An area of profound interest, therefore, is the further development and introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to benefit all arms and branches of service. Indeed, Russian specialists on Robotic Technical Complexes for Military Purposes (Robototekhnicheskiye Kompleksy Voyennogo Naznacheniya—RTK VN), a category under which UAV/UAS development clearly falls, argue that this is not only a vital characteristic of modern warfare. Additionally, RTK VN will revolutionize future military operations through increased automation, reduce risks to personnel, and lower financial costs. How these processes are being managed, the drivers involved, as well as the experience gained in Ukraine and Syria are important factors in understanding the extent to which robotics will play an expanded role in transforming Russian military capabilities (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12).
According to Colonel Sergei Popov, the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Main Scientific Research Center, the development of military robotics was formally launched in 2013. Russia has conducted studies on the introduction of RTK VN in all arms and branches of service in the Armed Forces. Popov noted that the defense ministry is systematically robotizing the equipment and weapons that enter service in the Armed Forces. At the forefront of this interest in robotic complexes is air robotics. In 2017, the number of UAV and UAS assets in service increased by 10 percent year-on-year, to around 2,200; they are employed for reconnaissance, search and rescue, EW, information warfare (IW) and control over the landing of cargo (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 4). While the creation of formal defense ministry and General Staff research centers has aided Russian advances in UAVs, it was boosted more practically by experience in Ukraine and, especially, in Syria (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12).
UAV technology has also been increasingly a topic of debate among Russian aviation specialists. On June 1, for example, the Moscow State Technical University of Civil Aviation hosted a roundtable under the rubric “Operations and Purposes of UAVs.” Industry specialists were joined in discussions by defense ministry experts examining a range of themes, including UAV applications, flight and technical operations, R&D priorities, and the current regulatory framework for drone use (Aex.ru, June 1). Such dialogue is becoming more commonplace and less abstract in its focus.
In May, the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Center in the Moscow region hosted the 3rdMilitary Scientific Conference titled, “Robotization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” bringing together experts, military leaders and industry specialists to discuss the successes and shortcomings of RTK VN. The conference was attended by representatives of the State Military Industrial Commission, officers from all combat arms, various defense departments, the General Staff, research organizations, and members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Industry specialists benefited from this first conference of its kind, which brought together the defense ministry and the General Staff. Conference participants examined a broad range of issues related to UAV development and usage, while senior General Staff officers gave presentations on the use of robotic complexes in strategic armed conflict (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 4).
The role of UAVs in Russian military development is also being tested in organized UAV competitions, with additional “teams” competing from Belarus and Kazakhstan. China and Iran may also eventually participate (TV Zvezda, June 18).
While these structural and organizational aspects have facilitated greater interest among the political-military leadership in RTK VN, it has exponentially leapt forward due to operational experience in Ukraine and Syria. In terms of the combat use of UAVs in each theater, they were deployed to support aerial reconnaissance, to detect the movement of enemy forces, as well as to adjust fire control for artillery and other weapons systems. In Syria, Russian UAVs aided in directing aviation to targets while also assisting in the capacity to conduct operations in real time and to carry out battle-damage assessments (BDA). These theaters offer invaluable opportunities to test systems and experiment with those still in development (TV Zvezda, May 28).
In Syria, one of the UAV development success stories relates to the new Korsar UAV. The Korsar functions as part of a group of UAVs operating under a single ground-control system. Specialists of the Rybinsk JSC KB Luch, part of the holding company RosElektronika, began the development of this UAV in 2012. The defense ministry became interested due to the need to address the issue of the shortage of long-range UAVs in the Armed Forces. Testing during operations in Syria convinced the defense ministry of its value. The Korsar has a mass of 200 kilograms and a maximum speed of 120 kilometers per hour. It cruises at an altitude of more than 5,000 km, beyond the range of most man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). This UAV can easily operate at ranges of 120–180 km, and its range can be increased to 250 km. Significantly, in addition to its reconnaissance role, the Korsar can be equipped with a missile system to destroy targets at a range of up to 6 km. It is one of many Russian UAVs developed based on experience gained in Syria (RIA Novosti, June 1; TV Zvezda, May 28).
The various strands of thinking on robotics and UAVs come together in the work of Russian specialists on RTK VN, who tend to stress the need to create long-range complexes as well as short- and medium-range lighter platforms, and to develop drones acting in concert as a swarm or in coordination with other platforms. These specialists also note the likely growing role of such systems in future warfare. They argue that the presence of UAVs and advances in drone technology in the West means Moscow will need counter-measures in this area (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 12). Among other high-technology factors, the way the Russian military conducts operations continues to transform.
Russian news agencies are reporting that Seoul has asked Russia’s Gazprom to resume talks involving North Korea about the construction of a Russian gas pipeline through the two Koreas. The South Korean government has long been interested in purchasing Russian gas via a north–south pipeline. Indeed, the two sides agreed on a planned route already in 2011, but tensions between the two Koreas put everything on hold. Now, however, the recent warming of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang as well as Trump’s meeting with Kim, Seoul believes, have opened new possibilities (Politikus.ru, June 16).
The projected pipeline would extend 1,100 kilometers, from the Russian border near Vladivostok southward. Some 700 kilometers of it would be on the territory of North Korea. Both countries on the peninsula would benefit from the supply of Russian gas even though South Korea has taken the lead in pushing for the project. Russian observers believe that this project, if realized, would have three positive consequences from Moscow’s point of view. First of all, it would reduce the attractiveness of US-supplied liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the South. Russian gas would be cheaper and, because it would be supplied by pipeline rather than ship, more reliable as well. Second, it would thus diminish the influence of the US while expanding Russia’s own sway not only in each of the Koreas but also in the Asia-Pacific region more generally. And third, it would bind the two Koreas more closely together while giving Pyongyang new economic leverage over the South, thus further reducing the chances for regime change in the North, which Moscow vehemently opposes (Politikus.ru, June 16).
The proposed pipeline is part of a much broader Russian effort to expand economic ties and thus political influence with the two Koreas. Moscow and Seoul recently signed what they call “the Nine Bridges” initiative, calling for expanded trade and investment between Russia and South Korea. And last month, Moscow signed an agreement with Pyongyang intended to expand bilateral trade (including some that is banned under the current international sanctions regime) and investment as well.
These developments have mostly passed under the radar screen of the West, but now they are likely to attract new attention because of an even more dramatic move by Russia yesterday (June 18). Korey Kazbek Taysayev, a Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) deputy from the Communist Party, announced that Vladimir Putin may make a visit to North Korea in the near future, after one by Federation Council (upper chamber) speaker Valentina Matviyenko does so on September 9. “Putin’s visit to North Korea could occur,” he suggests, “after Matiyenko’s, that is, not earlier than the fall.” Indeed, it could link up with a planned Duma delegation visit to Pyongyang on October 12 (Lenta, June 18).
This flurry of diplomatic and political activity follows a June 1 meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong-un and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during which the two announced agreement on a meeting between Kim and Putin at some point in the future. Additionally, Lavrov invited Kim to visit Russia, possibly during the next Eastern Economic Forum meeting in Vladivostok, on September 11–13. That Russian city is just north of the North Korean border, and Kim could easily reach it by train, his preferred method of travel.
Moscow’s moves on both the pipeline and political meetings represent, first and foremost, an effort by Putin to rebuild Russian influence on the Korean peninsula. He is trying to shore up ties to Pyongyang by developing yet another card to play in any upcoming negotiations about denuclearization or cooperation with the South and the US. At the same time, he is expanding Moscow’s relations with Seoul, while the influence of Washington appears to be ebbing.
A broader lesson can be perceived here as well. In many places around the globe—including the two Koreas—Putin can and will respond both to ensure that Moscow has a seat at the table and to frustrate any unilateralism by Washington, however powerful the US may be and however weak Russia’s hand still is.
The public display of the Polonez MLRS coincided with a number of notable events: the 25thanniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between independent Belarus and Azerbaijan, a visit of the Armenian Air Defense Forces’ representatives to Minsk, a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Foreign Ministers Council in Almaty, as well as the visit of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Moscow for the 2018 World Cup, where he was formally introduced to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (1news.az,News.am, Azatutyun.am, June 11; Worldnewsalert.org, June 14).
Although Armenian media earlier reported that Minsk would not sell the Polonez to Baku because of Yerevan’s objection (1in.am, February 7), actually the deal had already been reached during Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov’s visit to Belarus in October 2017 (see EDM, December 12, 2017). The Polonez MLRS is installed on a Belarusian-made truck chassis; but the system uses Chinese A200-type rockets, marketed by China’s Poly Technologies Company. Therefore, logically, Chinese authorization would have been necessary to transfer this missile system to Azerbaijan (Mod.gov.az, April 29, 2018;Belvpo.com, August 25, 2017).
In April, as the so-called “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia was reaching a boiling point (which would culminate in the parliament’s election of Pashinyan as new prime minister, on May 8), the Russian daily Kommersant predicted that Azerbaijan would procure the Polonez specifically to counter Armenia’s arsenal of Russian-supplied Iskander-E short-range ballistic missiles (Kommersant, April 18, 2018). Therefore, while meeting with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka during the Eurasian Economic Council’s session in Sochi, on May 14, Pashinyan tried to discourage Belarus from selling these weapons to Azerbaijan (News.am, May 15). But two days later, in Baku, Defense Minister Hasanov received a delegation of the Belarusian State Military-Industrial Committee to discuss bilateral military-technical cooperation (Mod.gov.az, May 16).
In fact, Minsk initially pursued the Polonez MRLS project in response to Moscow’s refusal to offer Iskanders to Belarus, despite delivering them to Armenia (Kommersant, April 18;Naviny.by, April 22). This month, in an interview with Vzglad.az, Belarusian military expert Sergei Martselev suggested that Azerbaijan may actually have been a co-investor in the Polonez’s development (Vzglyad.az, June 12).
Both the Polonez and the LORA are comparable to the United States’ M142-HIMARS and MGM-140 ATACMS rocket artillery systems as well as the Russian Iskander-E ballistic missile system. The similarities stem from a number of technical characteristics: fire accuracy, invisibility to air-defense systems, warhead mounting flexibility and satellite navigation systems. However, the Polonez, unlike the Iskander, carries more ammunition onboard, which allows each individual battery to deliver a significantly larger number of missiles to the target. Meanwhile, the LORA is fired on a shaped (flattened) flight trajectory with an unspecified supersonic velocity. This artillery missile behavior, when combined with Azerbaijan’s long-range radars and integrated air-defense networks—similar to the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies of Russia and China—could give Baku’s forces the upper hand on the battlefield. The LORA will be difficult to counter, even for Armenia’s well-equipped air-defense network (Military-today.com, accessed June 12, 2018; Armiya.az, February 3, 2018; Armiya.az, Defence-blog.com, June 11, 2018; Thedrive.com, June 21, 2017).
By adding the Polonez and LORA complexes to its artillery and air-defense arsenal—already well-equipped with various advanced Russian, Israeli and Turkish firepower assets—Azerbaijan is pursuing a symmetrical response to Armenia’s offensive missile capability (seeEDM, December 12, 2017; Sputnik.by, June 11, 2018). But even if their missile arsenals are at parity, varying levels of command and control could prejudge the outcome of a potential full-scale war. In an interview with RIA Novosti, last year, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Hasanov again raised the question of who really owns and would be in control of the Armenian Iskanders in a conflict situation—Yerevan or Moscow (RIA Novosti, July 13, 2017). Whereas, more recently, military analyst Alexander Khramchikhin argued, “How specifically this system will be used depends on the tactical and strategic situation” during a war (1news.az, June 14, 2018).
Although, Azerbaijan’s indigenous defense industry can meet certain demands of the Armed Forces, it lacks the high-technology base to domestically produce conventional long-range artillery assets; they are therefore imported from abroad (see EDM, May 21). Azerbaijan has opted to buy Israel’s LORA, instead of the expected purchase of the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems—i.e. an “offensive response” instead of a “defensive approach” to neutralize Armenia’s long-range offensive capabilities created by the Iskanders (see EDM,September 25, 2017; October 5, 2016). Israel has successfully employed the Iron Dome system during several operations. However, due to its “target oversensitivity,” this expensive system can react even to automatic gunfire (Times of Israel, March 26), which is prevalent along the contact line between Azerbaijani and Armenian armed forces.
Azerbaijan’s foreign military deals, including the recent purchases of the Polonez and LORA missile systems, demonstrate Baku’s strategy of seeking more diverse defense partners—something Armenia has been much less successful at achieving. Meanwhile, Yerevan’s expectations that membership in the CSTO would result in some level of deference to or acknowledgement of Armenia’s interests by its alliance partners have largely been frustrated. That reality ultimately attests to Yerevan’s maximalist interests within the alliance, which the CSTO has been unable or unwilling to respond to. Instead of supporting Armenia’s position, CSTO allies Belarus and Russia have both opted to gradually boost their military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan. So far, the new government in Yerevan has chosen not to raise this issue too strongly in public statements. Nevertheless, Armenia may try to challenge the CSTO’s internal dynamics with new radical steps in order to derail Azerbaijan’s foreign defense partnerships in the future.