Sam Bendett of the Center for Naval Analysis, Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security, and Jack Watley, PhD, of the Royal United Services Institute, discuss Russian and Chinese artificial intelligence and autonomy capabilities with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted after a panel discussion hosted by CNA at its Northern Virginia headquarters.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Center for Naval Analyses to talk to my good friend Sam Bendett who is one of the world’s leading experts on Russian unmanned combat systems. Sam, Happy New Year and great seeing you again
Sam Bendett: Happy New Year to you as well. Great to see you. I’m happy to be on the videocam.
Mr. Muradian: Busy year, obviously, for the Russians. We ended the year with you forecasting the kind of capabilities that the Russians were going to be fielding. Talk to us a little bit, let’s go across the four major developments over the course of the year.
So give us kind of an update of some of the systems that have gone into effect. We heard about Okhotnik, we’ve talked about Uran-9, we’ve talked about Carnivora which I absolutely love the name. It’s a great name. Giving that a violence the Russians want out of a system. But then also Uran-6 which is sort of the sphere, very, very small hand-held system.
So walk us through from the high end all the way across on these new kind of systems which the Russians have now declared in operational service.
Mr. Bendett: This past couple of weeks we’ve seen the wheeling out and the light of day of Okhotnik or Hunter, unmanned combat aerial vehicle. That’s the system that’s been in development since 2011. Russians have promised that they’re going to flight test it in 2019 and acquire it into military service a couple of years later. So Okhotnik is supposed to be a stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle with a long range. And it’s supposed to be one of the heaviest systems of its kind. It weight up to 20 tons. That means this is something that can carry a lot of weight, it can potentially carry a lot of ammunition.
There’s a big debate over what kind of unmanned combat aerial vehicle it’s going to be. Is it going to be kind of a slow-flying penetrator of enemy airspace? Is it going to be a fast aircraft that does bombing runs?
Right now Russians are testing it out and right now they’re developing the concept of operations for that UCAF.
Now Uran-9, unmanned ground combat vehicle or an armored tank, if you will, was actually tested in Syria last year.
Mr. Muradian: But it hasn’t been declared fully operationally in service, right? That was a developmental prototype unit.
Mr. Bendett: Yes, so that was a prototype. It was taken to Syria and a lot of problems were revealed with that particular design. So practically everything that could have gone wrong with an unmanned vehicle of its kind did. So there were system problems with firing mechanisms, with communication, all kinds of stuff went wrong. So Russians kind of took it back and they publicly revealed that maybe they’re going to develop a new way of using such systems. Maybe not in an independent way as originally designed, but maybe kind of like a kamikaze role, uncovering adversarial hard points and then launching those vehicles so that manned assets can then destroy the adversary.
Mr. Muradian: Which is interesting, right? Because they’re developing the ConOps along with the system now, in parallel.
Mr. Bendett: Correct. So this week we’ve heard that the Kalashnikov Design Bureau which is now overseeing this project is developing the first batch of serial production run lines and it was declared that some of the problems encountered in Syria were actually solved without much detail. So we don’t know exactly what kind of problems were solved and how they’re going to be incorporated into Uran-9. Kalashnikov also aid something interesting, that Uran-9 is a good testing platform for further development.
So maybe the first batch of Uran-9’s that the Russian military will get will be kind of that testing role. So they will use that as a platform on which to test and try out a new way of using unmanned vehicles in combat.
One of the biggest problems that Uran-9 had in Syria was its communication range. It’s designed to have the operator placed at around four kilometers or about 2.5 miles from combat. At a safe distance. But in Syria the operator had to be just a few hundred meters away from Uran-9 which kind of defeated the purpose.
So the question remains, did they actually solve such communication, firing and mechanical problems? Did they solve all of them? Did they solve some of them? And then launched Uran-9 into production so that they can test it further and refine it further.
Mr. Muradian: We’ve got to talk about one of my favorite systems which is Carnivora. So bring the audience up to speed on what the system is and why it’s so significant that now it’s been cleared for operation.
Mr. Bendett: This is a light unmanned aerial vehicle designed to target small unmanned aerial systems. So in Syria, Russians came under fire just like Americans and other forces there, from very cheap commercial, off-the-shelf drones. And so Russians were very keen on developing defenses against such adversarial systems that can sneak past various defense. So they developed an actual drone that can hunt other drones via launching nets and other munitions. So this week they actually tested that out.
Mr. Muradian: Do we have any word on how the tests went? That’s right, it’s not in operational use but it’s still in the developmental phase. But any sense on how those tests went?
Mr. Bendett: The only announcement we have is that this was tested out. And the next phase for Carnivora would be its testing in combat. So presumably it will be taken to Syria just like several hundred other different military designs that Russians have tested out in Syria over the past couple of years.
Mr. Muradian: So now there are also two other systems to talk about, which is Uran-6 which is a larger, an unmanned ground vehicle that’s also in the developmental phase. But also there’s Sphera which is the small hand-held system which you can roll into a room similar to what Israelis have been using for a long time, and also U.S. forces did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Walk us through what’s on the schedule for both of these systems.
Mr. Bendett: So both of these systems have been officially accepted into Russian service, into the demining forces. So those systems were tested in Syria. In fact whenever you would google Russian military in Syria, a picture of an operator and an Uran-9, 6 in the background would actually come up.
Sphera is a baseball sized device with a couple of cameras that you can basically throw in, for example, a collapsed building or wherever there’s rubble to check it out. And it’s a system that’s widely used. In fact in the United States it’s sometimes used for disaster response and for humanitarian assistance.
So Russians have successfully used those unmanned ground vehicles in Syria and now they are part of the Russian demining forces. In fact both are going to be part of the Russian International Demining Center opened outside of Moscow.
Mr. Muradian: And talk to us a little bit about what’s to come, what should the shrewd person who’s watching what the Russians are up to be paying attention to over the next couple of months?
Mr. Bendett: What’s interesting is that the Russians are pressing ahead with incorporating some of these unmanned systems into their ConOps. So concept of operations; tactics, techniques and procedures. So it will be interesting to see how they are going to be using some of those systems used in Syria on the larger scale across its military forces and in various military districts.
How Russians think about the way they will use unmanned ground and aerial combat vehicles will also in some way influence how other forces are going to be using them, because in some ways Russians are a bit ahead of other world powers in incorporating such unmanned systems, especially if they’re armored.
Russians are also designing a lineup of Arctic UAVs to be used in very cold, frigid temperatures. And they’re also pressing ahead with development of other combat ground as well as surface and undersea vehicles as well. So 2019 is going to be a big year. A lot of promises were made by the Russian military and the government that some of these expensive systems are going to be finally tested out and that they should see the light of day. And so this year, in fact, we are going to see some of those long-range, mid-range, and heavy combat systems in the air, on the ground and at sea, going through various trials.
Mr. Muradian: Sam Bendett of the Center for Naval Analyses. Always a pleasure, Sam. Thank you so very much. And looking forward to having you back on soon.
Mr. Bendett: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Vago.