Russian military expert Viktor Murakhovsky warned in state media “there is a myth abroad that Russia lags behind in robotics.” In reality, he claimed, no other army in the world possesses such a diverse range of unmanned vehicles and drones as the Russian Federation. Given recent investments by Putin’s forces in the arena of robotics, this is a situation that appears unlikely to change any time soon.
Mr Murakhovsky said: “Today’s Russian army is the successor of the Red Army, which created remote-controlled tanks back in the 1930s.”
These so-called teletanks, which fought in World War 2, were controlled by operators at a distance of 0.3–0.9 miles by radio waves and were equipped with machine guns, flamethrowers and smoke canisters.
Mr Murakhovsky told Russia Beyond: “After the war, pilotless planes were developed in the USSR, and I was personally involved in the work on remote-control systems for modern tanks.
“Tremendous progress is being made in these areas – and [while] Russia is lagging somewhat in drone technology, in terms of land and sea robots it has the most extensive program in the world.
“The Russian military sees robots being deployed to protect the army’s flanks, guard the rear and perform other tasks, such as storming enemy positions.
“It will be a kind of independent forward echelon that carries out tasks autonomously without human participation, for example, in an urban environment, where battles could result in high losses of personnel.”
Back in September last year, Russia and its close ally Belarus held the latest iteration of its quadrennial joint strategic exercise — titled Zapad-2021 — focused on what Russian General Staff call the “Western strategic direction”.
Zapad typically serves a dual role, combining training exercises with a prominent display of military capabilities for the benefit of the international audience.
This year’s event saw the first drills in which ground robots were deployed in the same formation as soldiers — with machines both firing missiles at various targets and laying down covering fire for human manoeuvres.
Among the automatons involved in these trials was the Uran-9, Russia’s largest robot.
This 12 tonne behemoth is equipped with a 30-millimetre automatic cannon, Ataka anti-tank guided missile launchers and Shmel flamethrowers.
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Zapad-2021 also saw the Russian military field test its newest B-19 infantry fighting vehicle, equipped with its unmanned “Epokha” combat module, which sports a 57-millimetre automatic cannon and Kornet anti-tank guided missiles.
Other demonstrations included three different types of military drone, including the deadly “Lastochka” (literally: “swallow”), Forpost and Inokhodets flying craft.
So-called Platform-M combat robots which feature machine guns and grenade launchers mounted on a caterpillar-track-driven chassis were also put through their paces.
According to Russian pilotless aviation expert Denis Fedutinov, Zapad-2021 was notable not only for its extensive use of unmanned and robotic systems, but also for how such did not even represent the full extent of Putin’s autonomous weaponry.
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For example, Mr Fedutinov noted, the drills featured neither the heavy high-altitude Altius drone and the heavy stealth Okhotnik drone, which were developed to supplement the Forpost and Inokhodets craft.
He said: “The drive to catch up in this area, which led to the creation of a wide basic line of UAV systems, entailed significant financial and time costs, which was a lesson for the Russian, so now it gives high priority to uncrewed developments.”
At the same time, Mr Murakhovsky said, Russia has a comprehensive array of ground-based military robots — covering functions from combat to reconnaissance and support functions.
He added: “In terms of range, Russia has everything from miniature sphere-shaped robots that can be launched by hand on the ground, to heavy complexes like Sturm on a tank-based platform.
“And in terms of payload variety, Russian robots, whether combat or reconnaissance, are in the vanguard.”