A model of a Magura V5 unmanned surface vessel by Ukrainian company STE is seen on day one of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair at ExCel on September 12, 2023, in London, England.

A model of a Magura V5 unmanned surface vessel by Ukrainian company STE is seen on day one of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair at ExCel on September 12, 2023, in London, England. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Beset by Russian airstrikes, Ukraine looks to make its weapons abroad

The country’s defense firms have cheap, battle-tested kit—and no safe place to build it.

LONDON—At Ukraine’s booth at this year’s DSEI arms fair, a video played an endless loop of drone strikes. In one, a crumbling industrial building in a field suddenly bursts into billowing flames. 

It’s a common enough type of video at conferences like these, where arms makers show off their wares on big screens and in glossy brochures. But the Ukraine video is different: it’s real combat footage. 

The Ukrainian weapons are “not for display, it’s for combat,” said Oleksii Vitt of SpetsTechnoExport.

Vitt and his colleagues in Ukraine’s defense industry were at DSEI, in part,  to find Western companies to build their weapons. The basic deal, as envisioned by Ukrainian government officials, is that foreign companies would get access to cheap and innovative Ukrainian designs while Ukraine would secure arms factories in countries safe from Russian missile strikes.

Just across from the Ukraine stand at DSEI stood the glossy booths of defense giant BAE, whose hulking armored troop transports, winged drones, and cannons, showed what the world’s leading economies could get for their money. 

Ukraine’s stand, by contrast, was more modest. One stand showed a one-foot large model of an unmanned boat, the Magura V5, while another displayed the Punisher drone, a slim winged drone whose gray plastic bomb shells looked slightly like household plumbing. 

That resemblance wasn’t accidental. The bomb casing is made in part from a water pipe and 3-D printed material. “We want to do things as cheap as possible,” said Maksym Muzyka of SpetsTechnoExport. 

The designers of the Punisher recently added a suite of electronic measures to ward off Russia’s strong electronic warfare countermeasures, including a jam-resistant GPS receiver. The cost of including such a system was almost as much as the rest of the drone, Muzyka said. 

The Magura V5 is similarly made to be as cost-effective as possible, and includes commercially available parts. If parts are in stock, Ukraine can manufacture as many as 20 of the boats a week, said Ivan Sybyriakov of SpetsTechnoExport. 

Sybyriakov said research and development spending, often one of the larger costs in creating weapons, is low thanks to fast feedback from troops actually using the weapons in combat. 

The weapons are also effective. The Punisher drone, which can be launched outside the range of Russian howitzers, has seen front-line combat. The boats likewise have been used to attacks Russian targets. Ukrainian drone-boat attacks have made news multiple times in recent months, including an attack that damaged Russia’s bridge to the occupied peninsula of Crimea. 

There’s a catch, though. With Russian planes preventing easy shipments by air, it can take months for the necessary parts for their drone boats to come. 

In part, that’s why Ukraine attended DSEI, a sprawling arms fair spread across the 100 acres of the ExCel conference center on London’s Thames River. 

Ukraine is looking for foreign partners to set up factories in countries safe from Russian military attack. Among the prospective partners is Lithuania, which said it could handle certain bureaucratic procedures for Ukraine in weeks, rather than the years that other countries quoted Ukraine, Muzyka said. 

The shiny new capabilities littering the DSEI floor, meanwhile, should go to Ukraine, said Vitt: “Up-to-date modernized stuff should go to us for combat.” 

Ukraine can also acquire goods through the West, but the million dollar price tags on many items meant they must ask for help from foreign partners. For some equipment, Ukraine may first talk with a producer and then request that the specific equipment to be delivered by the West, Vitt said. 

In the meantime, Ukraine hopes companies will send their equipment to test it out on the battlefield, noting anti-drone equipment in particular. “We are a good testing field,” said Muzyka.