Strength in Numbers: Russia and the Future of Drone Swarms

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Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

April 27, 2021 | Originally published by Modern War Institute on April 20, 2021

Numerous militaries, including that of the United States, are now developing and conceptualizing drone swarms—groups of uncrewed systems working together to overcome air or ground defenses, acquire and strike multiple targets at once, and create confusion among defending forces. The use of drones in recent and ongoing conflicts in SyriaYemen, and Nagorno-Karabakh has underscored the significance and utility of mass application of unmanned and autonomous vehicles. Such swarms also force the adversary to expend munitions and other military resources, thus signaling positions in a way that enables further precise attacks or electronic countermeasures. The Russian military is also working on developing swarms of robotic systems in the air, on the ground, and at sea. Some of these projects are close to reality and will likely be available to directly challenge Moscow’s opponents in the near future. In short, allowing Russian forces to gain such an advantage via numerous uncrewed systems cooperating with their regular forces across multiple domains would have dramatic consequences for any military force that confronts them on the battlefield.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) and its affiliated institutions and organizations have, in fact, discussed swarm and group use for autonomous and robotics systems for a number of years. The main logic behind the mass fielding of military robotics—and one Russian military leaders have acknowledged—is to take soldiers out of dangerous frontline tasks and replace them with expendable robotic systems. In Syria, Russian military bases and forces were subject to multiple rounds of attacks by groups of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), impressing upon the MOD the utility of such a concept for targeting its own adversaries. As early as 2017, during the annual conference on the “robotization of the Russian Armed Forces” chaired by the MOD, the participants drawn from the military, academia, and the defense industry deliberated the robotic swarm concept. Following its observations on the utility of using robotic systems in Syria, the Russian military launched multiple concept developments for using such technology, including for urban-type warfare and operations that involve light and heavy unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) working together with aerial drones in identifying and striking targets.

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