29.03.23 Review

The Fight Against the Human Factor: the Russian military has failed to achieve any progress in the robotisation of weapons, although programmes were launched in this field a long time ago

Since the 2008 war in Georgia, the Russian military has considered the implementation of programmes to robotise its army and create military drones. The ultimate goal is to counter the enemy's expensive precision weapons with cheaper robotics, thus making such weapons economically obsolete. It was also assumed that robotisation would reduce the military's reliance on the ‘human factor’. However, despite the fact that these programmes were launched over 10 years ago, it is the human factor itself that has most likely stalled their progress. Nevertheless, according to a report by the American RAND Corporation on the subject of Russian military robotics, the Russian regime has been able to achieve some ‘pockets of efficiency’ in various critical areas and still has access to a sufficient pool of specialists, despite the country’s ongoing brain drain. To limit Russia's future capabilities, the report proposes that Western governments need to continue fostering this brain drain and to increase their control over imports of dual-use technology components into Russia.

According to experts from the RAND Corporation (a non-profit organisation that grew out of the US Air Force’s analytical structure after World War II, and which specialises primarily in research in the field of military strategy and technologies), ‘After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin will have to rethink, reform, and rebuild the country’s military.’ The experts have studied Russian scientific articles and official documents on technological development and robotics, and have concluded that the unsatisfactory quality of training and low morale among troops, coupled with the high political cost of the high casualty rate in foreign conflicts, may push Moscow to consider the robotisation of its army to reduce its dependence on the ‘human factor’.

Even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, analysts from RAND had begun to work on the report in question. Russian military plans had indicated that, by 2025, the share of the country’s weapons systems to be made up of robotic components should reach 30%. The Russian military leadership had apparently been counting on robotics as an ‘asymmetric response’ to counter the superior development of US military technology, which would allow the country to gain a strategic advantage over its potential enemy. The idea of this is that, in situations where a technological lag exists, the use of numerous and inexpensive robots could render expensive, high-tech US weapons uneconomical. Attempts to respond symmetrically and to keep up with the development of the US would drag Russia into a costly arms race with a superior opponent that it could not win.

The use of drones in the Russian army was first considered after the war with Georgia in 2008, where Russia had only one Soviet-era ‘Pchela’ system, while Georgia had access to 40 Israeli Hermes-450 and Skylark drones. In that same year, the Russian Ministry of Defence began developing concepts for the robotisation of the Russian army and invested 5 billion rubles in the development of its own drones. However, due to their lack of experience in this field, the resulting drone models failed to meet the necessary standards, and in 2009, the Ministry of Defence was forced to purchase drones from Israel. Nevertheless, by 2010, Russian-made drones, such as Zala-421-05, Irkut-10, and Orlan, were brought into service within the border service and the FSB.

As Pavel Dulnev, Professor of the Academy of Military Sciences of the Russian Federation, notes, in the 2010s, the Ministry of Defence formed a commission for the development of robotics. A research and testing centre was established, and a comprehensive, targeted programme for the development of robotics until 2025 was approved. Unlike the previous state armaments programme, which only allocated minimal investments into robotics, the programme for 2018-2027 prioritises the development of drones, combat robots, and artificial intelligence.

However, the RAND experts believe that achieving the target 30% share of robotic systems within the Russian military by 2025 is only possible on paper. Russian official documents frequently reference ‘robotic systems’, ‘automated control systems’, and ‘artificial intelligence’, but these concepts are merely used to demonstrate automations of previously manually operated systems. Russian researchers claim that robotic systems are still less efficient than those operated by humans. They struggle to execute their tasks, suffer frequent breakdowns, and are too costly for mass use. Moreover, the majority of Russian developments in this field are imitations of Western models, and up to 80% of their components are imported, making further robotisation of the Russian military significantly more challenging as a result of sanctions.

Despite an increase in Russian robotics research over the past decades, Russia’s share in the global body of robotics research remains low. Most of this stems from the cooperation between the country’s scientists and colleagues from Western universities, and since the outbreak of the war, this practice has stopped. Further, Russian universities have limited interaction with the private sector, where significant advances in robotisation and the development of artificial intelligence are taking place. The problem of brain drain was already a concern before the war, with 14,000 scientists leaving the country in 2012, a number which had risen to 70,000 by 2021. The situation has deteriorated since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Finally, Russian robotics have suffered from issues such as corruption, inequality, technological dependence, and the underdevelopment which has plagued related fields such as semiconductor manufacturing.

Despite facing numerous obstacles, Russia is able to create ‘pockets of efficiency’ in some of its key areas for development, and has the potential to create such a ‘pocket’ in the field of robotics. Russia traditionally has a strong background in science, engineering, and mathematics education, although the level of tertiary education in these areas still lags behind the levels in the West. Over one-third of Russian students graduate with degrees in these fields compared to just 18% in the US. Moreover, the younger generation of Russians (aged 20-29) entering the labour market from 2025 to the end of the 2030s will play a crucial role in the country’s workforce. The current economic situation and visa restrictions may make it harder for members of this generation to leave the country, and as a result, the pace of brain drain may slow. Although Russia lags behind in semiconductor production, it still contributes to research in this area. Additionally, the country has an extensive history of industrial espionage and shadow supply networks, which were formed in Soviet times. These can be used to bypass sanctions and acquire necessary equipment.

Although the pace of robotisation within the Russian military may fall short of the stated targets, any level of progress in this area may have significant consequences. The key difference between the Russian and American approaches towards robotisation is that the former involves replacing, rather than supplementing, human soldiers with robots on the battlefield. As such, the Russian military is willing to grant robots greater autonomy in combat. However, unlike American research, there is no explicit goal in Russian research to reduce civilian casualties during times of conflict. It is assumed that artificial intelligence can improve its ability to distinguish between military and civilian targets. However, the desire to test this technology in situations where civilian casualties could result from confusion on the battlefield may create an incentive to engage in military conflicts solely for the purpose of testing new weapons.

The experts from RAND have put forward a proposal to impede Russia's progress in robotics by developing a policy that would encourage further brain drain from Russia and would also increase control over the export of military and dual-use goods. In particular, this would involve preventing the resale of such goods to Russia by China and other countries in Southeast Asia. The experts also recommend that US intelligence should closely investigate Russian industrial espionage and illicit supply chain strategies. Additionally, they suggest closer collaboration between the US government and its allies in order to share technologies that could undermine Russia's technological advantage in the use of drones. Finally, they advise that the US and NATO countries should limit scientific cooperation with Russian researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, and should continue to monitor closely Russia's technological advancements to prevent any ‘windows of opportunity’ that could lead to possible breakthroughs in these areas.