June 30, 2022

To Robot or Not to Robot? Past Analysis of Russian Military Robotics and Today's War in Ukraine

By Samuel Bendett

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks.

Over the past four months, the Russia military analysis community reevaluated earlier assumptions about Moscow’s military’s capabilities, starting from the onset of the Ukraine invasion, through today’s grinding tactics and concepts that show a more competent Russian force eventually emerging against Ukrainian defenders. This reevaluation likewise involved the assessment of unmanned and autonomous capabilities that Russia touted before the war as game-changing technology. At this point in the conflict, the videos and images from the Ukrainian front confirm that enabling technology like unmanned aerial vehicles are in fact a significant part of how Russia fights today in Ukraine, underscoring that this capability is pivotal to the Russian military’s ongoing war.

Enabling technology like unmanned aerial vehicles are in fact a significant part of how Russia fights today in Ukraine, underscoring that this capability is pivotal to the Russian military’s ongoing war.

Prior to this conflict, a lot of useful analysis and commentary was available for review about Russia’s development of unmanned aerial, ground, and maritime systems as near-future enablers of what was supposed to be a modernized Russian military preparing for the next war. A lot of that information was derived from Russian-language public sources, and judged accordingly, given the brevity of descriptions or occasional lack of technical specifications, beyond initial and sometimes hyperbolic announcements about the potential use and utility of these platforms. In the opening weeks and even two months into its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military’s autonomous and unmanned performance was rather weak or even altogether lacking, leading to early conclusions that perhaps this capability was over-emphasized when compared to other systems and weapons. However, as the months went on, concepts and tactics took shape that were more in line with the Russian military’s pre-war preparation and training that involved unmanned aerial vehicles in particular as key enablers of ground forces. Russia’s current performance in the conflict — which involves heavy use of aerial drones and growing use of unmanned ground systems — is underscoring earlier assumptions about the utility of this technology in war. Despite concerns raised in the early weeks of the war about the accuracy of Western analysis of the Russian military, the community still had a good grasp of the Russian military’s commitment to robotics and autonomy. Future analysis should incorporate what we see in the current war, with the pre-February 2022 analysis in the background.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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