Romania is forced to arm itself, but cannot rely on domestic manufacturers

Romanian Airforce Patriot System
© Victor Sămărtinean   |   Romanian Airforce Patriot System

Holzstock Festival

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 sent massive shockwaves across Western societies, which, despite the warnings issued by intelligence services and the reputation of Putin's Russia, could not fathom a war of such magnitude would ever break out in Europe. Ukraine must be helped to resist, a slogan that echoed ever louder on both sides of the North Atlantic at the time. How was this goal supposed to be accomplished? Mainly through the delivery of weapons and ammunition. American and European policymakers agreed on the need to deliver (part of) what the Ukrainians asked for as quickly as possible. In the case of the United States, weapons and ammunition were drawn mainly from the strategic stockpile. This also resulted in a  disturbing dwindling of stocks in some regards. On the other hand, all European stakeholders understood they no longer had the necessary strategic reserves in case of a mobilization or a prolonged and full-fledged armed conflict. Romania found itself in such a situation.

Compelled by historical necessity and amidst the Russian Federation’s comprehensive territorial expansion campaign, Romania must (re)arm itself. Tens of billions of Euro worth of contracts are up for grabs, with the bidding list including some of the world's top arms manufacturers. What is the place and role of the Romanian defense industry in this context and how do its products fare technologically compared to those of foreign origin? We found some of the answers to these questions at the recent “Black Sea Defense & Aerospace” exhibition, attended by manufacturers from all over the world.

Romania’s defense industry: between (former) Soviet licenses and “grenades by the kilo”

Over a quarter of exhibition areas were taken up by manufacturers or products belonging to the Romanian defense industry. However, this share does not mean Romania can rely on its defense industry to equip its army in line with the standards of its NATO allies.

In addition to domestically manufactured combat vehicles belonging to the land forces, such as the TR-85M1 tank and the MLI-84M combat vehicle (both based on Soviet models and impossible to manufacture today – due to the technological obsolescence of manufacturers), a “special” kind of vehicle towered by the entrance to the main exhibition area. It is the latest attempt of Moreni Automecanica Factory at manufacturing an armored amphibious carrier to equip Romania's land forces. Dubbed SAUR 2, although it was presented as a new and original product from Moreni, the vehicle is far from that. In fact, it is a revamped version of the Soviet BTR-80 carrier (manufactured under license at Automecanica), which lacks all the elements specific to a modern armored personnel carrier. And to make the situation even more dramatic for the local manufacturer, talking to company representatives at the fair, I learned that the only component of SAUR that can be manufactured at Moreni is the armored casing (consisting of homogeneous armor plates welded together).

The SAUR amphibious carrier @Victor Sămărtinean

Inside the pavilion, bordered by traditional foreign manufacturers, such as F(abrique) N(ationale) Herstal or Heckler & Koch, was the central exhibition area of Romarm, which brought together part of the subsidiaries of this state-owned company at exhibition level. Thus, the main manufacturer of infantry weapons, Cugirul (with its two subsidiaries, Cugir Mechanical Plant and Cugir Arms Factory), exhibited, aside from AKM models, light and heavy machine guns, most of them designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in the ʾ50s, and a single item in terms of novelty - the CN-20 assault rifle. According to the manufacturer, the latter is intended to mark the entry of the Cugir Arms Factory into the race for the basic weapon of the future Romanian infantry, which is to replace the AKM. The weapon uses standard-issue NATO caliber ammo (5.56×45mm) and allows ambidextrous use. It carries over some small functional and aesthetic elements of the American AR platform, but the operating system is identical to that of the AKM. Sadly for the manufacturer, it seems the production of a barrel reliable enough for the level intended for such a weapon faces a number of shortcomings, which is why the CN-20 is currently lagging behind Western competitors.

CN-22, short-barrel version of the CN-20 @Victor Sămărtinean

Moving on, I found an entire wall “papered” with projectiles (or rounds, to use the proper jargon) for grenade launchers, made by Carfil Brașov and Uzina Mecanică Mija, which again, are Soviet models contracted for license manufacturing in communist Romania. A cumulative round designed to be launched via a drone drew special attention on the exhibition stand. It is the first adaptation of a contemporary war concept by a branch of the Romanian defense industry.

Drone-borne cumulative payload @Victor Sămărtinean

Obsolete technology, presented, however, as suitable to respond to the warfare challenges of the 21st century, was accompanied by matching “dealers”. A group of display cases by the exhibition area of Cugir, which featured different types of grenades and warheads, were reused to serve an unusual purpose, much to my bewilderment: the cases in question served as “pieces of furniture” on which various gentlemen and ladies were relishing their sandwiches, coffees and sodas, their chatter and outbursts of laughter rising louder than the hustle and bustle of the fair. Noticing my efforts to photograph the exhibits without including them in the frame, one of the gentlemen leaning against the showcase asked me: “Interested in buying a couple of kilos of grenades?”

By the exit, next to a private company from Romania that develops a whole line of drones (from heavy ones, kamikaze drones to naval ones), I came across one of the exhibition areas of the Military Technical Academy in Bucharest. It was displaying the “Ultra 60” drone of his own design and production. The unmanned vehicle can boast a number of technical features not to be neglected, a flight autonomy of about 10 hours and a range of about 100 kilometers. The “Ultra 60” drone can fly up to 5,000 meters and carry 25-kilogram payloads.

The Ultra 60 drone @Victor Sămărtinean

Foreign manufacturers and the race for defense contracts

Foreign manufacturers attended the trade fair in large numbers, exhibiting their weapon systems and ammunition, but we will focus on products that fit into Defense Ministry’s area of ​​interest for equipping the armed forces. Thus, the most representative system, considered by both organizers and visitors to be the “star attraction” if the fair is the fifth-generation F-35 fighter. After 2030, the F-35 is expected to become the fighter jet of the Romanian Air Forces, Romania being expected to procure 32 such aircraft (Block 4 version) in the first phase, with the possibility this number might increase to 48.

F-35 @Victor Sămărtinean

The importance of a wide array of unmanned aerial vehicles on the contemporary battlefield was also reflected in the exhibits presented on the sidelines of the fair. World-renowned manufacturers such as Elbit Systems, Aerovironment, Insitu and General Atomics exhibited their most successful drones, most of which have been used successfully in combat.

The main sponsor of the event, the South Korean concern Hyundai Rotem, most likely encouraged by the very good results it recorded in the competition for the supply of the future self-propelled howitzer of the Romanian army, the K9 “Thunder”, exhibited its main products in Bucharest. Among these, the visiting public was mostly impressed by the K2 "Black Panther" tank that demonstrated its mobility and firepower in front of Defense Ministry decision-makers over May 13-15, in the Smârdan training center in Galați County. The technical features and the affordable price of this vehicle make it one of the favorites in the race for the future battle tank of the land forces.

K2 Black Panther @Victor Sămărtinean

The fiercest competition at present regarding the future modern equipment of the Romanian Armed Forces Army concerns the purchase of a new (tracked) Infantry Fighting Vehicle. For this purpose, three competing vehicles were displayed by manufacturers in Bucharest. The South Korean company Hanwha Defense exhibited the AS21 Redback, the German manufacturer exhibited the Lynx KF41 while General Dynamics European Land Systems showcased its Ascod infantry fighting vehicle.

Lynx KF41 Infantry Fighting Vehicle @Victor Sămărtinean

The whining of the Romanian defense industry is pointless: if Romania wants a well-equipped army, it will have to focus on imports

As it was easy to notice at the “Black Sea Defense & Aerospace” exhibition, Romania’s national defense industry, clustered under Romarm’s umbrella, is undergoing a “creativity crisis”. Unable to develop and innovate, Romania’s defense sector endures and even thrives, right now, owing to contracts for the delivery of arms and ammunition to Ukraine. The differences are so great between an outdated and morally obsolete industry and foreign competitors, that any whining from Defense Ministry officials, who claim that the Ministry prefers to buy foreign products to the detriment of domestic products can only further incriminate them for allowing such a situation to happen in the first place.

14.5-mm heavy machine gun produced by Cugir Mechanical Plant @Victor Sămărtinean

Facing a war on its borders caused by the resurgence of Russia's imperial appetite, Romania cannot afford to abandon its national defense industry. Specializing in certain categories of weaponry and buying foreign licenses might be an option, but until then, part of the arsenal with which the Soviet Union wanted to defeat the “capitalist West” in the ʾ50s and ʾ60s is displayed in Romarm catalogues and is available for delivery.

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