WASHINGTON — The Russian military is more technologically advanced than the U.S. realized and is quickly developing artificial intelligence capabilities to gain battlefield information advantage, an expansive new report commissioned by the Pentagon warned.
The federally funded Center for Naval Analyses examined the Kremlin’s whole-of-government approach for artificial intelligence development and found it is largely driven by the perceived threat from the United States, combined with lessons learned from its continuing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine about what the future battlefield will look like, the report released Monday said.
However, the Russian government faces limitations because its AI efforts are primarily government funded, and it lacks a strong defense industrial base, noted the report, written on behalf of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. Still, analysts cautioned Pentagon leadership not to underestimate the Russia’s technological advances as the U.S. pivots its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific. The Russian military has been undergoing modernization since 2009.
“This is a very different military, qualitatively especially, and they are trying to be flexible in ways that we don’t give them credit for,” said Sam Bendett, a co-author and research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “This is a different military than the ones that existed prior to 2009 and going forward it’s going to become more high tech [and] more integrated. It’s going to be more flexible. It’s going to use different approaches to try and gain that advantage.”
Focusing on information advantage
Russia is heavily focused on developing information management tools to provide soldiers with maximum access to relevant data in war and keep them safe, the report found after analyzing open-source Russian government statements, Russian officials’ writings and legal documents about artificial intelligence. According to that research, Russian military strategists have placed a premium on “information dominance on the battlefield” and view AI-enabled technologies as the key to achieving that goal.
It’s a different approach than tactics of the past for Russia, which struggled to “see” the battlefield and rather relied on “brute force” with its arsenal of tanks and artillery, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior research scientist at CNA and report co-author. Among the 258-page report’s extensive findings, he warned that the Russian military’s desire to build AI and autonomy for information dominance, including for electronic warfare and space-based tools, should concern the Pentagon most.
For “the Pentagon’s plan on fighting with the Russians, that’s something to think about,” Edmonds said. It needs to “eschew the older mindset of the Russians just pounding you with artillery and tanks. They’re going to do that but in a much more efficient way that’s much more integrated.”
The Russian military has AI initiatives to improve command and control and decision-making; early warning and air defense; and training, logistics, maintenance and procurement — from the tactical level to the strategic planning level in Moscow.
The Russian government is using artificial intelligence to analyze changing geopolitical events using data from previous global armed conflicts, the report found. Operationally, its military is trying to link platforms across different military branches to share information in order to “to better coordinate forces and make faster decisions,” similar to the Pentagon’s new joint war-fighting concept known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
Russia perceives that the U.S. will sow domestic unrest in its country by trying “to undermine Russian authorities and create instability within Russia to foment political change, leading to a justification for U.S. military action,” the report read. That view of how the U.S. could attack is driving technology investment in many areas, including global event analysis.
An air assault from the United States is one of its biggest security fears for the Kremlin, hence its investments in AI technologies for early-warning systems and air defense. Its military strategists believe the processing power of AI will allow air defense systems to more quickly monitor, detect and respond to any aerial attack.
“Russia is trying to understand what the Americans are up to or what the NATO is up to,” Bendett said. “So NATO and the United States are very much in focus. And a lot of the Russian efforts in AI, military autonomy are actually geared towards how can they best counter the U.S. threat perception.”
Autonomous systems and future war
The story is similar for Russia’s perception of the future of autonomous weapons, another area where it’s investing. The CNA analysis found substantial debate over the ethics and future of autonomous weapons and having a human “in the loop” of the decision cycle. Russia’s military views completely autonomous weapons as an “inevitability” based on its perceptions of U.S. and China that the systems will become fully autonomous.
“This is part of the overall Russian security mindset about the United States … that where we have an advantage, we’re just going to keep pushing,” Edmonds said.
The Russian military is “heavily emphasizing” investments in autonomy for aerial, ground and maritime unmanned and robotic platforms. Bendett and Edmonds said that the Russian military views robots as a future replacement for soldiers and an important avenue to saving lives of its war-fighters in the future.
Russia’s conflicts in Syria and Ukraine have been a proving ground for its development of AI and autonomous weapons because the military has learned how to manage information better. By July 2018, the Russians flew 23,000 UAV missions with 140,000 flight hours, the report noted, used primarily for short- and mid-range ISR. Still, Russia lacks a “true combat UAV capable of striking targets.” In Ukraine, CNA found the Russian military used drones for reconnaissance and artillery spotting.
The Russian military is exploring the use of drones for several battlefield applications, including ones that can attack enemy ships or pass information to other platforms in the maritime domain. Its development of underwater unmanned systems that can attack U.S. ships or submarines is another area that Edmonds said the Pentagon should “keep a close eye on.”
The country’s forces also are considering drone swarming capabilities for land operations, particularly for urban warfare, in addition to drone swarms for aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare and ground strikes for air warfare. Additionally, attacks by drone swarms on Russian bases in Syria led the Kremlin to invest in countermeasures. For example, its military used AI tools to study terrain around its bases to predict the most likely incoming drone route.
“The combination of the use of different types of uncrewed and unmanned systems, along with a countermeasures against those systems, is going to be where Russians will put a lot of their research, development, testing and evaluation emphasis going forward,” Bendett said.
There remains an ongoing debate in the Russian government over the role of humans in autonomous weapons. The Russian Ministry of Defense “appears” to be developing plans for AI-enabled robotic systems that can operate without human control, the report stated, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that AI-enhanced weapons will decide the future of war but will be controlled by humans and viewed as “faithful servants.”
“What appears missing from the conversation is a way to balance the two views. It is not clear in Russian military thinking where human control would end and where independent AI-enabled action would begin,” the report stated.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.