Russia is pursuing military innovation in specific force-multiplier technologies and asymmetric capabilities in order to give itself an advantage against the perceived military superiority of peer or near-peer competitors.
Procuring advanced and modern military capabilities for its armed forces is critical to Russia. The current leadership wants to enhance its ability to conduct modern warfare operations, compete for military advantage (especially asymmetrically) against more powerful competitors, and ultimately ensure the security of the homeland.
The Kremlin leadership’s aim in putting time and effort into modernizing its armed forces and providing them with advanced military technology capabilities is to turn foreign policy aspirations into reality. Fundamentally, Moscow considers itself to be a great power in a state of conflict with more powerful competitors, specifically the US and NATO, and now, increasingly, China. Leveraging force-multiplier technologies and asymmetric capabilities against more technologically advanced adversaries has now become a priority for the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence.
Russia is determined to pursue the development of advanced military technology capabilities in targeted defence industry fields within the military-industrial complex (referred to as the ‘OPK’ in Russian). This is taking place alongside evolving military thinking around the integration of such capabilities within the force structure, new concepts of operation, and the use of modern systems in future warfare.
Innovation must also be viewed within the framework of the current procurement cycle for the Russian armed forces: the state armament programme for the period 2020–27 (GPV 2027). This cycle of procurement is expected to provide the Russian armed forces with next-generation systems and more modern fighting capabilities.
Russian approaches to military modernization and innovation
The modernization of military equipment has been a major priority within the armed forces and the OPK since the start of the ‘New Look’ reform initiated by former defence minister Anatoliy Serdyukov in 2008. Modernization in the Russian sense represents a complicated combination of procuring ‘new’ systems and upgrading existing legacy platforms to ‘modern’ standards. In that sense, new does not always mean modern. Modernized systems work as ‘gap-fillers’ when genuinely new ones are not available and allow the armed forces to extend the active service life of battle-proven hardware.
Russian military technology only needs to be good enough to contest and deny the perceived conventional military advantage of more advanced competitors. In other words, the Russian armed forces retain both a repair-and-upgrade and a ‘retain-and-adapt’ approach to military innovation. Russian military research and development (R&D) innovation as a whole is structured around the OPK’s limited ability to produce genuinely new systems. Indeed, even many ‘new’ systems can be traced back to legacy Soviet designs dating back to the 1980s and 1990s.
Russian military technology only needs to be good enough to contest and deny the perceived conventional military advantage of more advanced competitors.
This does not mean, however, that military innovation does not happen at all in Russia. When needed, the OPK is able to meet the express needs of the armed forces and military planners. This is particularly relevant when considering how Russia has been recapitalizing its space industry since Soviet times, or how it created a fully-fledged military-industrial base for the drone industry and electronic warfare (EW) after the ‘wake-up call’ of the war with Georgia in 2008.
Military innovation is enabling Russia’s way of war
New military technology applications and advanced systems are enablers for Russia’s way of war, especially in the context of leveraging its military-scientific base against technologically superior peer or near-peer competitors. Russia perceives itself to be in conventional military inferiority against such competitors. As Chapter Two of this paper contends, instead of trying to catch up with the West (and increasingly China) in the traditional way, Russia seeks to counter and contest by developing technologically-enabled force multipliers in the specific sectors that are examined in detail in this report.
Asymmetric leverage also means that Russia is using a well-established toolkit of ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics aimed at establishing credibility around its weapons systems. This was particularly visible when President Vladimir Putin first introduced these systems in March 2018, since when they have often been referred to by nicknames such as ‘Doomsday’ or ‘Death Star’ weapons, or ‘Wunderwaffen’. Such announcements are an efficient way to own the narrative of a technological race in which Russia has declared itself a participant: in many ways, the message itself becomes the weapon. A close, research-based scrutiny of the claimed Russian technological advances, actual and planned, is therefore of critical importance to a correct understanding of Russia’s capabilities.
Military innovation is further shaped by unyielding Russian foreign policy perceptions, notably the ‘besieged fortress’ narrative or the idea that Russian ‘security interests’ are not sufficiently respected. More than three decades of threat construction against NATO and its allies have vindicated the Kremlin leadership in being able to fall back on military power and coercion as a privileged tool of foreign policy, honed by the perceived necessity to employ limited action and pre-emptive neutralization of threats, surprise and deception, asymmetric means, and decisiveness.
Lessons learned from recent deployments
Russian military innovation relies on lessons learned in theoretical studies and, more importantly, in the field. Recent developments in military science would not be as substantial without the operational experience acquired in Syria since 2015, and, less officially, in Ukraine since 2014. Both military campaigns allowed Russia to test new and experimental systems, and to showcase combat-proven weapons. Throughout different stages of the Syrian campaign, OPK engineers and experts have been deployed alongside Russian forces to test new systems in combat situations.
This operational experience is particularly relevant for command and control systems, unmanned platforms (notably drones and anti-unmanned aerial vehicle – UAV – capabilities, as well as for demining operations), EW, and precision-guided munitions. Such technological advances and tactical adaptations will continue to inform future innovation and procurement priorities, as well as Russian military doctrine, well into the 2020s.
Lessons learned from recent deployments also inform and reinforce Russian military innovation and procurement policies related to defence, deterrence, and the peacetime organization of force to increase combat readiness, as is evident from investments in modern command and control, network-centric warfare, force mobility and deployability, and military logistics (specifically the storage and pre-positioning of forces). The peacetime organization of force aims to increase combat readiness while reflecting procurement choices around defensive systems – including long-range precision-strike weapons.
About this paper
The main body of this research paper starts by offering an overview of the major pathways in Russian defence innovation and its organizational structure, as well as military R&D advantages and limitations (Chapter Two). The paper then assesses Russia’s modern military capabilities and advanced technologies in key sectors. These cover specific weapons systems, including new strategic and sub-strategic systems (Chapter Three), space technology (Chapter Four), autonomous systems and military robotics (Chapter Five), and artificial intelligence applications (Chapter Six).
These front-line technologies and areas of innovation have been selected specifically because they are considered to be development priorities for the Russian armed forces and because they relate to one another as force multipliers in leveraging asymmetric advantages. They are all considered to be advanced technologies that have concrete implications on the battlefield, as well as implications for NATO and its members at a more strategic level.
The authors also discuss the effects of military innovation on Russian military thinking, as well as its impact on potential adversaries – namely the US, and NATO and its members.
The authors recognize that the themes mentioned above continue to evolve in Russia as the country’s defence and policy community deliberate how existing and conceptual weapons and systems will affect its combat operations and military readiness. Therefore, the information contained in this report should be viewed as part of an ongoing debate on Russia’s overall military research, development and experimental space. While each of the authors is responsible for his or her own chapter, they have collectively written and agreed the executive summary and the report’s policy recommendations, which are found in Chapter Seven.