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Airpower after Ukraine

August 30, 2022

The Ukraine war and its impact on Russian development of autonomous weapons

By Samuel Bendett

Today’s discussion of Russian military drone and robotics capabilities—the use of unmanned and autonomous aerial, ground, and maritime systems—is generally conducted against the backdrop of such technologies’ performance in the Russia-Ukraine war. The pre-February 2022 discussions and deliberations across the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), its affiliated research and development institutions, and academies generally point to a common theme: such systems are supposed to safeguard soldiers’ lives and make military missions more effective. This reasoning led the Russian military to conceptualize the use of loitering munitions and aerial swarms, long-range combat and “loyal wingmen” drones that can operate autonomously, small aerial drones that can be launched from both piloted and uncrewed platforms, and other systems that target and overwhelm adversary weapons and defenses.

The Russian military and the country’s defense industry are also considering other concepts for Russia’s envisioned high-tech warfare—unmanned and autonomous ground vehicle (UGVs) that work together with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as numerous uncrewed maritime systems that work with ships and with other manned and unmanned assets. These research and development efforts paint a picture of a military seeking to combine legacy and modern systems in a networked environment, where artificial intelligence is not intended to replace humans just yet, but to make a human operator’s job more effective. Overall, the MOD envisioned this technology operating autonomously, where adversary tactics aim to negate the advantage and capabilities of such systems. The MOD’s plan to get to that point was and still is contingent on multiple factors, such as favorable economic-industrial conditions, continuous growth and development of domestic high-tech ecosystems, and a human-centric military that will be amenable to the introduction of such advanced technology in existing formations.

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s response

Despite Russia’s plans, the reality of the battlefield often defies expectations, rewrites assumptions, or reveals significant technological gaps in the preconceived notions of specific systems’ place in war and in combined arms operations. The above-mentioned robotic technologies, assuming they are fielded eventually, work well if they are integrated into existing formations over time, and with a good understating of an adversary’s countermeasures and capabilities.

Right up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian MOD maintained a relatively sizeable UAV fleet, with years-long technology training and integration into the force structure. Nonetheless, in February and March 2022, the Russian military seemed unable to meet its combat objectives as articulated by its leadership and government. The notable absence of aerial drones early on in the war raised questions about Russia’s ability to integrate modern high-tech equipment and lessons learned into an ongoing military operation. By July 2022, the Russian military improved its capabilities and started using relatively short-range, remote-controlled UAVs and UGVs, along with very few longer-ranged unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The initial Russian inability to field large numbers of UCAVs and loitering munitions to target Ukrainian forces underscored a significant gap in the MOD’s force structure, even after years of reviewing the impact of this technology in recent conflicts. The question of the centrality of human soldiers to Russia’s current military operation will be debated long after this war concludes, given the MOD’s continued emphasis on sending soldiers on missions and operations that have ultimately resulted in heavy casualties.

Despite the MOD’s seemingly clear understanding of the advantages that autonomous and unmanned systems bring to the warfighter, significant tactical, on-the-ground gaps in this war are filled by crowdsourced and volunteer efforts, such as the continued delivery of civilian DJI Mavic drones to frontline Russian troops. Such remote-controlled systems are providing key data and intelligence for subsequent, follow-on attacks. These gaps taken together expose a much deeper need to reconcile current combat reality with a more realistic assessment of the technologies the Russian military actually needs today, rather than in the distant automation-enabled future.

At this point in the Ukraine war, the remote-piloted UAVs are widespread and pivotal to successful tactical operations. Russia’s relatively unsophisticated military drones and commercial short-range UAVs provide essential round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for long-range artillery, as well as mortar and missile batteries. The MOD’s incremental use of Uran-6 and Prohod-1 demining UGVs is indicative of a military that wants to implement systems that replace dangerous human work, but at this point, Russian combat engineers still conduct the bulk of this work on foot. Combat UGVs will probably be slower to implement in this war, considering command, control and communications issues inherent in complex environments like Ukraine. The fielding of maritime autonomy would also depend on Russia’s understanding of where such a capability can be better used, given Ukraine’s targeting of Russian maritime assets in the Black Sea with its own heavy UAVs, as well as the impending acquisition of unmanned surface vessels by the Ukrainian military.

Lessons learned?

Going forward, as the Russian MOD ecosystem incorporates the lessons from this war, the current application of unmanned technology in Ukraine might lead to the discussion and mass-scale acquisition of combat UAVs, eventual use of swarms and groups that combine multiple UAV types, and the deployment of loitering munitions in sufficient numbers to degrade adversary defenses (especially with Iranian assistance). Still, sophisticated technology like military robotics does not by itself win wars. For all the praise such systems reaped from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, with Azerbaijani drone and loitering munitions devastating Armenian defenses, the infantry bore the brunt of the fighting. This key lesson might drive Moscow to acquire a large number of Iranian drones, which presumably might include loitering munitions to strike Ukrainian high-value targets like HIMARS artillery systems. Any future Russian attempts at developing and integrating sophisticated technology such as combat UAVs or UGVs, loitering munitions, self-directing swarms, and UAV-UGV teams will require lengthy testing and evaluation periods. This is necessary for the manufacturers to work out the issues and problems, for end users to understand and familiarize themselves with new technologies, and for the command structure to develop new tactics and concepts that incorporate these new systems into the combined fighting force.

Prior to February 2022, the Russian military had the luxury of slow-rolling such technology in domestic drills and occasionally fielding such technology in Syria. Currently, with so many resources already committed to fighting Ukraine’s capable defenders, it remains to be seen whether the Russian military would be able to undertake the testing of these new systems directly in combat, or if it would delay such evaluation in favor of fielding imported technology. Even as the war rages on, the Russian MOD has no intention of abandoning its more futuristic plans for integrating autonomous and robotic technology, even if its vastly degraded force in Ukraine is using decades-old, less-than-sophisticated systems, relies on crowdsourcing of certain items key to frontline warfare, or may be dependent once again on imported drones to plug a key capability gap.

In the end, myriad factors—domestic politics, economic health, the state of a country’s military-industrial capacity, understanding the adversary intentions and plans, getting a good grasp of global technological developments and trends—play a role in shaping a country’s military planning. The current war in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions might delay some of Russia’s more ambitious plans for autonomous and unmanned technology, thereby giving the United States and its allies more time and opportunity to test and refine such concepts. However, as long as major military powers continue to integrate military autonomy into their force structures, Russia will “shadowbox” such developments with its own efforts, apparently ignoring the heavy toll that the current war can take on its industry and society. Eventually, the Russian military could approach the point where using a growing share of autonomous systems will become organic to its sprawling force structure. Whether that day comes in five, ten, or twenty years is less relevant than the desire of the Russian MOD to fight with greater impact, which is what robotic technologies are supposed to deliver. Russia still plans to successfully compete with high-tech adversaries like NATO. Its current performance in Ukraine could be a key, if very bloody, experience on its path to military strength underwritten by new technologies.

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Samuel Bendett is an Analyst, Center for Naval Analysis Russia Studies Program and Adjunct Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Technology and National Security Program.

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Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.