While Russia is engaged in irregular wars in Ukraine and Syria, the nation also gathered roughly 50,000 troops to practice a conventional war in the country’s eastern military district. Some of that wargame includes new and novel uses of robots, drones, and electronic warfare. Underpinning it all is a nation practicing the logistics of modern war, in a way it hasn’t done before.
“This was also command and control exercise to see whether new Russian technologies will be utilized to properly manage these forces,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “The Russian military is in the midst of a massive shift from C2 or C3 to C4ISR technologies.”
If the defining characteristic of 20th century militaries was the mechanization of movement, then the 21st century is about the mechanization of perception, with sensors seeing everything across the electromagnetic spectrum. The greatest impact of this change is the modern command paradigm, that incorporates information gleaned from across the spectrum into new new decisions and adapts in near-real-time.
This future is unevenly distributed; military radio communications and interception predate World War I, sonar and radar were both used in World War II and continuously refined afterwards, and satellite surveillance is decades old, though it took time to transition from ejected film canisters to electronically processed information. C4ISR as a concept didn’t take off until the mid-1990s, a time when the latest trends in military sensor impacts on command and control was not at the forefront of the minds of Russian military planners.
If Russia is still playing catch-up to the United States in C4ISR, the Vostok wargames are an example of closing the gap. Shifting troops into place across the relatively less developed far east is part of that, as is the use of drones for real-time surveillance during exercises. And if the raw mechanics of moving assets into place are somewhat underwhelming as a revelation for a major military exercise, the exercise also included the use of robots providing overwatch for other robots.
Both the Uran-6 de-mining vehicle, and the Uran-9 robotic tanklet, played a role in the Vostok exercises. The Uran-6 has a fairly reliable history of workhorse like performance. The Uran-9, despite a high-profile debut in Syria, appears to have not lived up to the hype.
“Uran-9′s presence was actually surprising. I didn’t expect that, especially after reports of its performance in Syria,” says Bendett. “The exercise basically said the Uran-6′s are going to go in along with other units and try to de-mine something while Uran-9 is going to cover their advance. It’s unclear whether the Russians have actually worked through the issues encountered in Syria. They probably didn’t because they didn’t have the time.”
The changes to the Uran-9 that we can infer are the addition of rapid fire small caliber cannons, in addition to its existing armament, and possibly new communications equipment. Given the lower stakes of the wargame than a live fire trial in an actual warzone, it’s possible some mistakes won’t be apparent until future exercises, and we won’t have a scope of what Russia learned until the country completes its own initial assessment of the Vostok wargame in October.
“It is likely that we’ll [see] Uran-9 was probably used in the same capacity as in previous trials and exercises, meaning it would roll up to a position, it would stop, it would fire it’s cannon and then it would continue going firing small arms,” says Bendett. “In other words, it performed exactly as designed prior to going into Syria. I would like to imagine that some of the post Syrian lessons in using this UGV were utilized, but we weren’t given a lot of information.”
Another lesson from Syria that seems to have carried over to the Vostok exercise is the use of cheap, commercial drones, including quadcopters made by China’s DJI. Take a look at that picture from RIA Novosti again. The drone, clearly a DJI phantom model or near-identical knock-off, is foregrounded, but behind him in deep green paint is a mobile station bristling with antennas. Even if its coincidental, it’s a revealing portrait. Drones like this provide real-time aerial surveillance at the lowest possible price point.
“It is possible that this guy could have brought his own drone to the exercise, but that’s unlikely,” says Bendett. “It is unlikely because behind him was an electronic warfare and comms station.”
A communications center like that takes a significant budget to set up, and understands the electromagnetic spectrum as a domain worth contesting. Incorporating cheap commercial tech into that war plan suggests the value here outweighs the risks, or at least that including it in the Vostok exercise was a way to determine that.
“Russians are now being very careful with how soldiers use personal technologies,” says Bendett. “They’re banning use of social media. They’re banning use of smartphones. I think DJI and some of the other drones are an exception rather than the rule. But it is interesting to see that they’re using something that they can get their hands out right away. Something that’s already proven itself and something that they may have actually have encountered in Syria.”
Electronic warfare systems are both a major part of modern Russian warfighting and also the Vostok exercise, with most of the country’s electronic warfare machines reported as part of the exercise. One of those systems, called the Leer-3, consists of cell phone jammers on a trio of Orlan-10 drones and connected to a ground control station.
“They're also gaming out the lessons learned in Syria in the combined operation of EW and radar and anti aircraft forces,” says Bendett. “Basically an identify, jam, shoot down principle. That's what they used Syria. And so the EW forces and anti-aircraft forces are probably going to be much closer and more coherent in the future as they game out kind of what they learned in Syria.”
We will know more about Vostok in the weeks and months to come, both as Russia releases official summaries of the exercise and as open-source analysts piece together what they’ve gleaned from observation. Already, satellite images show the formations fielded. The robots are novel, and may lead to future discovery, but the heart of the exercise is the more subtle art of simply moving people into place, and then having the information infrastructure to make sure they can adapt as new intelligence comes in. Practicing robot warfare without a C4ISR backing isn’t just illogical. It’s illogistical.
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.