To Robot or Not to Robot? Past Analysis of Russian Military Robotics and Today’s War in Ukraine

About the previous four months, the Russia armed service analysis local community reevaluated earlier assumptions about Moscow’s military’s abilities, commencing from the onset of the Ukraine invasion, by today’s grinding methods and concepts that show a extra competent Russian pressure ultimately rising in opposition to Ukrainian defenders. This reevaluation also concerned the evaluation of unmanned and autonomous capabilities that Russia touted right before the war as sport-modifying technological innovation. At this position in the conflict, the video clips and pictures from the Ukrainian front ensure that enabling know-how like unmanned aerial motor vehicles are in actuality a important section of how Russia fights currently in Ukraine, underscoring that this capacity is pivotal to the Russian military’s ongoing war.

Prior to this conflict, a lot of beneficial evaluation and commentary was accessible for critique about Russia’s improvement of unmanned aerial, floor, and maritime units as near-foreseeable future enablers of what was supposed to be a modernized Russian military services making ready for the future war. A whole lot of that information and facts was derived from Russian-language general public sources, and judged accordingly, specified the brevity of descriptions or occasional absence of technical specs, outside of initial and occasionally hyperbolic bulletins about the prospective use and utility of these platforms. In the opening weeks and even two months into its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military’s autonomous and unmanned efficiency was rather weak or even completely missing, main to early conclusions that possibly this functionality was in excess of-emphasized when in comparison to other techniques and weapons. Nevertheless, as the months went on, ideas and techniques took shape that had been much more in line with the Russian military’s pre-war preparing and instruction that concerned unmanned aerial vehicles in particular as critical enablers of ground forces. Russia’s existing functionality in the conflict — which involves hefty use of aerial drones and escalating use of unmanned ground systems — is underscoring earlier assumptions about the utility of this technology in war. Regardless of worries elevated in the early weeks of the war about the precision of Western investigation of the Russian military, the local community continue to had a great grasp of the Russian military’s determination to robotics and autonomy. Future examination ought to integrate what we see in the recent war, with the pre-February 2022 analysis in the track record.



As the relevance of this technologies proceeds to grow in this conflict, it is important to observe a couple points about Russia’s armed forces autonomy and AI-enabling research and growth. Data from the Russian media and in navy journals enabled the analytical community’s comprehension of in general investigation and advancement traits throughout the Russian army. Announcements of devices constructed and tested piecemeal, or of engineering allegedly in enhancement, pointed to the evolution of Russian armed forces considered comparable to that of other higher-tech militaries like those of the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, or China. This typical direction indicates a gradual but eventual, and seemingly unavoidable, evolution from army technological innovation with the human fighter as the essential effectiveness metric toward a person in which unmanned and autonomous methods will choose on better tasks. These autonomous programs continue on evolving, immediately after sizeable tests and evaluation, into fight companions, and at some point into the initial line of attack. To analysts outside the house Russia, that seemed to be the standard course in which the Russian armed service was heading.

Even though many of these Russian tasks are nonetheless ongoing, and likely will be in the testing phases for very a when, finding out them nevertheless yielded some insights into how Russia is striving to conceptualize potential floor warfare, maritime strikes, or aerial overcome to counter and dominate adversaries. This info was on a parallel path to the U.S. Section of Defense’s imagining via today’s and potential battlefield difficulties that can be solved by “military robotics,” a capture-all phrase made use of by both the Russian military establishment and its journalist local community. Of the dozens of projects funded by the Russian Ministry of Protection, number of eventually matured to the level of major screening and evaluation. But even a couple of these types of ideas — this sort of as the Marker unmanned ground car or truck, Okhotnik unmanned aerial overcome motor vehicle, and Vityaz deep-diving autonomous underwater automobile — delivered an overview of what could potentially come down the line, assuming numerous elements like economics, production, and political assist lined up. These factors provided not just the funding and complex acumen of the enterprises and manufacturers, but the user’s able evaluation of how these technologies would empower functions in a tricky and unpredictable overcome ecosystem.

This prospects to the next evaluation about the presence of this technology at the tactical level in Ukraine. The Russian military services is traveling various drone missions virtually around the clock, losing a lot of drones to Ukraine’s capable air defenses. With the Ukrainian military services proudly displaying off many downed Russian aerial drone designs on social media, inquiries arose about the ways that finally guide to so many losses, and the longevity of the Russian drone fleet in this war. In truth, several of these failures almost certainly originate in Russian drone instruction and tests. What was — and continue to is — notably absent in the Russian defense media’s examination and announcements of drills with unmanned aerial cars is the skill of “red teams” to actually examination the Russian forces’ abilities and advert-hoc battlefield versatility. In the United States, these types of “adversary” or opposing force teams exist across all products and services to continuously examination current strategies and systems, and their get the job done is publicly debated, primarily when they rating training and physical exercise successes from “blue” forces.

On the other hand, the Russian media description of exercise routines involving emerging technological know-how like drones frequently described a one particular-sided combat situation, with the “blue” pressure effectively utilizing drones against “saboteurs” or “enemies” to do away with the adversary formations. In these physical exercises, the drones would often identify the opponents and would transmit their coordinates for subsequent floor and aerial strikes. Not often did the Russian armed service crew simulating the adversary make use of counter-steps in opposition to the most important power, and the pre-determined drill consequence positioned the drone on the successful and unchallenged facet. In simple fact, even the description of the opposing forces utilized generally in lots of of these workouts — “saboteurs” as an alternative of enemy particular forces or normal troops prepared to disrupt Russian functions — evoked formations and models considerably less skilled or a lot less outfitted for the endeavor. There ended up several substantial-scale Russian military drills like Zapad-2021 that concerned advanced counter-drone units and strategies, but those people likely highlighted pre-scripted scenarios that introduced distinct motor vehicle styles like Orlan-10, Forpost, and Orion drones completing their missions seemingly without having major road blocks to their procedure.

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian armed service institution broadly utilized the phrase “lessons learned from Syria” to denote the common path for drive teaching. The Russian military might have underestimated the toughness of Ukrainian air defenses and skilled its aerial drone models in opposition to what they imagined were being forces comparable to individuals encountered in Syria. The a lot of Russian losses around Ukraine early on may have designed the impression that the Russian armed service overestimated the good results of its drone units and systems. Having said that, as the war carries on, Russian armed forces functions involving drones as critical elements of reconnaissance-strike contours issue to the eventual emergence of core ways that were being examined by Russian floor, intel, airborne, and marine forces. Now, Russian soldiers launching their Orlan-10s to instantly strike or identify Ukrainian forces, or using a commercial DJI product just to get supplemental intelligence and reconnaissance knowledge “around the corner,” suggests the continued existence of these types of technologies that have grow to be virtually organic and natural to virtually any navy formation in this war.

The Russian drones continue being one particular of the most obvious high-tech areas of this war, no matter whether military services-quality Orlan-10 or Eleron-3, or the several civilian DJI designs. These unmanned automobiles are essential to pivotal tasks like figuring out targets, serving as artillery spotters, or as just another pair of eyes to keep track of the ground ailments. Their loss is developed into their missions — they are supposed to be expendable and fairly economical when when compared to launching manned missions to do the same work. Pre-war Russian media descriptions and posts on drone advancement and long term abilities supported the general Ministry of Defense principle of technological innovation assisting individuals on unsafe missions, even if augmented by hyperbolic statements from the Russian defense sector about mass acquisition of these and other superior techniques in the extremely close to long run.

The very same can be reported of the numerous Russian unmanned ground vehicle projects — programs that are finally supposed to offer logistical, intelligence, de-mining, fire, and overcome assistance to Russia’s enormous ground forces. Most of these initiatives have not but graduated past the growth and testing levels. The slow but constant roll-out of these programs like Uran-6 and Kobra unmanned floor cars in Ukraine for de-mining and intelligence-gathering underscores Russian willingness to constantly check these kinds of technological innovation in its earlier, present, and long run wars.

Assessing Russia’s pre-war maritime autonomous techniques was much more hard, supplied that considerably less facts existed in the to start with spot outside of the official announcements of packages introduced and likely examined. Overall, the accessible knowledge continue to designed it probable to paint a much larger image of what might arrive next if the stars align for the Russian protection industry and the Ministry of Protection.

This alignment may perhaps be in problem offered the existing point out of Russian army overall performance in the war, the ongoing transformation and restructuring of the Russian economic system due to sanctions, the brain drain that would seem to be impacting the Russian protection sector, and the hints that Russia could be working out of key significant-tech equipment and factors. None of this is halting the Russian Ministry of Defense from putting an emphasis on army autonomy and robotics as vital investments in long run fight capabilities. It remains to be found irrespective of whether these bulletins are propelled by inertia from pre-February 2022 setting up and source allocation, or choices designed in mild of the facts analyzed from the war. If just about anything, the ongoing combat in Ukraine and the weighty toll on soldiers reinforces proposals by the Russian armed service institution for substituting uncrewed aerial, floor, and maritime methods in spot of the plane, helicopters, tanks, armored automobiles, and naval vessels that are currently being shed in important figures by both of those sides. It is unlikely that the Russian military services would substantially change its latest research and progress ecosystem for these types of rising technologies, contemplating how considerably other main and competing powers are investing in armed service autonomy and robotics.

Whatsoever lessons Russian army learns from this war — and is keen to make general public — would even now create room for the utility of this sort of robotic methods, offered the total world-wide traits and discussions of these programs for fight. This may well feel like a tall order at this stage, given the mounting quantities of Russian soldiers killed and the prevalence of crewed techniques using major punishment from the Ukrainian navy, all pointing to the centrality of human fighters to Russian armed forces considering. The initial shock at the somewhat bad Russian military campaign was also juxtaposed from the Ukrainian military’s effective fielding of unique styles of aerial drones to blunt, counter, and even defeat Russian improvements. With this technology now firmly in focus by all who comply with this war, the Russian armed forces will keep on examining its close to- and extensive-phrase affect on drive progress and overcome operations, as well as the have to have to operate these kinds of units in combined arms formations. As researchers and analysts of the Russian military in general, it is our job to history and to understand these deliberations, when preserving an objective eye on what the Russian navy states, does, and writes about the eventual emergence of new technologies in future wars.



Samuel Bendett is an adviser with CNA Russia Studies Method and an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Impression: Russian Ministry of Defence