A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 1, 2022

How 'Cognitive Load' Negatively Impacts Russian Weapons Usage

Russian military equipment is designed with two assumptions in mind: that the manufacturing will not be very good - so workarounds are built in but integration of new capabilities is discouraged. 

And 2nd, that the soldiers using them are neither particularly well-trained nor motivated so their 'cognitive load' is very low. The result, as has been seen in Ukraine, is frequent failure. JL 

Jack Watling reports in Threadreader:

There are two primary problems with Russian weapons: integration and cognitive load. Quality control in (their) manufacturing is poor (but) the design team accepted this and built in redundency to produce a reliability and effectiveness. Russian weapons involve lots of workarounds. Russian weapons do what they are designed for and do it reliably. When you start integrating things, there are often problems deep in the design. The Russian military is a conscript military. When you buy a Russian weapon you get a nice flow chart showing you the buttons to press. Short term contract soldiers' proficiency isn't sufficient.That is how you end up with Russian air defence systems getting hit by UAVs.
Seen a few takes recently arguing that Russian weapons don’t work well. Having spent time inside a number of Russian manufactured systems I thought I’d address why I think there is often a gap between Russian weapons on paper versus their performance in the field. 
There are two primary problems with Russian weapons: integration and cognitive load. To begin with integration, a few years ago some Mi-24s allocated to ISAF were undergoing maintenance. It was found that some of the bolts holding the tail rotor in place had cracks in them. 2/25 
This set off a panic among some US officers who went about trying to ground all aircraft of that type fearing that poor quality control in the supply chain represented a flight safety risk across the force. For NATO aircraft this would be a massive problem. 3/25 
What the Mi-24 crews had to explain to their US colleagues was that this was normal. It was why the helicopter has 8 bolts in its tail rotor of which 4 would often crack. All 8 bolts are replaced after a specified number of flying hours irrespective of their condition. 4/25Image
So, on the one hand quality control in Soviet manufacturing was poor. On the other hand the design team just accepted this and built in redundency to produce a very reliable and effective attack helicopter. Russian weapons involve lots of these kinds of workarounds. 5/25 
This becomes a problem when you want to integrate new things onto the platform. When the Mi-24 was built it was intended for gun runs using rockets and machine guns. As MANPADS proliferated however the Russians recognised stand-off ATGMs were needed. 6/25 
The Russians have built several very effective ATGMs some of which can be mounted from the Mi-35. They have impressive range and penetration. They are accurate weapons. However, the Mi-35 is built with the assumption that lots of its components will break while in use. 7/25 
This firstly means that there is a lot of vibration in the platform and secondly means that this vibration is not consistent between platforms or between flights, as various sub-components fail. The result is that the mounted optics on this aircraft are very hard to use. 8/25 
The last time I was in an Mi-35 we gave up searching for targets with the sensors in the nose and just used a big pair of field glasses out of the cockpit. The result was that while we had plenty of range with our ATGMs we couldn't actually accurately engage at that range. 9/25 
You'll have noted in Ukraine the Russians keep teaming Ka-52s and Mi-35s together because the former was built around its sensor suite and so it works much more effectively. The design team made trade-off decisions that ensured the sensors worked. 10/25 
So this is the first reason for a delta between capability and performance. Individually Russian weapons and platforms tend to do what they are designed for and do it reliably. When you start integrating things together however there are often problems deep in the design. 11/25 
Now for cognitive load. The Soviet military was a conscript military and the Russian military today has a similar structure. When you buy a Russian weapon system you usually get a nice cardboard flow chart showing you the buttons to press in what sequence to get a result. 12/25 
If you get in a Buk for example there are a lot of buttons and each one tends to do one thing. Furthermore, each operator does one task. It is actually quite easy to teach someone to use it to a basic standard because using the controls doesn't understanding the system. 13/25 
However, to use the system to a high standard is really difficult because YOU are the integrator. The computer isn't doing much for you. If something is out of the ordinary you need to find the workaround and get the crew to do all the right things in the right order. 14/25 
NATO systems tend to have far fewer controls and what the controls do is contextual. The system supports the user so they can focus on judgement. The result is a system with a much higher initial training burden but a much higher effectiveness for a newly trained crew. 15/25 
If you have expert crews then Russian weapons systems are highly effective and can be more effective in some cases than NATO counterparts. If you watch old Finnish or Ukrainian Buk operators who have been at it a while it is impressive. 16/25 
But if you have short term contract soldiers - and especially if you lost a lot of your more skilled personnel early - then the Russians are left with crews whose basic proficiency isn't sufficient. You end up with less and less skilled people using the equipment. 17/25 
That is how you end up with Russian air defence systems getting hit by UAVs. It isn't that a Buk can't see or engage it. The Ukrainians Buks which are less capable platforms are detecting and engaging UAVs just fine. 18/25 
So what is going on with Long Range Precision Strike. There have been some impressive misses. What is interesting is how often the misses are in the right distribution to have struck the target but are all displaced from it. 19/25 
In a lot of misses with the newer Russian systems the problem is that the Russians are either getting the wrong coordinates of the target or the launcher has the wrong coordinates for itself. This is likely a problem with EW fratricide. 20/25 
In exercises the Russians had switched to digitised fire control. In Ukraine they've lost a lot of the operators who knew how to do that. They're coordinating on voice. And jamming navigation all over the place. Sequencing strikes and deconfliction is hard. 21/25 
There are lots of other issues with the Russian targeting process. Often they are 48 hours late striking a target because of how inefficient their kill chains are. In Chernobyl it was noted that their soldiers were using maps from before the disaster... 22/25 
Well, some of the things they've struck that appear completely random or blatant misses make more sense when you look at the older maps. So in some cases their kill chain is 40 years out of date. 23/25 
There are also older systems that have relatively poor accuracy and some systems being used out of role (ACSMs for example) that are similarly less accurate. With the newer systems however it isn't that the weapons don't work or aren't precise. 24/25 
In conclusion, the problem with Russian weapons isn't usually that they don't work but rather that when they are linked up and operated by under trained crews they become decidely less than the sum of their parts. 25/25 


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