Drones Race: Rise of Military Robots in Russia

By Navy Binning 

Photo: Heron 1 Drone , Creative Commons License

On October 5th 2017, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an international security policy research organization, hosted Sam Bendett, research analyst with the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) for a discussion on Russian military robots. Bendett’s talk was primarily focused on developments in Russian military technology.

The increasing prevalence of military robots gives rise to concerns of international humanitarian law, such as discrimination and proportionality. Most notably, the ability to control military weapons remotely prevents transparency and makes it more difficult to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable.

History of Military Robots in Russia

Bendett began the event by providing a summary of the history and current status of military robots in Russia. During the Cold War, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as “drones”, were used heavily. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s defense sector was hit hard, which impacted UAVs as well.

Russia’s military technology is now behind many nations — including the United States, Israel, and China. As recently as 2008, Russia’s military was in the same condition as it was during the Cold War. A shift began around 2011-12 with Russia placing a greater emphasis on technological advance in the military. In 2014, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia planned to spend up to 9 billion USD on military robotic developments through 2020.


Russia currently operates many UAVs. Most of the UAVs are small and simplistic and used for information gathering, observation, electronic warfare, communication, and target acquisition. Additionally, Russia has a number of mid-to-long range UAVS that are used primarily for targeting and have ranges of up to 120 kilometers.

An increase in interest in UAVS and support from the government has led to a recent resurgence of development of UAVs in Russia. Several programs of various levels of progress and sophistication are currently underway in Russia.

Russian UAVs in combat have already been observed in Ukraine and Syria. In Syria, these have primarily been used as target acquisition, frequently to increase precision of artillery strikes. Russia has reported an increased effectiveness as a result of the use of UAVs in combat.

1) Ukrainian forces have responded by turning to United States-supplied drones.  
2) The United States has previously aided Ukraine by supplying drones for self-defense. Whether this will continue under the Trump administration, which seeks to improve ties with Russia, is unclear.
3) Ukraine has responded to this threat with attempts to improve its own UAVs. These have been complicated due to high purchase costs and a corrupt government. Ukraine is instead turning to innovative solutions, including a public crowd-funding project to purchase UAVs and a crowd-funded start-up that aims to build new UAVS.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) are becoming more prevalent as Russia has placed an emphasis on arctic exploration. Russia is aiming to increase its maritime capabilities so that its technology can move farther from shore and deeper. 

Although Russia does possess UUV technology, it is primarily international.  There is now an attempt to replace these with domestic models in the next several years. Most of the technology is in the testing and evaluation stages.

This technology includes UUVs that can be used for surveillance, search and rescue duties lasting up to 6-9 months, and repair services. Additionally, a drone that can imitate and re-produce enemy vessels’ fields is being developed.

There is also development of a nuclear capable submarine. Last year, a nuclear submarine that posed a threat to US harbors and ports was tested, but little information has arisen since.

Other technologies

Other technologies being developed include a virtual battlefield to test military robotics and drones, an incredibly powerful computer that will be able to control air and sea military robots, and unmanned ground vehicles.

The Future of Russian Military Technologies

For many years, Russian military technologies were developed by a number of different and uncoordinated organizations. In recent years, this has changed as Russia aims to streamline its development. In 2014, the Minister of Defense established the Creation of Perspective Military Robotics Program and formed a commission for the development of robotics. In 2016, Russia also launched an annual conference called the Robotization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Russia is working with a number of organizations, including research institutes and higher education entities, to create a uniform approach to military development and set a framework for research and developments to be undertaken. By drawing upon the nation’s industrial, technological, and intellectual potential, Russia is working towards creating a completely new armed force that will be able to further advance Russian foreign policy goals on an international scale. As President Putin recently declared — “Whoever masters [artificial intelligence] will get to rule the world”.

Should readers wish to view Sam Bendett’s talk in full, an online recording can be found here.