Russia’s Armed Forces Exploit Robotic Technology to Transform Operational Capability

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 94

Russian UAV at the May 2018 Victory Day Parade (Source: Izvestiya)

The development and procurement of high-technology systems have increasingly proven to be important aspects of Russia’s Armed Forces modernization in recent years (see EDM, May 17, June 13). These have been wide-ranging in scope, benefiting command and control as well as boosting an array of network-enabled assets. Such high-technology systems fit more broadly within efforts to adopt “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) capabilities as critical elements in Russia’s conventional military. Integral components of this complex process include the ongoing modernization of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, the enhancement of air defense, and networking the battlespace to provide for stand-off strike options or to conduct network-centric operations (see EDM, April 17, May 1).

An area of profound interest, therefore, is the further development and introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to benefit all arms and branches of service. Indeed, Russian specialists on Robotic Technical Complexes for Military Purposes (Robototekhnicheskiye Kompleksy Voyennogo Naznacheniya—RTK VN), a category under which UAV/UAS development clearly falls, argue that this is not only a vital characteristic of modern warfare. Additionally, RTK VN will revolutionize future military operations through increased automation, reduce risks to personnel, and lower financial costs. How these processes are being managed, the drivers involved, as well as the experience gained in Ukraine and Syria are important factors in understanding the extent to which robotics will play an expanded role in transforming Russian military capabilities (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12).

According to Colonel Sergei Popov, the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Main Scientific Research Center, the development of military robotics was formally launched in 2013. Russia has conducted studies on the introduction of RTK VN in all arms and branches of service in the Armed Forces. Popov noted that the defense ministry is systematically robotizing the equipment and weapons that enter service in the Armed Forces. At the forefront of this interest in robotic complexes is air robotics. In 2017, the number of UAV and UAS assets in service increased by 10 percent year-on-year, to around 2,200; they are employed for reconnaissance, search and rescue, EW, information warfare (IW) and control over the landing of cargo (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 4). While the creation of formal defense ministry and General Staff research centers has aided Russian advances in UAVs, it was boosted more practically by experience in Ukraine and, especially, in Syria (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12).

UAV technology has also been increasingly a topic of debate among Russian aviation specialists. On June 1, for example, the Moscow State Technical University of Civil Aviation hosted a roundtable under the rubric “Operations and Purposes of UAVs.” Industry specialists were joined in discussions by defense ministry experts examining a range of themes, including UAV applications, flight and technical operations, R&D priorities, and the current regulatory framework for drone use (, June 1). Such dialogue is becoming more commonplace and less abstract in its focus.

In May, the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Center in the Moscow region hosted the 3rd Military Scientific Conference titled, “Robotization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” bringing together experts, military leaders and industry specialists to discuss the successes and shortcomings of RTK VN. The conference was attended by representatives of the State Military Industrial Commission, officers from all combat arms, various defense departments, the General Staff, research organizations, and members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Industry specialists benefited from this first conference of its kind, which brought together the defense ministry and the General Staff. Conference participants examined a broad range of issues related to UAV development and usage, while senior General Staff officers gave presentations on the use of robotic complexes in strategic armed conflict (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 4).

The role of UAVs in Russian military development is also being tested in organized UAV competitions, with additional “teams” competing from Belarus and Kazakhstan. China and Iran may also eventually participate (TV Zvezda, June 18).

While these structural and organizational aspects have facilitated greater interest among the political-military leadership in RTK VN, it has exponentially leapt forward due to operational experience in Ukraine and Syria. In terms of the combat use of UAVs in each theater, they were deployed to support aerial reconnaissance, to detect the movement of enemy forces, as well as to adjust fire control for artillery and other weapons systems. In Syria, Russian UAVs aided in directing aviation to targets while also assisting in the capacity to conduct operations in real time and to carry out battle-damage assessments (BDA). These theaters offer invaluable opportunities to test systems and experiment with those still in development (TV Zvezda, May 28).

In Syria, one of the UAV development success stories relates to the new Korsar UAV. The Korsar functions as part of a group of UAVs operating under a single ground-control system. Specialists of the Rybinsk JSC KB Luch, part of the holding company RosElektronika, began the development of this UAV in 2012. The defense ministry became interested due to the need to address the issue of the shortage of long-range UAVs in the Armed Forces. Testing during operations in Syria convinced the defense ministry of its value. The Korsar has a mass of 200 kilograms and a maximum speed of 120 kilometers per hour. It cruises at an altitude of more than 5,000 km, beyond the range of most man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). This UAV can easily operate at ranges of 120–180 km, and its range can be increased to 250 km. Significantly, in addition to its reconnaissance role, the Korsar can be equipped with a missile system to destroy targets at a range of up to 6 km. It is one of many Russian UAVs developed based on experience gained in Syria (RIA Novosti, June 1; TV Zvezda, May 28).

The various strands of thinking on robotics and UAVs come together in the work of Russian specialists on RTK VN, who tend to stress the need to create long-range complexes as well as short- and medium-range lighter platforms, and to develop drones acting in concert as a swarm or in coordination with other platforms. These specialists also note the likely growing role of such systems in future warfare. They argue that the presence of UAVs and advances in drone technology in the West means Moscow will need counter-measures in this area (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12). Among other high-technology factors, the way the Russian military conducts operations continues to transform.