When it comes to selling a second generation of war robots, it helps for them to have combat experience. At Russia’s Army 2019 Exposition, where the nation showcases its latest in military hardware, designs ranged from hand-tossed drones to high-flying ISR platforms to optionally manned armored vehicles. On display, too, are claims of machines that saw action in Syria and have been refitted based on lessons learned.
“Kalashnikov is having a field day,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses, referring to the Russian defense company that inherited the brand name of the famous assault rifle. At the Army 2019 expo, Kalashnikov introduced the Lancet short-duration loitering munition (Kalashnikov introduced another suicide drone earlier this year.) In addition, the company announced it will work with the Ministry of Defense to develop an entire lineup of unmanned ground vehicles based on the existing Soratnik UGV.
“It was announced earlier that Soratnik was tested in conditions ‘approximating’ those of Syria,” said Bendett, “and we should not discount the possibility that it was actually in Syria. It will be interesting to see what UGV lineup Kalashnikov will come up with, given great interest from the MOD toward unmanned military systems.”
“Uran-9 ‘supposedly’ was fixed after its 2018 Syrian debacle — its manufacturer claimed earlier that all issues stemming from that test were ‘solved,’” said Bendett. “There have been official announcements that it will be accepted into service. Apparently, following its Syrian debut, it now features a more lethal weapons pack. In reality, the only way to prove if such issues were solved is to see it in actual combat — so we’ll watch for that, if it happens.”
Another way to get new robotic war machines is to convert crewed vehicles into optionally crewed ones. That’s the case with the Paladin UGV, built on the body of the BMP-3 armored personnel carrier and outfitted with cannons and machine guns.
“Official announcements point that it can be remotely piloted or work in an autonomous role, and there are seats for a full crew if that becomes necessary,” said Bendett. The autonomous mode for now suggests waypoint navigation, which is a common autonomous feature of drones. It will be interesting to see what role remote driving plays in the platform’s existing fire support, line breaking, and personnel transportation roles. And, as with any autonomous vehicle built to carry people, if the occupants inside will be comfortable without an onboard human driver.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Russia’s Eniks is displaying the Veer quadcopter. Eniks already makes the Eleron-3 and Eleron-7 fixed-wing drones. The Veer quadcopter will fall into the same roles quadcopters are assuming in regular and irregular militaries across the globe, providing a nimble and simple overhead scout. Veer, in particular, is sold as designed for urban ISR and warfare, drawing from the experience of the Russian military in Syria.
“Russian military districts are now starting to use quadcopters in their CONOPS,” said Bendett, a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, “so this practice is going to grow.”
In the field of discrete fixed-wing drones, Army 2019 showcased an owl-shaped drone straight out of the uncanny valley. While the new model looks at a glance more like a living bird than last year’s cartoonish, styrofoam-bodied predecessor, neither are particularly convincing if observed for more than a second. Still, that second may be enough, if opposing forces aren’t actively looking for robots that vaguely resemble owls.
Animal-shaped machines aside, the overarching theme of Army 2019 is how Russia’s recent conflicts factor into planning for future war.
“Many unmanned systems present reflect Russian military experience in Syria, where a number models like Uran-6 were tested,” said Bendett. “Such technology development also indicates MOD’s growing interest in unmanned tech as the next phase of war. General Gerasimov indicated last year that Syria represented the ‘contours of future war’ where unmanned and robotic systems were used extensively.”
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.