Before the future of war is realized on battlefields, it is shaped in laboratories and practice ranges. As Russia’s Ministry of Defense iterates design around the Marker unmanned ground vehicle, the Ministry of Defense is learning the opening plays of future robot battles. In the first half of 2020, Russia is expected to test robot swarms, guided by humans, and armed, in exercises that will inform how, exactly, the country prepares for the robot wars of tomorrow.

In late November, “President Putin called for the Russian military and defense industry to develop more ISR and combat UAVs, as well as other unmanned military systems.” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “There is a clear signal from the Russian government that military robotics will become more and more essential in future conflicts, concurrent with the development of AI that can presumably guide such systems in combat.”

Testing that AI in the spring will center around the Marker robot, though it will not exclusively rely on the platform. The tests will likely involve groups of five platforms, which will feature the Marker but also the Kungas family of unmanned ground vehicles. Coordinated together, these robots would represent the first swarms of ground robots tested by Russia.

Russia press reported in November that sources in the defense industry see the primary occupation of battlefield robots as a countermeasure to armed autonomy on the battlefield.

“The article alludes to Russian robots fighting adversary robots,” said Bendett.

The Kungas platforms, which range from a human-portable small robot through medium-sized variants and up to a robotic control scheme that can go in full-sized combat vehicles, can all be controlled by the same console, simultaneously. With multiple robots on the same network, the vision is that a Kungas controller can direct all of those robots on the same mission, inverting the ratio of humans needed to guide robots into action.

“There is also the possibility of equipping Marker-based robots with a grenade launcher module and/or 120 mm mortars,” said Bendett, a a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “The last part is a significant change from the current large-caliber gun used on Russia's biggest UGV - Uran-9. That UGV is equipped with a 30mm gun and light machine guns.”

The testing in spring will likely feature the Marker UGV in fully autonomous mode, though with a human on the loop to monitor it in action. Specifically, humans may be involved in helping with targeting changes for the Marker as the robot learns to tell targets apart from its surroundings.

“Fielding a UGV lineup that can bust out 120mm mortars creates a significant mission multiplier for the ground forces, assuming a proper mechanism is worked out for coordinating unmanned and manned formations,” said Bendett, “These future UGVs will become part of the Russian military’s concept of operations after 2025.”

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.

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