Efforts to develop AI in the Russian military

This blog entry is written by CNA Russia Program team member Sam Bendett to highlight the current Russian efforts to develop artificial intelligence.

On September 1, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew attention of the international high-tech and military community by stating that the country that gets to master artificial intelligence (AI) will “get to rule the world.” He also remarked that artificial intelligence is “humanity’s future.” Although the size and scale of overall investment on AI development in Russia is small relative to American or Chinese efforts, Russia’s private sector spending in this field is projected to increase significantly in the coming years. Russia may represent only a fraction of global investment in developing AI, but the government is seeking to marshal national resources to make the country one the “AI superpowers” of the future.

The majority of Russian AI development plans are long-term, with intellectual and technical capital organized into several lines of effort. Many of these projects are done under the auspices of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) and its affiliate institutions, research centers, and industrial conglomerates. Several efforts merit closer attention – they may determine whether the government proves successful in engaging the national resource base for breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence:

    • The Foundation for Advanced Studies (FAS – Фонд перспективных исследований (ФПИ)) was established in October 2012 by presidential decree to serve as Russia’s equivalent to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency). The purpose of the Foundation is to “promote the implementation of scientific research and development in the interests of national defense associated with developing and creating innovative technologies.” FAS scientists and researchers are already working on several artificial intelligence and unmanned technology projects.

    • The “Era” military innovation technical city, or “technopolis,” was recently established on the Russian Black Sea coast. This technopolis will be financed by attracting funds from the Foundation for Advanced Studies, as well as from the private investors and enterprises and scientific organizations of the country’s military-industrial base, with the aim to develop defense technologies and innovations, including AI. One of “Era”’s defining characteristics would be its attempt at flexible, start-up style development with the aim of achieving technological results quickly and efficiently.

    • The MOD, together with other Russian government agencies, is hosting annual forums titled “Artificial Intelligence: Problems and Solutions” that aim to discuss domestic AI developments and review international achievements in that field. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has called for Russian civilian and military designers to join forces to develop artificial intelligence technologies to “counter possible threats in the field of technological and economic security of Russia.” This initiative’s most notable result is the publication of the ten-step recommendation “roadmap” for expanding AI research in Russia that outlines public-private partnerships and short to mid-term developments such as education, the establishments of various technical standards, along with specific tasks for the country’s military. One of the roadmap’s most important proposals is to establish a National Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI), which would provide a national focus for the use of AI. The NCAI could assist in the “creation of a scientific reserve, the development of an AI innovative infrastructure, and the implementation of theoretical research and promising projects in the field of artificial intelligence and IT technologies.” The Russian Academy of Sciences joined the Foundation for Advanced Studies in putting forth the proposal for the creation of this new center.

Currently, the Russian military is working on incorporating elements of AI in its electronic warfare, missile, aircraft and unmanned systems technologies, with the aim of making battlefield decision-making and targeting faster and more precise. Russian policy makers and military designers are working on integrating elements of AI in unmanned swarm, counter-UAS, and radar warning systems to bolster the nation’s security. In the civilian sector, Russian AI work is focused on image and speech recognition, as well as neural networks and machine learning – achievements that may also be incorporated into the military down the line. The MOD is looking to use AI in data and imagery collection and analysis, seeking to gain certain advantages in the speed and quality of information processing. Another defining characteristic of the current Russian AI efforts is the relative absence of ethics discussion related to the use of artificial intelligence, as the military and society appear to be in agreement that achieving pragmatic results first is paramount to other considerations.

The Russian military’s effort to develop AI has medium to long term implications for the US and its partners. Today, the Russian government and its military are trying new and innovative approaches to advanced technology developments that may yield results relatively quickly, as the Russian President and the MOD are in sync when it comes to understating the need for their nation’s military and industry to improve qualitatively. Developing Artificial Intelligence is one of the ways Moscow intends to compete with Washington as equals – an effort that merits close and deliberate attention.

Russia Races Forward on AI Development

The recent 2017 statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that whoever masters AI will get to rule the world should be interpreted as a recognition of Russia’s current place in this unfolding technology race, and of the need by the nation’s government, private sector, and the military to marshal the needed resources to persevere in this domain. This is already beginning to happen. The Russian government is increasingly developing and funding various AI-related projects, many under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and its affiliated institutions and research centers. All this government activity has apparently infused many Russian developers with new confidence. Indeed, some are claiming that AI may arrive in just a few years’ time. It is even engendering hope that the country might at long last develop an infrastructure for turning theoretical knowledge, long the strength of its scientific community, into practical solutions. There are in fact practical developments in the Russian military-industrial complex that seek to incorporate certain AI elements in existing and future missile, aircraft, electronic warfare (EW), unmanned systems, and other tech. Russians also expect AI to help automate the analysis of satellite imagery and radar data, by quickly identifying targets and picking out unusual behavior by a enemy ground or airborne forces.

However, based on the available evidence, Western militaries need not be immediately alarmed about the arrival of AI-infused Russian weapons with next-generation capabilities — except, perhaps, in the field of EW. Western and Chinese efforts are currently well ahead of Russian initiatives, in terms of funding, infrastructure, and practical results. But the Russian government is clearly aiming to marshal its existing academic and industrial resources for AI breakthroughs — and just might achieve them.

Read more here: Defense One

For the first time, Russia is showcasing unmanned military systems at a military parade

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.