In the Syrian civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the opportunity for Russia to once again become a diplomatic and military force to be reckoned with on the world stage. Since becoming president first in 2000, Putin has made restoring his country’s luster, lost after the fall of the Soviet Union, a priority.
Another goal was to make money. Specifically, by selling some of the military hardware Russia was showcasing in Syria. It turns out that weaponry includes next-generation robotic systems, some which can operate autonomously. Russian arms makers showed off some of these military technologies in June at a major arms convention in Moscow.
Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian military technologies, told the military trade publication C4ISRNET that many of the models on display at the convention “reflect Russian military experience in Syria,” a sign that Russia is prioritizing unmanned tech. A Russian general, he said, “indicated last year that Syria represented the contours of future war where unmanned and robotic systems were used extensively.”
Bendett told the publication that the manufacturer of one weapon, the Uran-9, claims that tests in Syria highlighted the robotic tank’s flaws and have led to solutions: “In reality, the only way to prove if such issues were solved is to see it in actual combat—so we’ll watch for that.” The event also showcased the Palandin UGV, an armored troop carrier fitted with cannons and machine guns that can operate autonomously.
Even if Russian arms makers and the government are touting experience in Syria as a selling point for robotic weaponry, the country’s arms exports may actually be falling.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank often known by the acronym SIPRI, reported in March that Russian sales were actually down 17 percent in the five-year period ending in 2018 from the previous five years.
That some of the weaponry on display at the trade show is autonomous, indicating that Russia continues to push the ball forward in developing weapons systems that can operate with less and less human input. In that regard, the country isn’t alone. The US Army recently ordered the development of a gun turret that can autonomously find a target, determine if it’s a threat, and aim a 50 millimeter cannon at it. The decision to fire, however, will remain with a human.
Russia, the United States, and a handful of other countries with advanced AI and autonomous weapons technologies are the holdouts against an effort to build consensus at the United Nations on banning so-called lethal autonomous weapons.