STT Group: Compared to ours, NATO equipment is like toys for kids
Rosinformbureau / Ekaterina Pryanichnikova
For twenty years now STT Group has been developing and engaged in mass production of special-purpose equipment that helps private and state enterprises to counter terrorist threats, prevent information leaks, and above all to save lives. Rosinformbureau talked to Vladimir Tkach, the Company's General Director, to learn his way to keep the enterprise afloat in the crisis and to maintain a balance between business interests and generous research enthusiasm.
Vladimir, your company already experienced various tough periods over its history — the 1990s, the 2008 crisis and, finally, current economic problems. How much do the terms ‘import substitution’, ‘sanctions’, and ‘crisis’ affect your business today?
- These are our current circumstances we have to consider. However, when it comes to import substitution, it appears that more attention is paid to conversations, rather than actions. Moreover, this problem can not be solved quickly; it will take months or even years. For example, 90% of the equipment and electronic elements we use are imported! High-power transistors and metal are produced in Russia — but everything else is foreign. It's a different matter that these components are not as difficult-to-obtain and unique as in some larger and more important sectors of the military industry. But still the percentage is very high.
We and our partner companies are ready to offer a number of samples that may be mastered by our electronics industry. In addition, it will take plenty of time to implement this plan, the final product will hardly correspond to the basic components we have now. And that means that we will have to re-draft and re-design all our equipment, and it is far from certain that it will look like before.
Anyway, we are trying to solve this problem. We already don't stick to imported elements; we use home-produced components if we can. We also diversify the purchase markets. Say, we buy from Chinese companies, not American ones.
Do you generally support common re-orientation from the West to the East?
- We started to work on it partially, and that, for example, led to considerable savings in manufacturing costs of our, let's call it, metal detector. The wording is so careful because it might be called a mine detector as well. But not everyone responds to such a name correctly, they start saying that it is a weapon, military equipment, and that is certainly not true. We designed it as we knew engineer troops critically needed it. What is more, it was on our own nickel. But it's the money. We clearly realized the importance of this task as the re-organization of the 90s and the following actions of such a ‘great’ Minister of Defence as Serdyukov resulted in the fact that there was no enterprise in Russia able to produce a mine detector. We took this challenge and solved it by finding and engaging extremely experienced developers, the design was done entirely by our company. The device passed testing, but the price turned out to be a painful issue. When the metal detector was presented to the internal troops, they responded that one can buy a dozen commercial appliances for this price. Indeed, they are really much cheaper, but they are designed for archaeologists, ‘hunters’, etc. And they have two major disadvantages: they have a very complex interface, an ordinary soldier has no time to learn, and they are extremely unreliable. They are not designed in compliance with military standards and simply do not stand external actions — shaking, strikes, etc. By that time we also learned that one of the special units acquired from third parties a mine detector, whose characteristics were similar to ours, but the price was significantly lower, and we realized that our price just would not do. As a result, we, to say it in a formal way, directed our eyes to China. An acquaintance of mine helped us to find a reliable Chinese enterprise, and it was where we ordered the production of the main structural elements. As a result, it turned out that Chinese products are many-fold cheaper than Russian ones, including customs clearance, delivery and so on. Moreover, the quality is excellent.
Who are your major customers? As far as I know, you cooperate with the Ministry of Defence quite closely?
- Almost 90% of our customers belong to security forces, the remaining 10% are third world exporting countries and some private sector clients. I'll explain why we have so few private customers — the generation changed. As early as 10–15 years ago plenty of our former servicemen worked at Lukoil, Gazprom, etc., and we had interesting customers, former FSB or intelligence officers. In other words, those were the people who knew what they needed. They chose equipment with their eyes open. But this generation is gone and replaced by the young people who are many times less critical and particular about choosing equipment.
As for the Ministry of Defence, one day we became their only supplier of technology engineer reconnaissance equipment, but the order was reduced significantly compared to the original plan. Now it is gradually getting better, we can change nothing under the current three-year plan, which budget was slashed by Serdyukov. But the next one, that starts the following year, can already boast a decent amount of orders. So we have to survive this year, let's say not a prosperous one, but the next year we will be overwhelmed with orders. However, the civil servants who carry out document flow and monitor state order implementation, treat us like a giant company as if we had a number of economists who can fill in 600-page reports from morning till night. Bureaucracy is certainly hindering, as for the rest, the cooperation with the Ministry of Defence is a positive experience.
Apart from the military department, we have long-standing and close relationship with the Major Command of the Internal Troops. In the 90s we focused on IED detection and realized we can solve this task. So we did, and since 2001 our ‘Eagle’ has been used in the Caucasus, and in 2005 was approved for supply. Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our company, and one of the leaders of the internal troops engineering service visited us. While raising a toast, he said the number of explosions reduced dramatically when our ‘Eagle’ became operational. All of this is worth a lot, everything is done for its sake.
Designed to detect mines and explosive devices equipped with electronic fuses (initiation systems) installed on the ground surface, in the soil, under the road surface and on objects. The device allows detecting radio-transmitters and –signal receivers, alarm systems and systems of remote control, electronic and electromechanical timers, acoustic, magnetic, optoelectronic sensors and small-sized television cameras. The detector can also detect hidden metal structures, mechanisms and devices. It is particularly effective in detecting electronic devices and ski equipment in snow drifts.
Did the volume and quality of your contacts with American partners change? Are there any collaborative technological developments?
- The love ended. It had never been hot, except, perhaps, there was a period when we had illusory sentiment. But it was not long. As far as I remember, we fist met in an anti-terrorist forum in St. Petersburg. The composition of the US delegation was very impressive — US Assistant Attorney General, and deputy chief of the New York police, and so on. They visited our presentation on IEDs (improvised explosive devices) detection and wanted to have more contacts. For a while, I really believed that our American partner, a former US special forces officer, half-Ukrainian like me, would be able to develop something out of it. It was clear that he really wanted to promote our device to US marine corps. As a military man and a patriot he knew that it was pretty good. As a result, the request made by the US Senate was turned down by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) designed to coordinate combating the threat of IEDs for US troops and their allies. 80% of casualties they have in Iraq and Afghanistan are caused by IEDs, so they should be interested. However, it was stated in the refusal that this explosives detection technology had long been known and was of no interest. During six years of its activity, the organization has allegedly spent $20 billion on development, and it was 80% of loss and so it remains. Is such a way we realized that Americans are able to “saw” the budget just as well as others.
What progress was made in the development of the non-linear junction locator placed on a transportation base?
- We already put our non-linear locators on the robotic platform. A development project was carried out in the interest of one of the FSB explosive technology units. As for mobile platforms, it is a difficult chapter in our history, because we have been engaged in it, it's hard to say, since 2007. We had plenty of minor technical problems, development lasted for a very long time, but only last week we finally placed our non-linear junction locator search head on the device. We tested everything literally in the backyard. We still have to fix some minor issues, add a video camera and a rifle laser sight to mark the location of a detected IED. But it's not of major importance, the main thing that we found a technical and design solution, i.e. a locator does not feel the car as a hindrance. Moreover, the fixing system is completely universal, it allows putting the system on almost any vehicle, armoured vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, it's a long and winding road, as we have a prototype, not a trial model. Now we need to draft the documentation and make a trial model.
What newly developed product from your armoury are you proud of? Are there any analogues abroad?
- A line locator, for instance. Mass delivery to the Ministry of Defence is about to start. Initially we developed it upon our own initiative and at our own cost. We presented the final product to the representatives of the Ministry of Defence, and they liked it. Then we improved the model, passed state testing, and they approved it for supply. This is a detonation line detector. Assailants not only control an explosive device by radio, but also lay a wire of a several hundred meters long from a explosive device planting, and then they close a rechargeable motorbike battery — and an explosion occurs. This denotation system is terrible, as detectors, as well as metal locators do not detect such a wire line, not least because they learned to make metal-free plantings. By the way, the Ministry of Defence of Spain got interested in it, purchased a lot. We even went there to train commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Spanish army before they go to Afghanistan. We found only one rival from Britain, but it is absolutely no comparison to us in a number of characteristics and parameters. It may sound funny, but this device is the only one from the whole line of our products accepted by NATO. The Spaniards finally managed to include it into the so-called NATO Stock Number, our device was assigned a corresponding stock number, i.e. any NATO country may examine the data base, find the number and, if necessary, order a certain amount of devices.
- No, certainly not. It is notably that it happened in such a way, and we did not put any extra effort. But this is kind of appraising of our development. Later the same product was bought by the Colombian army, they even came here to train with us in the testing area. We are really proud of this device, it's rewarding that the product is a worthy one.
To what extent are you competitive in quality, price, and range of items if compared with foreign products in general?
- It seems now we have a situation when all the characteristics of our equipment are equal and even excel foreign ones. Locators, for instance, ‘Eagle’. After all, none of the NATO armies has anything better than it. I am so sure, because when we maintained some contacts with the Americans, we were invited to the conference in the Pentagon arranged for the industry representatives in 2008. My friend, whom I have already mentioned, a former officer, wanted to take me there, but we failed. Apparently I had a wrong admission. But then I got press releases and conference materials and found out that Pentagon set manufacturers a task to promptly develop a portable IED detector at the event. Then I began to track this problem and its progress over the years. And it turned out that they failed: the request gets updated every year, they specify the requirements, but it means they did nothing. So there are no analogues by a set of parameters. Although, of course, there are non-linear locators in the world, a lot of them, British, American, even Chinese ones, but none have the same features as our devices. And our prices are more attractive, too.
There is another device, ‘Cassandra’, a radio control complex, which allows to continuously monitor all airings of any radio signal sources. The Americans offer a competitive product, their advertising is strong and aggressive, everything is done in a beautiful way and with fanfare. As I see, we buy into the hype, you can see this device on state procurement tenders from time to time. Naturally, we compared it with our ‘Cassandra’. It turned out that the American one was made in such a way to detect nothing. Because of its parameters, it will find no more than some simple listening devices. However, it is promoted as a super equipment. One who buys it won't see or hear anything ‘extra’, it's just a kid toy. Unfortunately, we can not compete with them in terms of advertising, we simply do not have such money.