Paper

From the Frontlines to the Future: Assessing Emerging Technology in Russia's Invasion Strategy and NATO's Next Moves

| Dec. 20, 2023

Executive Summary

This paper provides an overview of how emerging technology (ET) is shaping Russian armed forces conduct in the invasion of Ukraine and the specific lessons the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) can draw from the current state of play.

On offense, Russian ET use has indeed predominantly been with UAVs, but claims of sophisticated and innovative employment of drones throughout the conflict overstating the capabilities of Russian forces. On defense, Russia’s response to Ukraine’s ET operationalization has spanned the full spectrum, from advanced electromagnetic warfare, to oftentimes using low-tech tactics to counteract high-tech ET.

The predominant game changing ET thus far on both sides of the battlefield has been Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which sit at the intersection of AI, next-generation communication networks and energy propulsion technology. While our analysis focuses heavily on UAVs, we do examine other ET pathways- including Russia’s failed operationalization thus far of hypersonics and sensor fusion in the Sukhoi SU-57.

Given Russia’s offensive and defensive employment of ETs, we then examine the impact of ETs on Russia's overall calculus of the war. We see two major elements defining Russia’s calculus both at the strategic and tactical level: employment of forces and lack of air superiority. ETs had limited impact on either of these major elements, and the primary cumulative role of emerging technology for Russia has been an extension of the conflict, as both sides experience a transparent battlefield. 


Implications for NATO

Given Russia’s employment of ETs both offensively and defensively we put forth several lessons NATO should consider, grounded in the key takeaway that the war remains a largely conventional fight where mass is critical:

Revisit hi-tech to hi-tech assumptions - The West often assumes that ET requires a commensurate hi-tech ET response.  Given the supply chain pressures put forth by the sanctions regime on Russia, the Russian military forces are innovating across the entire spectrum of technology options, oftentimes using low-tech tactics to counteract high-tech ET. To that end, Russia has identified simple solutions - like tires on strategic aircraft for protection from kamikaze drones. Moving forward ET responses need to fully account for Russia’s ability to counteract ET weaponry with low-tech, easy-to-mitigate responses, especially in conjunction with conventional means.

ET means sustained conflict - Changing warfare with increased battlefield transparency brought by ET is leading to longer sustained conflicts of attrition. Both sides have visibility into the enemy, and NATO needs to prepare for a years long war in Ukraine because of this. Furthermore, a long war at this point plays into Russia’s hands as support degrades and the world shifts to the next crisis. Ukraine needs to effectively employ multi domain operations (MDO) to connect effects across domains for any hope of breaking a stalemate. 

Lagging indicator - ET is dynamic and hardware coming online could have a significant impact. Even if certain aspects of Russian ET are not a concern at the moment, it is important to be prepared for the possibility of the future. Russia has lost a significant volume of hardware in the conflict; the Russian armed forces will likely look strikingly different in six to ten years and ET will play an increasing role. This is especially true with Russia using ETs to adapt legacy equipment for the future battlespace.

Seek out cost-effective defenses against planned ET - Ukraine needs affordable and rapidly implementable ways to defend itself against the Shahed-136, which Russia is planning to employ en masse. RUSI identified, “one option could be compact radar and/or laser ranging and sighting systems to allow numerous existing anti-aircraft guns to be much more accurate and effective against them”.[i] Moving forward, Russia will seek out recycle/reuse/repurpose opportunities given the high churn of UAV warfare and supply chain crunches, incentivizing UAVs that have higher versatility, reparability and reusability.

Examine the role of civilian competence for ET scaling - Unlike Ukraine, Russia does not possess a counterpart to the citizen-sourced Aerorozvidka ecosystem that Ukraine’s drone operations draws heavily from for innovative UAV tactical adjustments on the battlefield. Whereas Ukrainian forces have been able to lean on volunteer and hobbyist civilian counterparts to test out different UAV iterations, small tactical units within the Russian forces have been left to conduct their own testing on commercial drones, sans civilian collaboration. Ukraine’s competitive advantage is in innovation and flexibility, but if Russia can fuse the military industrial complex with civilian agency, Russia’s model may be more scalable at mass production on a tactically relevant timeline. 

The future of Russian ETs - Three elements characterize the future picture of Russia’s employment of ETs. (1) Russia is looking for specific asymmetric advantages because they know they cannot compete across the board with NATO. These asymmetric advances will likely be concentrated in ETs within hypersonics, space, and subsurface. (2) With the rise of gray zone conflicts globally, Russia will seek to leverage ETs not just for asymmetric advantages against NATO, but in non-traditional combat spaces. Layering of ETs will increase Russia’s effectiveness in destabilization efforts while avoiding full scale military engagement. (3) Dual use ETs will further assist to blur the lines, and assist in deniability. Russian advances in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), although yet to make an impression on the war in Ukraine, provide one such datapoint of an upcoming ET that will assuredly be dual purpose and capable of augmenting gray zone conflicts.     


[i]  Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds, and Jack Watling, “The Russian Air War and Ukrainian Requirements for Air Defence,” RUSI, 7 November 2022, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/special-resources/russian-air-war-and-ukrainian-requirements-air-defence.


 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Jones, Grace, Armughan Syed and Sydney Hansen. “From the Frontlines to the Future: Assessing Emerging Technology in Russia's Invasion Strategy and NATO's Next Moves.” Paper, December 20, 2023.

The Authors