On April 18, 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that this year’s military parade in Moscow that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII will feature new and advanced weaponry. Specifically, he noted that for the first time ever, “the Uran-9 combat multifunctional robotic system, the Uran-6 multipurpose mine-clearance robotic vehicle and Korsar short-range drones” will be showcased along other land and air weapons.
This announcement is momentous. Victory Day parades are back in fashion in Russia, after a brief hiatus from the annual military pageantry of the Soviet days. At the parade itself, the latest and legacy technologies are displayed – from WWII-era tanks to the latest combat vehicles, missiles and airplanes. All technology displayed on parade was/is in regular use, so it was probably just a matter of time before Russians started showing off their unmanned military systems.
Over the past several years, Russian Federation has made great strides in developing a wide variety of unmanned aerial, ground and sea/underwater vehicles. Of these, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have seen extensive use in Russian operations, along with a growing number of unarmed ground vehicles (UGV) for demining and ISR missions. That is why Russia’s choice to display these particular unmanned systems is so interesting – of the three vehicles named, only unarmed Uran-6 has seen actual operational use, most notably in Syria. Uran-9 has been undergoing testing and evaluation by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and this particular UGV, given its PR-ready look of a small-scale tank, has been shown extensively at various domestic and international exhibitions. Moreover, Korsar UAV is a virtually unknown vehicle – back in 2015-2016, there were announcements that its production would commence in 2017 – however, the manufacturer of this UAV did not seem to start mass production, which is presumed to start this year. In fact, Russia operates an entire flotilla of UAVs that have seen extensive operational use in Ukraine and Syria – short-range Eleron-3, longer-ranged Orlan-10(the most numerous UAV in the Russian military), and long-range Forpost (itself a licensed copy of an Israeli Searcher UAV).
There are other smaller UAVs in Russian service that have been growing in numbers and importance as key mission multipliers for the Russian forces. The absence of these battle-tested and available UAVs is curious, in light of the actual decision to showcase unmanned systems in the first place. On the UGV side, while Russian military in Syria used numerous UGVs for ISR and demining, most were small and may not make for good exhibition owning to their size. Still – Russian military is in fact evaluating two mid-sized UGVs that have underwent extensive trials and are ready to be incorporated into actual use – armed “Soratnik” and “Nerehta.” The absence of these two vehicles from May 9 parade is also curious, given extensive publicity they were getting over the past 24 months. Additionally, Russians have already showcased “Platforma-M” small guard UGV at May 9 Victory parades in Kaliningrad as far back as 2014, and will do so this year as well.Finally, if all the selected unmanned systems would be shown on top of military trucks – instead of a potentially more crowd-pleasing movement on their own – its also interesting that another key unmanned systems will be absent on that day – Orion-E long-range UAV that was unveiled with great fanfare at last year’s military exhibition.
In the end, its up to Moscow to select what its citizens and the international community will be seeing during the parade. The issues concerning the selection of one particular unmanned system over another may have to do with logistics, internal politics or other factors. Still, selecting an unknown UAV over several others that have proven themselves in service is a curious decision. Perhaps Russia is saving these other unmanned vehicles for future parades. And speaking of which – Moscow is in fact a latecomer to showcasing UAS in such a setting. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China and Iran are among the growing number of nations displaying domestic and imported unmanned military systems on military parades. May 9 is definitely not the last time Russia will showcase its unmanned military systems – given how many resources it is dedicating to their design, production and eventual use.
Samuel Bendett is an Associate Research Analyst at CNA and a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.