What does military victory look like in the 21st century? It’s a hard question to answer, which is perhaps one reason why all long-standing military parades focus on the glories of the past. For the countries that choose to have them, the parades provide a moment to actively signal to the world what new weapons adversaries can expect to see in the future. When Russia rolls out equipment for the annual May 9th victory parade, celebrating its triumph in World War II, it will likely include robots, uninhabited combat vehicles ostensibly ready for action in Russia’s own long-running irregular wars.
Specifically, the parade will feature two ground robots, the Uran-9 combat robot, the Uran-6 mine-clearing robot, and Korsar drones, according to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. As the National Security world again turns its attention to possible conflict with a near-peer competitor, the robots that competitor showcases will have implications beyond simple counter-insurgency curios.
“Unmanned aerial vehicles have seen extensive use in Russian operations. A growing number of unarmed ground vehicles handle de-mining and surveillance missions,” writes Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. Bendett continues, “That’s why Russia’s decision to display these particular unmanned systems is so interesting. Of the three vehicles Shoigu named, only the unarmed Uran-6 has seen actual operational use, most notably in Syria.”
Why display the robots in the parade now, and those robots in particular? Bendett suggests the inclusion of the Uran-9 may be because of its conventional appearance: it looks like a tank in miniature. With a squat body that’s longer than it is wide, a visible set of tracks on each side, and a turret mounting a large gun on top, Uran-9 is as familiar as it is alien, a constant form easing the viewer an acceptance of the robot. Sure, there’s no person inside directing the vehicle, but people roughly know what a tank does.
What does the Uran-9 do? That’s harder to say. Promotional video shows it driving through walls and rings of fire. It is controlled remotely, which implies some degree of human input into how the little robot tank operates, but the degree of that input is unclear. Is the Uran-9 aiming its weapons automatically? Is it selecting targets? Is it tracking targets and then waiting for a human to give the go-ahead to shoot, or is the human monitoring it while the robot makes those decisions on its own?
“The director of the company that makes Uran unmanned ground vehicles recently stated that humans will have final decision on when and how to fire weapons,” Bendett wrote in 2017, “thereby preventing “robots rebelling against operators due to programming errors.”
Autonomy may not be on display in the parade; it is, after all, hard to show code working under the hood, and given the problems unarmed self-driving vehicles have had in the civilian world, safe to bet that Uran-9s on parade will be remotely piloted. But that autonomy could very well be part of the capability suggested, and eventually deployed in the vehicle. When the Uran-9 rolls down the route, it will be a reminder that the questions of autonomous weapon systems, the place of the human in the decision process and the degrees of autonomy, are hardly questions for the Pentagon alone.