Russia is continuing its pursuit of breakthrough technologies, while integrating the results thus far to improve existing weapons systems, infrastructure, and operations, leading to incremental change and a gradual evolution in the Russian way of war.
Russia has joined the contest for military-technological superiority between major powers, driven by an understanding that the ongoing competition has major implications both for Russia’s security and for the international system at large. This new wave of the artificial intelligence (AI)-driven Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), as noted by Michael Raska, has the potential to spur significant military change because it differs from past ‘IT-RMA’ waves in several ways in terms of its political, strategic, technological and operational diffusion paths and patterns.
First, the US faces a strategic peer competitor for the first time in decades, as China is capable of potentially negating the strategic and operational advantages of the US military. The danger of other countries creating new threats to Russia’s security with technological advances, as well as the promise of Russia gaining a potential edge over its adversaries, have been among the central drivers in the Russian leadership’s push for new and breakthrough technologies.
Russia is an outlier among major powers with its traditional state-driven, top-down innovation model. Yet that model has been modified to take advantage of the advances made in the civilian sector.
Second, advanced military-industrial sectors are no longer the main sources of technological innovation: this is now primarily driven by the commercial sector, with dual-use potential. Russia is an outlier among major powers with its traditional state-driven, top-down innovation model. Yet that model has been modified to take advantage of the advances being made in the civilian sector, thus partly emulating the US and Chinese approaches to innovation. Moreover, by creating synergies between the military and the civilian sector, Russian authorities hope to generate a much-needed nationwide economic revival and boost the country’s competitiveness.
Third, trends such as the diffusion of autonomous and AI-enabled weapons systems, the convergence between human–machine learning (ML) and cognitive manipulation, and cyber and AI developments, coupled with novel operational concepts and force structures, seem to the Russian authorities certain to influence the trajectory and character of future warfare and of human involvement therein. A representative example of this reasoning was expressed by Vitaly Davydov, the deputy director-general of the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF, see also below) and head of its scientific-technological council. As Davydov put it, it is only a question of time before robots, with various degrees of autonomy, will take over the role of soldiers on the battlefield, given superior qualities such as the ability to act faster, with greater precision and more selectively than humans. Such assets may, in the future, complement manned units and free up soldiers for more complex tasks: for example, robots may guard facilities or be employed to penetrate dangerous environments with less risk.
Traditionally, technological prowess has been regarded in Russia as a critical element of military effectiveness and strategic advantage. Gaining or losing ground in the contest for cutting-edge military technology and more effective weapons systems may have far-reaching consequences: for national security and Russia’s place in the international hierarchy of power, and for fundamental aspects of international security such as deterrence, arms control, and strategic stability.
This chapter provides an overview of the major trajectories of defence innovation and the development of militarily relevant technologies in Russia. It is based on the assumption that while a disruptive shift in Russian warfare cannot be excluded, given the possible non-linear nature of the search for breakthrough technologies, to date the Russian approach to warfare has been characterized by incremental change. The analysis is organized into two main parts: the first examines the main research and development (R&D) pathways and Russia’s progress in accessing and leveraging selected new and emerging technologies; the second discusses obstacles and future prospects, together with some of the implications that military technology development has for NATO and the US.
Innovation trajectories and infrastructure
Russia has been increasing its focus on expanding military R&D since the early 2000s, with a surge in pace in the 2010s in particular. Development has been moving along three major pathways:
- Modernization and upgrading of existing and well-established nuclear and non-nuclear technologies;
- Experimentation in and pursuit of ‘risky’ innovation projects within a broad spectrum of novel technologies that can potentially yield significant advantages; and
- Integration of some of the new technologies into the established weapons systems.
After nearly two decades of decline in the defence sector following the fall of the Soviet Union, in 2008 Russia embarked on a large-scale modernization effort, with the objective of rapidly bolstering defence and deterrence options by refurbishing old assets and developing selected new symmetric ones. The nuclear triad topped the priority list, followed by the modernization of strategic conventional and general-purpose forces. Nuclear weapons have remained at the core of Russian defence, deterrence and coercive options. Consequently, Russia has continued to build and field increasingly diverse and expanding nuclear capabilities, delivery systems and supporting infrastructure. Gradually, and especially since 2010, modernized and new conventional weapons have increasingly strengthened the credibility of Russia’s non-nuclear defence and deterrence – developed, nonetheless, in close integration with nuclear weapons.
Simultaneously, and since the early 2010s in particular, Russia has increasingly devoted attention to new and potentially disruptive military-relevant technologies. Russian programmes include all the major elements of the so-called fourth industrial revolution (also known as 4IR, or Industry 4.0), such as AI, big data, and quantum computing, promising to provide far more secure communications, autonomous and AI-enabled unmanned systems, robotics, advanced ML algorithms to significantly multiply the speed of information and data processing, and automation for weapons platforms and surveillance systems. Russia is also working on automated decision-making, hypersonics, space capabilities, and ‘weapons based on new physical principles’, i.e. directed energy, radiological, genetic and electromagnetic weapons. Russia has also shown an interest in additive manufacturing (known as 3D printing) and the use of new state-of-the-art materials, including composites, nanotechnology and nanomaterials with new properties that have the potential to improve military equipment in multiple ways, such as making them more resistant, lighter and harder to detect.
The Russian political and military leadership has played a central role in fostering innovation, overriding institutional conservatism, and increasing the responsiveness of the extensive defence-sector bureaucracy since sweeping military reforms were set in motion in 2008. The basic approach to stimulating and organizing innovation in the Russian defence sector has been embedded in the traditional, centralized state-driven top-down model, albeit with some modifications. Notably, Russia has partly emulated the US innovation model of military–civilian sector cooperation by establishing joint collaborative platforms. The objective is to create and leverage synergies between defence–civilian and commercial developments to increase the state’s access to talent and amplify the exchange of ideas, inventions, expertise and experience. It is possible that the inspiration also comes in part from the Chinese military–civilian fusion model, with science and technology parks being connected to the campuses of large military universities.
Among the main collaborative ‘radical innovation centres’ is the Advanced Research Foundation (Fond perspektivnykh issledovanii, ARF), created in 2012 and tasked with the development of civil and dual-use technologies, and the Era technopolis (technology campus), established in 2018 in Anapa, on the Black Sea coast. In contrast to the ARF, Era focuses explicitly on technology for the Russian armed forces, although the Russian authorities hope that it will also produce dual-use technologies applicable in the civilian sector. The guiding idea for the technoparks is to bring theory and practice closer together by combining scientists and experts from environments that are normally separated from each other, thus accelerating the process from invention to full implementation.
The ARF’s programmes, initially featuring projects dating from the Soviet era and developed by other companies, have gradually expanded to include technologies central to 4IR, with high priority being given to AI, and a focus on unmanned vehicles (e.g. the Marker unmanned ground vehicle – UGV); autonomous systems and automated decision-making; superconductors (Liman); additive technology of polymetallic products (Matritsa); a full-ocean depth autonomous deep-submergence vehicle (Vityaz’-D); and ultra-thin materials for improving individual camouflage and protection (Tavolga). According to the Russian defence ministry, ARF was implementing 40 innovation projects in 2020, 15 of which were launched in 2019. Russia is also working on developing UGVs (e.g. the Udar unmanned tank) that aim to acquire the capability to move autonomously and interact with drones.
Meanwhile, the R&D at Era is organized in clusters of 14 prioritized fields: AI; small spacecraft; robotics; information security; automated control systems and IT systems; power-supply technologies and life-support machines; technical vision and pattern recognition; informatics and computer engineering; biotechnical systems and technologies; nanotechnology and nanomaterials; hydrometeorological (meteorological) and geophysical support; hydroacoustic object detection systems; military geoinformation platforms; and weapons based on new physical principles. In 2019, the Russian defence ministry assessed research results, of which some of the more prominent involved telemedicine, AI for diagnostic systems, artificial neural networks, technical vision and autonomous control of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Era’s so called ‘bank of ideas’ is to be filled by more than 100 enterprises of the military-industrial complex in joint projects as well as by representatives from the main weapons manufacturers, including the Kalashnikov concern (Russia’s largest manufacturer of small arms, guided artillery shells and high-precision weapons); the Sukhoi Company (a major aircraft manufacturer); and the Sozvezdie concern (Russia’s leading developer and manufacturer of electronic warfare – EW – and electronic countermeasure systems). The list, which continues to expand, also includes the Hevel Group (the largest cells-to-module photovoltaic manufacturer in Europe); Niagara (a producer of supercomputers); Mikran (Russia’s leading manufacturer of electronic devices); the cybersecurity company Rostelecom-Solar; SearchInform (risk-management product developers), and others.
Furthermore, the Russian defence ministry has transferred to Era some of the scientific units (nauchnye roty) created since 2013 on the foundations of the Russian military research institutions and higher educational institutions for specific scientific and applied tasks. As of March 2021, eight scientific units were operating at Era working within its R&D priority fields, as well as supporting specific needs of several specialist units: the Aerospace Forces, the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian defence ministry, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff, the Hydrometeorological Service of the Russian Armed Forces, and the defence ministry’s Main Directorate of Research and Technological Support of Advanced Technologies (Innovative Research) (GUNID).
Russia has been also connecting the Era technopolis in joint projects with universities and research institutes, including Russia’s largest interdisciplinary laboratory, the Kurchatov Institute. The institute hosts nuclear physics facilities and focuses on next-generation nuclear power, on information technology (IT), nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive technology and other cutting-edge technologies. Kurchatov’s president, Mikhail Kovalchuk, is responsible for the general management of research at Era, while specialized bodies of the military administration are responsible for the scientific leadership of research. Era is managed by a council headed by Deputy Prime Minister and former deputy minister of defence Yury Borisov. The council consists of representatives of the defence ministry, national and local government, heads of state corporations, leading educational and scientific organizations including the Kurchatov Institute, and the ARF.
R&D activity at Era is coordinated by GUNID, the Russian defence ministry’s Main Directorate of Research and Technological Support of Advanced Technologies (Innovative Research), although innovation is a relatively new field of work for the ministry. GUNID was created to organize and support the development and implementation of advanced R&D programmes and scientific projects, and to foster the conditions favourable to creating advanced weapons, and military and special equipment. The early stages of the innovation were marked by some accidental decisions that lacked a strategic direction and efficient management. For instance, the former head of GUNID, Colonel Vyacheslav Presnukhin, argued in 2014 that domestic industry had initially created a large number of robotic systems that were developed without taking into account the actual needs and requirements of the various services within the Russian armed forces, hence the products were largely useless and needs remained unmet.
One experiment conducted in 2020 focused on the possibility of rapidly building a deployable underwater lighting system aimed at combating small targets, such as unmanned underwater vehicles and underwater saboteurs, with the use of unmanned vehicles and hydroacoustic stations as transmitters of control signals and information.
To solve the problem, the current head of GUNID, Major-General Andrey Goncharov, reports that GUNID established cooperation and communication channels with the military commands to collect information on their requirements and thus to ensure that innovation projects corresponded with the needs of the armed forces. To this end, representatives of GUNID take part in exercises and in the experimentation and testing phase of the various projects, involving different types of weapons and of military and special equipment. Such experiments can focus on specific branches of the Russian armed forces. For instance, one experiment conducted in 2020 focused on the possibility of rapidly building a deployable underwater lighting system aimed at combating small-sized targets, such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and underwater saboteurs, with the use of UUVs, hydroacoustic stations and UAVs as transmitters of control signals and information.
According to Major-General Goncharov, GUNID has developed an extensive cooperation framework involving, in addition to Era, more than 1,200 entities, including industrial parks, engineering centres, various technological development platforms, financial development institutions and leading Russian universities and research institutes, including the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Commission for Innovative Projects and Technologies at the defence ministry manages the implementation of advanced military and dual-purpose technologies. According to official sources, it assessed 120 projects in 2019, of which 42 were approved for implementation.
Another of GUNID’s key tasks is to conduct the constant monitoring and documenting of innovative technologies, both in Russia and abroad, not least those that could undermine national security. An additional tool for monitoring developments in new and breakthrough technologies is the annual ARMY International Military-Technical Forum, providing an arena for presenting the most advanced innovative technologies.
Impediments and future prospects
Over the past decade, Russia has developed an extensive – and still growing – defence R&D network of collaborating platforms, involving the armed forces and civilian state and private actors. To what extent this widespread, dense, and centrally coordinated top-down network will provide a successful breeding ground for innovation is yet to be seen. Another aspect that merits further observation is to what extent the Russian defence ministry will manage to maintain an overview of and successfully coordinate this vast range of military and civilian entities. Correspondingly, the question arises as to whether the Russian government has drawn conclusions from the less than impressive results of the Skolkovo innovation centre created in 2009, promoted as the Russian Silicon Valley and based on a model of a public–private consortium.
The pace of development of various Russian defence innovation projects, examined in more detail in subsequent chapters of this research paper, varies from experimentation to testing and implementation in the structure of the Russian armed forces in a number of cases. Compared to the scope of the development in the US and China, however, Russia lags behind their advances for several reasons.
One of them is decline in innovation in Russia generally. Its basic indicators – such as the level of innovation activity – have been stagnating. Over the period 2013–16, Russia managed to significantly improve its standing in the Global Innovation Index, rising from 62nd to 43rd place. However, the upward trend proved short-lived, and in 2017 Russia dropped down the rankings to 45th place, falling further to 46th place in 2018–19 and to 47th in 2020. According to Leonid Gokhberg, director of the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (and member of the International Advisory Board of the Global Innovation Index), in a healthy and efficient economy, innovative activity is the main strategy by which enterprises can achieve success. However, specific changes in market conditions, the level of competition, and the quality of regulation may lead to a negative trend where only a small number of enterprises rely on innovation as a driver of development. In Gokhberg’s view, the stagnation of innovation in Russia has resulted less from insufficient funding and resources than from inefficiency in using the resources that are already available. Among impediments are an unfavourable business climate and the poor quality of regulations hampering development.
Yet another constraint is the low productivity of labour in Russia, which is among the lowest in the world’s major economies, and the high share of the state sector in the Russian economy, which has increased systematically during the 2000s. Other systemic problems involve corruption, political pressure, the weak rule of law, the poor enforcement of intellectual property rights, and heavy bureaucratic control, in addition to development trends in education that do not provide a solid basis for high-tech development. There are also indications that ‘brain drain’ risks becoming an increasing problem in the future.
Furthermore, Western sanctions in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have imposed limitations on Russian modernization projects and slowed down progress in selected areas. The Russian military-industrial complex also struggles with shortages of professional expertise.
Russia is attempting to solve the latter problem in several ways. The scientific companies at the Era campus are to provide a base for training and developing the new generation of highly qualified professionals needed in the defence sector. After the end of their military service, many of the servicepeople of the scientific units choose to continue their research work at institutes connected to the defence ministry, including at Era. While this development is favourable and may help alleviate the problem, it is unlikely to provide a solution to the aforementioned systemic deficiencies.
Russia has managed to stem the decline in its innovatory activities and partially rebuild its innovation capability by setting up advanced technological development programmes. To date, the innovation pathways followed by Russia’s R&D have been characterized by incremental change, leading to a gradual evolution rather than a revolutionary change in the character of Russian warfare. Russia has been integrating some of the novel technologies into its established weapons systems, including nuclear and non-nuclear strategic weapons, general-purpose forces, and asymmetric non-military methods and means. For instance, AI is being introduced in robotic systems, in command and control, and in situational awareness infrastructure to increase the precision and speed of information collection and decision-making; and UUVs, UAVs and UGVs are adopted to enhance nuclear and non-nuclear missions. The systems enhanced with 4IR technologies do not immediately change the strategic and operational landscape in a radical way. Nonetheless, they constitute an improvement to the existing Russian weapons systems and infrastructure, and have the potential to provide Russia with an advantage on the battlefield.
Many of the key Russian defence innovation programmes resemble 4IR projects being pursued by the US, and are a response to the perceived vulnerabilities created by asymmetry of power, especially in the conventional field. However, it would be misleading to assume that Russian defence innovation will continue to simply mirror and react to the development trajectory pursued by its perceived competitors. Indeed, Russia may take a diverging path in the course of the experimental phase, and develop novel technologies and weapons systems, as well as the means and methods to apply them.
Furthermore, technological innovation is an ongoing process, and especially in the field of breakthrough technologies it may as per definition become non-linear and disruptive, with implications that are hard to predict, especially in the initial phases of the development of the various projects. Importantly, Russia has demonstrated a willingness and an ability to take risks and to experiment with the potential of new technologies, which are important qualities in innovation. Although Russian defence development has so far been predominantly a continuation of the previous modernization effort, it also carries the hallmarks of a potentially disruptive shift in warfare. This concerns in particular the field of human–machine interactions and autonomy, within which AI and algorithms are likely to increasingly shape human decision-making.
Some aspects of this development are already affecting regional stability, forcing the NATO alliance and the US to take additional measures to maintain a credible deterrence. One example is hypersonic technology, which could have a destabilizing impact on nuclear security. This is due in part to a significant challenge with identification of their targets and warheads, given these missiles are developed as dual-capable. Their high manoeuvrability and the likelihood that they may approach targets from unpredictable trajectories may lead them to pose a challenge to crisis stability, taking into account the likely prohibitively high cost of defending against them, potentially increasing the likelihood of offence dominance in a conventional strike. This may also create problems of arms-race instability, with a negative impact on strategic stability. Yet certain qualities of hypersonic weapons may be overestimated, since they do not travel faster than existing ballistic missiles and are detectable for most of their flight paths by conventional means. Still, even if Russian hypersonic cruise missiles do not fundamentally change the strategic and operational landscape today, they constitute an improvement to existing weapons systems and create new challenges.
Similarly, the AI-driven RMA has a range of implications for international security, with the potential to galvanize new phases of arms competition across the world, a development that is of concern also to the Russian leadership. The question is to what extent Russia will be able to keep up with developments in terms of overcoming systematic limitations, budgetary and other resource allocation, and achieve the necessary organizational flexibility in order to adapt doctrines and operational concepts – and thus take advantage of technological gains. Another important factor will be Russia’s perceptions – and potential misperceptions – of advantages the AI-driven RMA may yield to its adversaries. Moscow’s choice of symmetric and asymmetric responses to this development will have implications for its force structure, education, recruitment patterns and operations, and more broadly for the domains in which the Russian armed forces will be set to operate.