If the teens of today have a say in it, war in the 2030s may like a lot like war in the 1930s, but with robots sprinkled in. At this week’s Army-2018 military expo in Russia, the Ministry of Defense held a technical contest, and chose to spotlight a design by 14-year-old Yegor Trofimov and a team of fellow students from Kaluga. Their concept is an optionally-crewed tank, complete with scouting drone. The robot itself is novel. Russia’s renewed investment in a student pipeline to a growing defense industry is worth keeping an eye on.
The tank design itself is billed as a T-101. (It appears to be unrelated to the United States’ T101 super-heavy tank concept from the Cold War.) To facilitate normal, remote, and autonomous operations, the students' design uses four separate secure communications channels. The concept tank is armed traditionally, with machine gun and heavier cannon, and then there is a drone that rides with the tank, ready to scout. The concept is novel enough; an autonomous tank that can send a pair of eyes around the corner of a building or over a hill is a capability commanders might desire in the future.
However, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of vehicles a military will want decades from now. It’s easier to see the kind of minds being cultivated for the job of designing machines for future war. Before Yegor Trofimov, and his team of friends, got to the Army-2018 exposition, they showed their design to a local vehicle-making company, and from that were invited to participate in the exposition.
“The Ministry of Defence is holding competitions among students of various ages to generate new ideas and to get young people interested in emerging hi-tech,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “It’s a safe assumption that this Yegor can have a bright future in the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Recently, Russia has invested a lot more in design competitions for military robots, which can spark interest and guide designers into defense industries. New standards for robot design at civilian and military universities are another way to ensure a steady pipeline of new designers with experience in robotics into the military or military-adjacent industry. And inviting young students to showcase designs at high-profile military conferences is another way to up the prestige of design and the desirability of design as a career.
Before the fall of the USSR, this pipeline from young teen into military designers was encouraged by organizations like Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Fleet. While the context and contours of the current path are different, the desire to start a pipeline of young designers thinking about how to solve problems on the battlefields of tomorrow is apparent. Robot tanks may or may not be a part of that future. Students like Trofimov undoubtedly will.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.