The Russian military has been in full gear for the last several months, trying to prove to NATO and the world that Russia is a great power with a modern, professional military. While the Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, and Nords have taken this threat as almost existential, several military mishaps have made some in the West question Russia’s resolve and ability. The unveiling and stalling of the Armata during Victory Day rehearsals showed the current strain on the Russian military industrial complex. The grounding of the entire nuclear bomber fleet after an engine fire in a Tupolev-95 last month has shown weakness in the Russian Air Force. The midflight explosion of a missile during a Navy Day performance also proved quite embarrassing for President Putin. This week’s helicopter crash in Ryazan which killed one pilot just caps off the recent story of problematic Russian military technology.
There are two distinct ways to interpret the course of the Kremlin’s modernization project. The first is that the financial strain of the sanctions is proving too much for the Russian government, and will likely halt its rearmament program altogether. The second is that given the human cost of rearmament, Russia may refocus its efforts toward unmanned systems. The ability of the Russians to double down in their revanchist efforts, especially seen after Crimea, indicates that this second interpretation is very likely. This has troubling implications for Russia’s already ambiguous hybrid war concept and the future development of weaponized artificial intelligence.
Conceptually, the idea of focusing on unmanned systems in Russia is not new. There has been significant development of these robotized systems in recent years. Russia has been seriously pursuing robots as part of their drive for a modern army, even with its enormous cost. The drive for drones is rooted in Russia’s attempt to get past the Soviet model for a military, which famously coined the idea that quantity is its own quality. After embarrassing escapades in Chechnya and to a lesser extent Georgia, planners in Russia are seeing the allure of robot systems. State media recent trumpeted this concept with claims that the Armata could be the world’s first fully unmanned tank.
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While previous efforts for drones were most likely aimed at creating a poor man’s competitive response to the West, the new drive can be seen as aiming to avoid future embarrassing losses of life. Putin’s heavy use of drones in this Ukrainian adventure gives powerful context to this idea. The development of Russia’s drone program is not without its faults. Russia’s ground robots are yet unimpressive: the latest quadbike-riding android even caused Putin some public embarrassment at the rate of development. But with successes in the air over Ukraine, senior defense officials have said that combat UAVs will be in service by 2020. To further cement Russian influence across its borders, Putin’s planners will likely further refine drone tactics to increase their ability to deny involvement in future conflicts.
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What does all this mean for the US and its allies? One should not dismiss Russian ambitions for military modernization simply from the less than stellar economic forecast. Putin’s policies have drawn a clear correlation between military prowess and Russian greatness. If prowess cannot be achieved through conventional means—or at least not with Russia’s economic realities—then drones may be the answer. But this drive for the unmanned will also fuel a fire of further weaponization of artificial intelligence, as recently decried by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and others. The US needs to be ready to deal with this increasingly likely robotic arms race, as China is also actively developing its drone potential. Skynet may yet be highly unlikely, but the ambiguity added to the already complicated modern battlefield will be enormous. The US military is thankfully taking steps to deal with the drone threat, as massive anti-drone drills are underway. The threat is real and will presently become increasingly problematic, especially as Russia continues its drive to reassert authority in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Blake Franko is a researcher on geo-strategic issues in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's website here.