It is paramount to ensure realistic assessments of Russian military capabilities, and to ultimately craft a balanced and flexible policy response.
Understanding how Russian military innovation works is critical for determining its impact for the US, NATO, and their partners, as well as potentially guiding future procurement choices. The Kremlin leadership has made the choice to pursue military innovation in specific technologies in order to give itself an advantage against the perceived conventional military superiority of great power competitors. This approach is compounded by Russia’s sense of great power status and its perception of being in a conflict with the West and NATO in particular, and is reinforced by its wider foreign policy aspirations.
Military technology innovation enables Russia’s way of war and feeds new concepts of operation and military thought around future warfare. Despite systemic impediments to innovation, the Russian military-industrial complex (‘OPK’) remains a formidable machine able to structure a fully-fledged military-industrial base in entire segments, and to adapt them to the operational needs of the armed forces.
It is therefore paramount to ensure realistic assessments of Russian military capabilities, focus attention on the most pressing developments while keeping tabs on future innovation, and ultimately craft a balanced and flexible response. Potential policy pathways include:
Ensure realistic assessments of Russian military capabilities
- There are potential dangers in both overhyping and downplaying Russia’s advanced systems. It is true that some systems could have a major operational impact in the near future, potentially proving damaging to Western interests. Yet inflating the danger from existing and future capabilities could lead to erroneous policy being made, and ultimately to poorly informed procurement choices by Western armies. Different dangers lie in underestimating some developments that may pass under the radar of policymakers.
- Complacency is also a dangerous posture. Despite the weaknesses and constraints discussed above, there is a tendency among Western policymakers to underplay Russia’s emerging military technology because of ongoing challenges within the OPK and the perception that Russia is not as technologically advanced as the West or China. Such convictions, however, suggest a failure to imagine how Russia could deploy advanced technologies and capabilities in innovative and disruptive ways.
- Good policymaking should start with establishing a precise threat credibility through careful analyses and balanced assessments of Russian systems. This includes careful assessments of signals and messages originating from the Russian leadership and the military-industrial complex. For example, some advanced systems are at different stages of development (Burevestnik, Poseidon); for others, progress is uncertain and probably overstated both by Russia and by Western analysts (semi-hypersonic systems); and others are still in search of a specific mission (anti-satellite systems).
- When looking at each ‘advanced’ weapon and technologically-enabled asymmetric system, it is important to put them into the context of current procurement plans, production capabilities, actual deployment and active service entry. In addition to the systems themselves, it will be important to observe and analyse how they are adapted in operational praxis.
- Developments and technologies should be analysed and assessed within the broader context of Russia’s strategic ambitions, potential threats to Western interests, and the willingness to use these new and advanced systems in combat situations. Russia appears to be less risk-averse when fielding and implementing new military technology compared to Western armies, and the lessons learned inform both scientific progress and operational art.
What should NATO and its allies be concerned about?
- The most disquieting systems, as far as NATO is concerned, are those that amplify nuclear missions, strategic conventional systems, dual-capable systems, and asymmetric non-military applications. More generally, Russia’s willingness to take risks, fail, and try again may lead to significant advances and potential breakthroughs in selected areas.
- Western planners should avoid the temptation to match Russian capabilities. In many respects, new weapons systems have emerged as ‘asymmetric’ and relatively low-cost responses to Western – and primarily American – conventional superiority.
- Specifically, the advanced strategic systems are designed to circumvent ballistic missile defence, while sub-strategic systems appear designed to counteract US dominance in aerospace and naval power. Consequently, attempting to develop and deploy like-for-like systems could be wasteful.
- Continued improvement and integration of longer-ranged combat drones within Russia’s command and control systems will lead to greater efficiency of Russian forces in combat. While Russian development of concepts for a mixed unmanned ground vehicle (UGV)-manned unit is years away, continued experimentation in that space may present the Russian defence ministry with improved tactics in countering NATO’s high-tech and precision-guided munition response.
- Continued Russian experimentation with unmanned aerial vehicle–UGV teaming could result in improved situational awareness and battlefield information analysis. Furthermore, the development of deep-diving autonomous maritime vehicles may present dangers to NATO’s submarine force and operations in the long term.
- Russia’s experience in testing high-tech weapons in near-operational and combat conditions could give it an edge in data collection for the training of more resilient artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and human–machine teaming. Technical solutions that buttress cyber defence are necessary, but are unlikely to be sufficient to counter the psychological elements and societal effects of Russia’s AI-enabled information warfare.
Craft a balanced and flexible response
- The fact that Russia is developing a particular system or technology does not mean the US and NATO should replicate it. Russian advanced systems are designed to perform specific functions aimed at lessening, and ideally nullifying, US and NATO conventional advantages (especially in the aerial and naval domains). Nevertheless, Russia is also pursuing experimental pathways to innovation that are not dictated by the need to outmatch Western military systems. It cannot be excluded that Russia will develop novel weapons systems and supporting infrastructure independent of the trajectory of weapons development in the West.
- It is therefore not advisable to develop countermeasures to every Russian military technology in every domain – for instance regarding hypersonic gliding vehicles. Policymakers should also avoid messaging a Western ‘capabilities gap’ with Russia, as that could further vindicate Moscow’s position and lead to an emboldened Kremlin.
- In addition to pursuing technologies central to 4IR (Industry 4.0), responses could also exploit low-cost, relevant technology in selected domains. In particular, adapting and upgrading existing systems able to threaten the supporting infrastructure that enables Russia’s new capabilities might be one more cost-effective and efficient way of responding to new threats.
- Countermeasures could target existing Russian weaknesses in specific areas (such as infrastructure and support) as well as across different levels of the kill chain (for instance in the area of sensors and sensor data analysis, as well as command and control). Suppressing Russian enablers in a kill chain’s critical nodes would be an efficient way to limit potential asymmetric advantages. This would help disrupt and degrade the enabling military infrastructure that give these systems such potential.
- In areas where the US and NATO already possess technological superiority, for instance in autonomous systems or C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), the focus should be on integrating and scaling these capabilities throughout the alliance to ensure interoperability as well as on hardening these systems to adversarial attacks and disruptions, including with the use of new technologies.
- Policy responses should also signal dominance and the intent to use advanced systems to match Russia’s, as well as to increase sanctions against specific segments of the OPK – mainly against high-precision engineering capacity and electronic components – as part of a credible attrition strategy. However, the Western response must not lead to self-deterrence against a more militarily assertive Russia.
Put the ‘red’ back in red-teaming
- Russian advanced military systems are procured and fielded to implement Russia’s way of war. Understanding Russian intentions regarding such systems from the Russian perspective is key to successful military planning.
- Western policymakers should think in terms of Russia’s vulnerabilities, not just strengths. Western military concepts therefore need to evolve to account for Russia’s own ability to recover and operate in conditions that are less than ideal, especially in contested environments.
- Another important aspect of red-teaming is looking at the sustainability of Russia’s military innovation, modernization plans and overall defence spending. It remains paramount to understand which currently developing technologies will become future threats to Western interests, as well as to explore how innovation will meet the future operational needs of the Russian armed forces.
Demand accountability and transparency from Russia
- The development of advanced military systems in Russia increases unpredictability as well as the risk of miscalculation by the US and its allies. Recent examples include the Nyonoksa radiation accident in August 2019 (see also Chapter Three) and anti-satellite weapons testing. These events are a reminder that Russia is continuously innovating in domains that require more transparency and accountability – especially because experimenting with such could also put civilian lives at risk in peacetime.
- As Russian restraint is no longer a certainty, it is important to include such weapons systems in discussions on risk-reduction. For instance, strategic systems such as Sarmat and Avangard should be systematically raised in future arms control discussions.