Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has confirmed plans to create the country’s first robotic military unit. These plans draw on existing research and development (R&D) within the domestic defense industry, which has made advances in the field of applying artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes and experimented with prototype systems during military operations in Syria (Tvzvezda.ru, April 9). While the formation of the country’s first military robotic unit is a step forward in the process of using AI to increase Russian combat capabilities, significant challenges stand in the way of effectively introducing this as a force multiplier. Nevertheless, Shoigu’s comments indicate that the defense ministry is moving beyond robotic systems to improve demining, streamline command and control (C2), or to enhance the accuracy of battlefield fires (see EDM, June 19, 2019).
The specifics of Shoigu’s remarks during a recent visit to the defense company playing a leading role in this area of the State Defense Order imply continued experimentation and features of Russian military thinking on AI. In Russian military terminology, robotic systems used in this way are denoted as “robototechnical complexes” (robototekhnicheskiye kompleks—RTK). Shoigu explained that a new unit is being created “to develop methods and forms of using units with robotic systems.” In the future, based on this new structure, the training of army personnel will be conducted within the framework of these units to operate shock robotic systems in combat units. Shoigu added, “We intend to continue expanding the line of robots, which, of course, are already in demand among the troops today. As expected, these will be heavy robots (demining) and everything related to the further development of radiation and chemical reconnaissance robots; this concerns surface and underwater robots” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 15).
The formation of the robotic strike unit envisages human personnel playing a secondary and supporting role. The strike unit would consist of a two-ton RTK system armed with Ataka supersonic, anti,-tank thermobaric ammunition from a Shmel flamethrower, along with 30-millimeter cannons and heavy machine guns; robots of the Uran family would take up combat duty. Shoigu inspected the autonomous unmanned vehicles at the AOA 766 production and technological equipment management facility (upravleniye roizvodstvenno-tekhnologicheskoy komplektatsii—UPTK), located in Nakhabino, near Moscow. This enterprise is the developer and manufacturer of the Uran RTK family—the Uran-6, Uran-9 and Uran-14 (Interfax, Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 9).
The plans involve sending five RTKs to the first robotic unit; each would have a control point mounted on the basis of a KamAZ vehicle and four combat robots. These would have the capacity to attack enemy armored vehicles, manpower, air-defense systems and helicopters. The Uran-6 is mainly designed for mine clearance and was used extensively in Syria. The Uran-14 fights fires, while the Uran-9 is capable of combat functions on the battlefield alongside infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and tanks. The Uran-6 robot demonstrated its capabilities during the continuous clearance of the terrain and objects in Palmyra, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor. In total, it cleared more than 50 hectares of mines. It is also being used in Karabakh as part of the combined engineering corps (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 12).
In terms of its technical productivity, the Uran-6 replaces the labor of an entire platoon of engineering troops. The chief of the engineering troops, Lieutenant General Yuri Stavitsky, says that in addition to Uran-6, which is already being supplied to the troops, development work is underway to create other heavy mine-clearing robots: “The new complexes will be designed to clear the area from significantly more powerful anti-tank mines.” The appearance of these RTKs can be expected as early as 2022 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 15). As well as the Uran RTKs, several experimental models are currently at the R&D stage: the 19-ton Udar, created on the basis of the BMP-3; the Marker tracked RTK, capable of launching kamikaze drones; the Nerekhta platform (about 1 ton); the 7-ton Soratnik; and the Shturm family, which includes four reconnaissance and shock samples, differing from each other in terms of weight and dimensions (Rusplt.ru, April 14).
Vadim Kozyulin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, noted that “robotization is one of the main trends of the Ministry of Defense, it determines the development of our armed forces,” adding, “The task of such devices is to minimize human participation in hostilities, which means saving the lives of servicemen. Robots are quite diverse: from mini-systems for monitoring or demining, to machines that are practically full-fledged tanks. The search for optimal models is underway, and the fact that today a whole unit is being created suggests that this process is coming to a logical understanding.” The Russian military is introducing RTKs across the branches and arms of service, especially prioritizing the Ground Forces. Mikhail Moklyakov and Mikhail Sidorov, department heads at the Central Research and Testing Institute of the Engineering Troops, explained, “[I]n the near future, general digitalization, the active introduction of neural networks and the production of high-tech materials will have a decisive influence on the promising development of robotics. All this will lead to the creation of multifunctional unified platforms that will significantly expand the tactical and technical characteristics and operational capabilities of robotic systems” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 15).
While the formation of the first robotic unit in Russia’s Armed Forces is important, it should not be misunderstood as a breakthrough in military capability—not yet. Many technical challenges remain unsolved. These stem from the use of Russian radio channels to control RTKs, unlike the US approaches to using radio and fiber-optic channels. Consequently, in the use of Russian RTKs, there are problems with signals passing through natural barriers such as trees, terrain and buildings, as well as interruption due to weather conditions. Moreover, these systems are also highly vulnerable to electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Exploiting such robotic complexes on the modern battlefield in a combat role still appears some way off; but Shoigu’s visit to Nakhabino shows these areas are clearly long-term priorities for Russian force development (Rusplt.ru, April 14). Most telling is that Shoigu wants these robotic systems to be capable of functioning in conditions of a nuclear battlefield.