imports have become notable. Sometimes it is even a question of the list of the weapons and military equipment produced in Ukraine.
An interesting illustration can be the purchase of an AIV (armoured infantry vehicle). In 2018-2019, the state held a tender, on which four manufacturers submitted the proposals, including “Ukrainian Armor”. We all submitted the preliminary projects, and the Ministry of Defence had to choose a company and finance the further works in this area. But it stopped there. Now “Ukrainian Armor” will offer this project on the world weapons market.
But, in some way or other, we already have a strong background of the developments and various competencies. For example, our team even armoured the wheeled vehicles for the project of the mobile coastal defence missile system “Neptun” – and these are specific techniques and design solutions.
You touched on a sensible area. And what developments is “Ukrainian Armor” doing today?
I can assure you that we don’t stay still – we have a lot of promising projects and research and development (R&D). For example, we recently performed “Sokil” R&D – the deployment of an unmanned missile strike system based on the “Varta” vehicle. I have already mentioned two new developments – a remote weapon station and a reconnaissance and strike unmanned aerial vehicle based on the “Novator” armoured vehicle.
Another large-scale R&D concerns is the creation of a “Smereka” mobile self-propelled two-caliber mortar complex with an automatic target indication system based on the “Varta” vehicle. By the way, it is the only one of research and developments that was financed by the Ministry of Defence.
But in general, the development quantity and range provide a quiet wide panorama of our intentions and efforts. I’d like to inform you that there is another activity area, which points that DMC “Ukrainian Armor” came to the market seriously and for the long haul.
Thus, in 2018, UPIK-82 mortar developed by DMC “Ukrainian Armor” passed the state tests and was approved by the Armed Forces of Ukraine for service use. At present, more than 300 samples have been supplied to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and are being actively used by the Ukrainian army. Along with this, the state tests of the 120-millimetre MP-120 mortar were completed. By the way, this is the only mortar of this calibre that has passed the state tests in Ukraine. We also advanced in the development of the mortar rounds: 60 mm, 82 mm and 120 m. 60 mm is the only Ukrainian-made mortar munition that has passed the state tests and approved for service use. In addition, in June 2021, the defining departmental tests of the ZU-23-UB anti-aircraft installation, developed by our team, should be completed.
Finally, the development of the mobile anti-tank missile system “Clarinet” is continued. And what is more – a 30-mm rocket-propelled grenade to AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher and 40-mm rocket-propelled grenade to GP-25 rifle-attached grenade launcher.
As for the developer and engineer team, each vehicle is accompanied by different designers – for six years we have able to gather a fairly powerful design team. At the same time, we always start from the idea. For example, we are working on a fresh project of a 6 x 6 armoured combat vehicle – a very promising, powerful idea that should grow into a real development of a full-scale specimen.
How many vehicles manufactured by “Ukrainian Armor” are currently used by the defence forces? Is there feedback?
In total, we supplied about 300 vehicles – about 200 “Varta” and about 100 “Novator”. The customers were the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard of Ukraine. If we talk about feedback, the operators are definitely satisfied.
I have to admit that, in case of a large-scale order, we are able to quickly deploy the additional production capacities – it is not a problem. If we talk about the production deadlines, we are quite able to strictly adhere to them. Unfortunately, during the last three years the production capacities of the enterprise significantly exceeds the order volumes. As a matter of fact, it motivates us to work more carefully on the export organization matters.
And what about the vehicle weapons? Is it difficult to negotiate with a state-owned enterprise, for example, to complete the vehicle with a weapon station or missile system?
“Stugna” ATMS can be installed on the “Novator”. Negotiating with the enterprises is not particularly difficult. It is, to all intents and purposes, a customer issue. In addition, over the past two years, we have been proactively trying to reduce the cost of the “Novator” armoured vehicle. For example, in the past year, thanks to the professional actions of the process optimization team, we were able to save money under a state contract for the production of the “Novator” batch and provide the National Guard with nine vehicles at the price of eight. This year we made the vehicle cheaper than the estimated price. The second moment is the complete set. We signed the supply contract of the armoured vehicles with one complete set, and the National Guard asked us to replace the communications means. For this purpose it was necessary to redesign the fasteners, arrangements, etc. But we coped with this task without any problems.