BY TOM O’CONNOR ON 5/24/21 AT 5:36 PM EDT
Russia is developing an array of autonomous weapons platforms utilizing artificial intelligence as part of an ambitious push supported by high-tech cooperation with neighboring China.
The extent to which Russia has prioritized AI in modernizing its military was featured in a report entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy in Russia,” which was published Monday by the CNA nonprofit research and analysis group located in Arlington, Virginia.
The report’s authors worked closely with the Pentagon‘s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to produce what the organization called “the first major piece of US research that articulates contemporary Russia’s main initiatives, achievements, and accomplishments in AI and autonomy efforts and places those initiatives within the broader technological landscape in Russia.”
“Russian military strategists have placed a premium on establishing what they refer to as ‘information dominance on the battlefield,'” the report stated, “and AI-enhanced technologies promise to take advantage of the data available on the modern battlefield to protect Russia’s own forces and deny that advantage to the adversary.”
While there are significant challenges and some reservations toward ceding critical decision-making capabilities to artificial intelligence and away from human minds, trends clearly signal that Russian efforts to introduce these advanced capabilities are well underway. And critical input is coming from China, which the report identified as “the key partner for Russia in the sphere of high technology in general and artificial intelligence in particular.”
This cooperation, part of a broader strategic partnership fostered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, has only strengthened despite efforts by the United States to target its top near-peer competitors with various sanctions.
Samuel Bendett, who served as an adviser for the report and is a member of the CNA Center for Autonomy and AI, said much of Moscow and Beijing’s collaboration took place outside of the defense sector.
At the same time, their growing military ties have opened the door for more comprehensive work together.
“Most of the effects of this relationship are seen in the civilian sphere—in the high-tech sector and academic cooperation in R&D space,” Bendett told Newsweek. “At the same time, there is evidence of growing bilateral contacts in the military in general, such as the participation in strategic-level exercises such as Vostok, where command and control cooperation took part.”
As an example of the heightened level of trust between two countries who have a history of feuds in past decades dominated by complex Cold War politics, he highlighted Russia’s work in helping China build an early warning system for missiles.
The prospect of incorporating AI here “bears watching, as both countries seek to bolster their C4ISR [an acronym referring to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities], and as both nations announce a growing number of bilateral military exercises and drills,” Bendett said.
But as the joint projects enshrined in Putin and Xi’s historic pact accelerate, senior research scientist Jeffrey Edmonds notes it’s becoming more difficult to discern exactly what the two powers are actually doing.
From the Russian perspective, the rapprochement between the two countries has been one of the most consistent trends in Russian foreign policy for several decades,” Edmonds told Newsweek. “What we are seeing is that defense cooperation is deepening, but also seemingly becoming more secretive.”
RUSSIAN FOUNDATION FOR ADVANCED RESEARCH PROJECTS IN THE DEFENSE INDUSTRY/CNA
Bendett and Edmonds’ report includes a list of some two dozen platforms being developed by the Russian military incorporating some degree of AI or autonomy. These include vehicles based on land, air and sea as well as specialized mines, and even an anthropomorphic robot said capable of dual-wielding firearms, driving cars and traveling to space.
Also listed were AI-linked additions to the Russian military’s information management and decision-making complexes, defense apparatuses and logistics, and training and military manufacturing systems.
The report came just days after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the country had begun manufacturing robots with autonomous militarized capabilities.
“The serial production of combat robots has begun,” Shoigu said during Friday’s Knew Knowledge online marathon, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. “What has emerged are not simply experimental, but robots that can be really shown in science-fiction films as they are capable of fighting on their own.”
He also referenced the development of “what is called tomorrow’s weapons,” for which he said “large-scale work is underway.”
Perhaps most notable among Russia’s transforming arsenal is the array of nuclear-capable weapons Putin introduced in a fiery March 2018 speech touting technology that could outsmart and outmaneuver even the world’s most advanced defense systems. These include the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, the torpedo-armed Poseidon underwater unmanned vehicle and the Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile.
The CNA report discussed the varying degrees to which these platforms have been said to also include AI and automated features, making them even more dangerous while adding new development hurdles toward fielding such capabilities. Given the relatively limited economic resources available to Russia, these challenges are not insignificant, as the report notes.
And while CNA cites a recent Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology report saying that revenue generated by AI-related activity in Russia was growing at a rate 10 times faster than the country’s GDP, this number paled in comparison to that of China, which was funding AI research at a level 350 times higher than that of Russia, and was second only to the U.S. in employment in the AI sector.
This is just one of many areas in which the two countries have found mutual interest and opportunity.