Procurement: The Reverse Engineering Industry


August 1, 2023: Few nations supported the 2022 Russian Ukraine invasion. While Ukraine received nearly $100 billion in delivered or pledged aid, Russia received very little. Only Iran and North Korea provided some support for Russia. North Korea supplied artillery ammunition and weapons while Iran did the same, only in larger quantities. North Korea wanted food and Russia sent it by rail. Iran wanted military technology, especially some Su-35 fighters and technical details on manufacturing key components of the jet as well as decades of Russian tech support. Russia turned down this deal because they knew Iran wanted to build Su-35s and needed lots of specialized information to do that. Instead, Russia offered Western weapons and munitions that they had access to in Ukraine. If the Iranian’s wanted to reverse-engineer more Western weapons, Russia could supply them with the needed examples. This was something Iran could work with because since the 1980s, Iran has not been able to buy Western weapons. Iran would pay for intact or largely intact examples of Western weapons. These Iran could reverse-engineer and build locally. Iran has the engineers and production infrastructure to do this as well as decades of experience.

Iran often develops improvements for the original weapons. For example, in 2022 Iran revealed a new turret it developed for its elderly BMP-1 IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). The new turret is a RWS (remote weapons station) that is operated from inside the vehicle. The RWS is armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, a 7.62mm machine gun, a 12.7mm heavy machine gun and a 30mm automatic grenade launcher. The turret also has several cameras and a laser range finder. The RWS operator inside the BMP can see all around the BMP and use the many weapons individually or together.

Iran has been under various arms embargoes since the 1980s and has become quite proficient at taking older vehicles and weapons and upgrading them using locally developed weapons and fire control systems.

The BMP-1 is a 1960s era design that was innovative when introduced as a 13-ton armored vehicle with a cramped one-man turret armed with a 73mm low-recoil cannon and four ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). This turned the BMP-1 into the first IFV. Iran has 450 BMP-1 vehicles, which were made locally by reverse engineering the Chinese Type 86 IFV, which is a copy of the Russian BMP-1 apparently obtained from Egypt. The Type 86 appears identical to the Russian BMP-1 but there are some internal changes that improve operation.

The BMP-1 turret was always a source of user complaints. The BMP-1 commander often stuck his head and shoulders out of the turret to get a better view, then ducked down inside the turret to operate the 73mm gun, which had a range of 4,500 meters and was pretty accurate, especially when using high-explosive shells.

The original BMP-1 turret weighed about a ton and the usual armament, a 73mm gun, weighed 115 kg (253 pounds). The turret rotation used 24-volt electric motors for traversing and raising and lowering the gun barrel. While the cramped and thinly armored BMP vehicle was never very popular, the turret and its 73mm gun were. That 73mm gun was designed as an anti-armor weapon but by the early 1970s the Russians realized that it was more often used for infantry support and provided high-explosive rounds. These were a little heavier (4.5 kg/10 pounds) but much more effective against troops or structures. The 73mm gun had a 40-round magazine below the turret which provided ample ammo for combat.

There were other ways to improve the BMP-1 turret. In 2016 a Ukrainian firm modified its Shkval RWS to be used on older BMP-1s. That sort of thing takes these older vehicles that are still in service and makes them useful again. Since the 1990s Ukraine has prospered by providing refurbishment and upgrades for older Russian armored vehicles. One popular upgrade was the Shkval RWS, which was introduced in 2012 for more recent wheeled armored vehicles. Putting it on BMP-1s seemed like a good idea and it was. While Shkval weighs 1.9 tons, it allows the operator to sit below the turret and more easily handle the many weapons packed into Shkval. These include a 30m autocannon (with 225 rounds ready to fire), a coaxial 7.62mm machine-gun (with 2,500 rounds), a 30mm grenade launcher (with 29 rounds), two modern ATGMs and six smoke grenade launchers (using grenades generating a mist that confuses laser-guided missiles). Shkval uses a modern computerized fire control system that includes a weapon stabilizer. The operator has a thermal sight available as well as a laser rangefinder.

China eventually designed new turrets for the Type 86 but none of them were RWS models. The Chinese army has over two thousand Type 86 IFVs, most of them the new Type 86A which is more similar to the Russian BMP-2, a major upgrade of the BMP-1.

Russia still has about 500 BMP-1s in service with over 5,000 in reserve. Most of these are in bad shape. Most Russian army BMPs are the 3,000 BMP-2s and 600 BMP-3s.

Iran now has examples of modern Western anti-tank missiles and other weapons. These will be reverse-engineered. The Iranian versions may also receive some new features and even some improvements as well as a new name. These weapons are offered for export as Iranian developed and manufactured products. The developer credit is questionable but the price is lower than the original and Iran will sell to just about anyone who can pay. Sales are not publicized as some of the Iranian reverse-engineered weapons eventually become known to the original manufacturers who then have lawyers sue the buyers and sellers. That often happens when the original manufacturer receives an example of the reverse-engineered weapon. This is often made possible when an intelligence agency wants to find out how the reverse-engineered version compares to the original.




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