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

Over the previous 4 months, the Russia navy evaluation group reevaluated earlier assumptions about Moscow’s navy’s capabilities, ranging from the onset of the Ukraine invasion, by way of at present’s grinding ways and ideas that present a extra competent Russian pressure finally rising towards Ukrainian defenders. This reevaluation likewise concerned the evaluation of unmanned and autonomous capabilities that Russia touted earlier than the battle as game-changing know-how. At this level in the battle, the movies and photographs from the Ukrainian entrance verify that enabling know-how like unmanned aerial automobiles are in reality a big half of how Russia fights at present in Ukraine, underscoring that this functionality is pivotal to the Russian navy’s ongoing battle.

Prior to this battle, so much of helpful evaluation and commentary was obtainable for assessment about Russia’s improvement of unmanned aerial, floor, and maritime programs as near-future enablers of what was supposed to be a modernized Russian navy making ready for the following battle. Lots of that info was derived from Russian-language public sources, and judged accordingly, given the brevity of descriptions or occasional lack of technical specs, past preliminary and generally hyperbolic bulletins concerning the potential use and utility of these platforms. In the opening weeks and even two months into its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian navy’s autonomous and unmanned efficiency was reasonably weak or even altogether missing, main to early conclusions that maybe this functionality was over-emphasized in comparison to different programs and weapons. However, because the months went on, ideas and ways took form that had been extra in line with the Russian navy’s pre-war preparation and coaching that concerned unmanned aerial automobiles in specific as key enablers of floor forces. Russia’s present efficiency in the battle — which includes heavy use of aerial drones and rising use of unmanned floor programs — is underscoring earlier assumptions concerning the utility of this know-how in battle. Despite considerations raised in the early weeks of the battle concerning the accuracy of Western evaluation of the Russian navy, the group nonetheless had a very good grasp of the Russian navy’s dedication to robotics and autonomy. Future evaluation ought to incorporate what we see in the present battle, with the pre-February 2022 evaluation in the background.



As the relevance of this know-how continues to develop in this battle, it is crucial to word a number of info about Russia’s navy autonomy and AI-enabling analysis and improvement. Information from the Russian media and in navy journals enabled the analytical group’s understanding of total analysis and improvement tendencies throughout the Russian navy. Announcements of programs constructed and examined piecemeal, or of know-how allegedly in improvement, pointed to the evolution of Russian navy thought related to that of different high-tech militaries like these of the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, or China. This common path suggests a gradual however eventual, and seemingly unavoidable, evolution from navy know-how with the human fighter as the important thing efficiency metric towards one in which unmanned and autonomous programs will tackle better tasks. These autonomous programs proceed evolving, after important testing and analysis, into fight companions, and finally into the primary line of assault. To analysts exterior Russia, that appeared to be the final path in which the Russian navy was heading.

While many of these Russian tasks are nonetheless ongoing, and most likely will likely be in the testing phases for fairly some time, learning them nonetheless yielded some insights into how Russia is making an attempt to conceptualize future floor warfare, maritime strikes, or aerial fight to counter and dominate adversaries. This info was on a parallel path to the U.S. Department of Defense’s pondering by way of at present’s and future battlefield issues that may be solved by “military robotics,” a catch-all phrase utilized by each the Russian navy institution and its journalist group. Of the handfuls of tasks funded by the Russian Ministry of Defense, few finally matured to the purpose of severe testing and analysis. But even a number of such ideas — such because the Marker unmanned floor automobile, Okhotnik unmanned aerial fight automobile, and Vityaz deep-diving autonomous underwater automobile — supplied an summary of what might probably come down the road, assuming many elements like economics, manufacturing, and political assist lined up. These elements included not simply the funding and technical acumen of the enterprises and producers, however the person’s succesful analysis of how such know-how would allow operations in a tough and unpredictable fight atmosphere.

This leads to the second evaluation concerning the presence of this know-how on the tactical stage in Ukraine. The Russian navy is flying quite a few drone missions virtually across the clock, dropping many drones to Ukraine’s succesful air defenses. With the Ukrainian navy proudly exhibiting off many downed Russian aerial drone fashions on social media, questions arose concerning the ways that finally lead to so many losses, and the longevity of the Russian drone fleet in this battle. In reality, many of these failures most likely originate in Russian drone coaching and testing. What was — and nonetheless is — notably absent in the Russian protection media’s evaluation and bulletins of drills with unmanned aerial automobiles is the flexibility of “red teams” to actually take a look at the Russian forces’ capabilities and ad-hoc battlefield flexibility. In the United States, such “adversary” or opposing pressure groups exist throughout all providers to always take a look at present ways and applied sciences, and their work is publicly debated, particularly after they rating coaching and train successes towards “blue” forces.

On the opposite hand, the Russian media description of workouts involving rising know-how like drones typically described a one-sided fight situation, with the “blue” pressure efficiently utilizing drones towards “saboteurs” or “enemies” to eradicate the adversary formations. In these workouts, the drones would all the time find the opponents and would transmit their coordinates for subsequent floor and aerial strikes. Rarely did the Russian navy group simulating the adversary make use of counter-measures towards the principle pressure, and the pre-determined drill end result positioned the drone on the profitable and unchallenged facet. In reality, even the outline of the opposing forces used typically in many of these workouts — “saboteurs” as an alternative of enemy particular forces or common troops prepared to disrupt Russian operations — evoked formations and items much less skilled or much less geared up for the duty. There had been a number of large-scale Russian navy drills like Zapad-2021 that concerned subtle counter-drone programs and ways, however these doubtless featured pre-scripted eventualities that introduced completely different automobile varieties like Orlan-10, Forpost, and Orion drones finishing their missions seemingly with out important obstacles to their operation.

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian navy institution broadly used the phrase “lessons learned from Syria” to denote the final path for pressure coaching. The Russian navy might have underestimated the energy of Ukrainian air defenses and educated its aerial drone items towards what they thought had been forces related to these encountered in Syria. The quite a few Russian losses over Ukraine early on might have created the impression that the Russian navy overestimated the success of its drone items and applied sciences. However, because the battle continues, Russian navy operations involving drones as key components of reconnaissance-strike contours level to the eventual emergence of core ways that had been examined by Russian floor, intel, airborne, and marine forces. Today, Russian troopers launching their Orlan-10s to immediately strike or establish Ukrainian forces, or utilizing a industrial DJI mannequin simply to get extra intelligence and reconnaissance information “around the corner,” signifies the continued presence of such applied sciences which have turn out to be nearly natural to virtually any navy formation in this battle.

The Russian drones stay one of essentially the most seen high-tech features of this battle, whether or not military-grade Orlan-10 or Eleron-3, or the quite a few civilian DJI fashions. These unmanned automobiles are key to pivotal duties like figuring out targets, serving as artillery spotters, or as simply one other pair of eyes to monitor the bottom circumstances. Their loss is constructed into their missions — they’re supposed to be expendable and comparatively cheap in comparison to launching manned missions to do the identical job. Pre-war Russian media descriptions and articles on drone improvement and future capabilities supported the general Ministry of Defense idea of know-how aiding people on harmful missions, even when augmented by hyperbolic statements from the Russian protection trade about mass acquisition of these and different superior programs in the very close to future.

The similar might be stated of the quite a few Russian unmanned floor automobile tasks — programs which are finally supposed to present logistical, intelligence, de-mining, hearth, and fight assist to Russia’s large floor forces. Most of these tasks haven’t but graduated previous the event and testing phases. The gradual however regular roll-out of such programs like Uran-6 and Kobra unmanned floor automobiles in Ukraine for de-mining and intelligence-gathering underscores Russian willingness to regularly take a look at such know-how in its previous, present, and future wars.

Evaluating Russia’s pre-war maritime autonomous programs was harder, provided that much less info existed in the primary place past the official bulletins of packages launched and probably examined. Overall, the obtainable information nonetheless made it doable to paint a bigger image of what might come subsequent if the celebs align for the Russian protection trade and the Ministry of Defense.

This alignment could also be in query given the present state of Russian navy efficiency in the battle, the continued transformation and restructuring of the Russian financial system due to sanctions, the mind drain that appears to be affecting the Russian protection trade, and the hints that Russia could also be operating out of key high-tech tools and parts. None of that is stopping the Russian Ministry of Defense from inserting an emphasis on navy autonomy and robotics as key investments in future fight capabilities. It stays to be seen whether or not these bulletins are propelled by inertia from pre-February 2022 planning and useful resource allocation, or choices made in mild of the knowledge analyzed from the battle. If something, the continued fight in Ukraine and the heavy toll on troopers reinforces proposals by the Russian navy institution for substituting uncrewed aerial, floor, and maritime programs in place of the plane, helicopters, tanks, armored automobiles, and naval vessels which are being misplaced in important numbers by either side. It is unlikely that the Russian navy would considerably alter its present analysis and improvement ecosystem for such rising know-how, contemplating how a lot different main and competing powers are investing in navy autonomy and robotics.

Whatever classes Russian navy learns from this battle — and is prepared to make public — would nonetheless create house for the utility of such robotic programs, given the general international tendencies and discussions of these programs for fight. This might look like a tall order at this level, given the mounting numbers of Russian troopers killed and the prevalence of crewed programs taking heavy punishment from the Ukrainian navy, all pointing to the centrality of human fighters to Russian navy pondering. The preliminary shock on the comparatively poor Russian navy marketing campaign was additionally juxtaposed towards the Ukrainian navy’s profitable fielding of differing kinds of aerial drones to blunt, counter, and even defeat Russian advances. With this know-how now firmly in focus by all who observe this battle, the Russian navy will proceed analyzing its near- and long-term influence on pressure improvement and fight operations, in addition to the necessity to function such programs in mixed arms formations. As researchers and analysts of the Russian navy in common, it’s our job to document and to perceive these deliberations, whereas conserving an goal eye on what the Russian navy says, does, and writes concerning the eventual emergence of new applied sciences in future wars.



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

Image: Russian Ministry of Defence