Russia and the Technological Race in an Era of Great Power Competition
September 14, 2021
This paper is part of the CSIS Understanding the Russian Military Today executive education program.
Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) are often perceived as carrying the potential to revolutionize governmental structures, economies, militaries, and entire societies. Russian leadership shares that belief. The Kremlin perceives the ability to innovate as a capability of a great power, helping to achieve the goals in strategic competition. Russia recognizes that EDTs will be fundamental to the country’s overall military deterrence and defense posture and will also allow the regime to increase control over Russian society. Therefore, Russia joining the technological race seems less of a choice and more of an existential necessity for both external and internal reasons.
Trends in the Technological Race
Although a new era of “great power competition” has invited comparisons with the Cold War, today’s strategic competition between the United States, Russia, and China—with multiple simultaneous competitions under different or overlapping sets of rules—is more complex and unpredictable than the previous U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Long-term economic interdependencies coexist with core strategic disagreements, while ideological and institutional contests focus on the making and interpretation of rules and norms. Consequently, the ways and means of engaging in strategic competitions vary from pursuing security and prosperity through cooperative and institutional terms strictly in the economic arena, to sharp political-military competition for power and status. The race for technological superiority is a central pillar of this competition, one that could potentially produce a game-changing, war-winning advantage.
According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 2020 assessment, eight technologies will become major disruptors by 2040: data, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, space capabilities, hypersonic weapons, quantum, biotechnology and human enhancement, and novel material and manufacturing (NMM). These will play a crucial role in future warfighting and in building forces that can decisively operate across multiple domains. Cutting-edge technologies increase the efficacy of existing weapons systems and add new ones—such as cyber—which can amplify a country’s military power and thus geopolitical power. EDTs will affect the very foundations of deterrence strategy and strategic stability that shape political and military relationships between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.
The current technological race is characterized by seven trends that will define global economic transition, military transformation, and crisis escalation. First, exponential increases in the power of computer processors will add more computing power over the next decade than in all of human history combined. This has implications for the military as increasingly sophisticated algorithms (machine learning) will exploit the growing availability of digital content (big data) in a much faster manner and potentially further reduce the role of humans.
Second, software will steadily reshape the technological race. The modern combat soldier is embedded in a web of software that provides intelligence, communications, logistics, and weapons guidance. Intelligence agencies do large-scale data mining with software to uncover and track potential threats. In particular, this happens due to ongoing developments in the field of deep neural networks.
A neural network is essentially a computer program with hundreds of millions of virtual components connected by virtual wires. These virtual wires have different connection strengths. Neural networks can help measure next-generation AI and machine learning algorithms’ reliability, which can be applied in command and control systems, precision fire, and decision support systems. Moreover, neural networks enhance detection capabilities, such as the autonomous underwater vehicles that are equipped with synthetic aperture sonars used for mine detection.
Third, the proliferation of portable electronic devices alters the battlefield. They are the fundamental components of numerous systems such as radar, communications, electronic intercept equipment, and weapon guidance seekers. They are used in front-end receivers and transmitters as preprocessors, as well as in signal processing and automatic target recognition systems. The most important advances in electronic devices include monolithic microwave integrated circuits, superconductive electronics, vacuum microdevices, computer memories, application-specific integrated circuits, analog-to-digital converters, and digital signal processing microcomputer chips.
Finally, additional trends that will shape strategic competition between great powers include: the proliferation of precision-strike capabilities, the intensification of the battle network competitions, the expansion of military activities in frontier domains (including space and cyberspace), and the supplanting of human forces by highly autonomous machines.
New Tools, Old Tools: Russian EDTs Development’
The results of the Russian Science and Technology Foresight—a full-fledged study targeted at the identification of the most promising areas of science and technology development in Russia as it nears 2030—revealed that in numerous EDTs, Russia is lagging behind world leaders, first and foremost the United States and China. The research confirmed that Moscow continues to struggle to better leverage EDTs in both economic and military terms. One reason is a lack of resources relative to Washington and Beijing. Other constraints are structural.
Three structural constraints limit the room for innovation and Russia’s ability to close the gap with technological leaders. Russia’s preference for domestic supply chains limits the markets it can draw from. Declining standards for science and engineering education have led to the decline of leading Russian computer science research institutions—such as Moscow State University—as reflected in global rankings. Finally, sanctions restrict access to international technologies.
Russian Responses to the Technological Challenge
Despite these limitations, Russia has been pursuing a tailored innovation strategy that derives from closely monitoring the United States and China’s technological priority areas and evaluating their long-term consequences for Russia.
To counter the United States’ so-called “third offset strategy,” which focuses on investment in state-of-the-art military technologies to project force in contested environments, Russia employs a contemporary version of the United States’ first offset strategy, emphasizing the widespread nuclearization of the military. This means prioritizing the development of a wide array of both strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities as well as related delivery systems and supporting infrastructure. This old tool has been accompanied by doctrinal revisions that have elevated the role of nuclear weapons, including in Russia’s innovation strategy.
Russia began to counter numerous U.S. and Chinese technological initiatives using similar indigenous programs, although more narrowly focused and smaller in scale. In October 2012, Russia established the Advanced Research Foundation (Фонд перспективных исследований, FPI) which is roughly analogous to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). The FPI focuses on high payoff technologies, including for the defense sector, such as hypersonic vehicles, AI, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), cognitive technologies, and directed energy weapons. Over the last decade, the programs pursued by the FPI have gradually expanded in key areas—primarily directed energy weapons, rail guns, hypersonic vehicles, and UUVs—have progressed to advanced stages.
To counter the United States’ so-called “third offset strategy,” which focuses on investment in state-of-the-art military technologies to project force in contested environments, Russia employs a contemporary version of the United States’ first offset strategy, emphasizing the widespread nuclearization of the military.
To enhance military research and development (R&D) as well as science and technology, the Russian Ministry of Defense launched the ERA Technopolis (Технополис ЭРА), a sort of military Silicon Valley created by Vladimir Putin’s 2018 decree. Its priority fields include AI, small spacecraft, robotics, automated control and IT systems, computer science and computer engineering, pattern recognition, information security, energy sufficiency, nanotechnology, and bioengineering.
Moscow has invested heavily in developing hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles, helping Russia secure its spot as one of the global leaders in this field. From a military perspective, both glide vehicles and cruise missiles provide an innovative solution to evade missile defenses using high speed—considerably reducing warning time—and maneuverability. In fact, a key advantage of hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles is the difficulty of accurate intercept assessment by the adversary until late in the vehicles’ trajectories. In December 2019, Russia announced the deployment of the first hypersonic glide vehicle: the Avangard intercontinental ballistic missile system. Moreover, two other hypersonic missile systems are in advanced development phases: the sea and ground-launched hypersonic cruise missile Tsirkon and the air-launched ballistic missile Kinzhal.
Russia has pursued the development of AI with an increasing sense of urgency. In October 2019, Russia adopted a national strategy for the development of AI through 2030. Russian military specialists in the field of AI applications are increasingly making advances in the use of such technologies, primarily in the maritime context, even as Russian naval power has always taken second priority to its land power. Moscow’s interests in the use of AI to further develop maritime military capabilities relates to the future development of surface and sub-surface platforms that will be fully roboticized.
At a strategic level, Moscow created the National Defense Management Centre (Национальный центр управления обороной РФ), which is the key military command and control node in peacetime and conflict. The center uses AI in its daily functioning to collect and organize information. This is especially interesting as the center also houses the Russian military’s supercomputer, which was acquired to run models that predict the development of ongoing and future wars by analyzing the current security environment and drawing conclusions from past conflicts.
Finally, the Russian military pursues a wide range of autonomous systems and platforms. The development of autonomous systems is currently done in close conjunction with the ongoing works on AI. Russia has paid special attention to the development of unmanned and autonomous military systems, which it has tested in combat in eastern Ukraine, Syria, and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Moreover, Russia has also made some important progress in swarming technology.
The Way Ahead: Three Defining Elements for Russia
Russia is currently working to secure its place in the technological race—albeit on a smaller budget—while simultaneously using military innovation as a key component to build its deterrence and defense posture. Indeed, Russia sees EDTs as a way to enhance the readiness of its armed forces, improve their posture management, and increase their resilience. Though Russia’s smaller economy relative to the United States and China is a disadvantage, Russia’s advantage has always been its ability to match technology with the applicable operational concepts and force and command structures—and to test them in real operational environments.
Russia’s future innovation strategy and approach to EDTs have three defining characteristics.
The first is an aversion to relying on foreign supply chains. Since 2013, Russian decisionmakers have shifted policy and started to favor domestic production for military purposes over foreign manufacturers. Moscow feared that it might become excessively dependent on advanced foreign technology. This trend has been strengthened by Western and Ukrainian sanctions and freezes in defense cooperation imposed in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and illegal annexation of Crimea.
Indeed, Russia sees EDTs as a way to enhance the readiness of its armed forces, improve their posture management, and increase their resilience.
Nevertheless, Moscow is aware that in order to close the existing technological gap and enhance its areas of technological advantage in comparison to the United States and China, it needs to open up to foreign supply chains. Although hypothetically, this could be done by re-establishing defense cooperation with the West, such a policy would come at an extremely high political cost for Russia, requiring, among others, putting an end to the military conflict with Ukraine. Therefore, this step seems highly unlikely in the short to medium term.
Instead, Russia will try to increase its industrial partnerships with major non-Western countries, primarily India and China. The goal of the cooperation will be to secure financing and technological cooperation on EDT projects, including those for military purposes. In fact, Russia has already had a positive experience with India (the BrahMos cruise missile joint production venture) and has embarked on joint programs with China (e.g., an advanced heavy helicopter program). The BrahMos missile is developed by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India’s R&D wing of its Ministry of Defense—Defence Research and Development Organisation—and Russia’s rocket design bureau NPO Mashinostroyeniya (НПО машиностроения). Moscow has assessed this cooperation as successful, and the relationship could serve as a model for international cooperation going forward. This is especially true as BrahMos Aerospace is set to grow, thanks to the agreement signed in 2021 to sell the coastal defense system to the Philippines and potential other deals with Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates. The joint Sino-Russian project to develop and build a heavy helicopter is expected to deliver the first aircraft in 2032. Aviation Industry of China (AVIC) is responsible for the helicopter’s design and production, and the company Russian Helicopters (Вертолеты России) is acting as a technical partner.
Though Russia’s smaller economy relative to the United States and China is a disadvantage, Russia’s advantage has always been its ability to match technology with the applicable operational concepts and force and command structures—and to test them in real operational environments.
The second is to minimize ethical or moral considerations related to military applications of EDTs. While numerous countries and international organizations, including the United States and NATO, have already adopted or worked on principles of responsible and ethical use of EDTs (concentrating for now primarily on AI), Russia has not taken any concrete actions in this regard. Russian authorities argue that excessive regulation can hamper the pace of development of EDTs, including AI, thus impairing the country’s chances in the technological race. If Russia decides to carry on with the current approach, this will affect both its internal and external policies. Internally, a lack of ethical and moral considerations will help the Russian authorities tighten their autocratic grip over society—for example, through the mass use of surveillance hardware and AI to gather information on and persecute protestors and political opposition. Externally, it might further strengthen its strategic cooperation with China, which shares the same reluctance to include ethical and moral norms in the development efforts of EDTs. At the same time, this might also deepen Russia’s existing isolation and disconnection with the West.
The third characteristic is an emphasis on asymmetric warfare. Russia considers advances in technology suitable not only for traditional military applications, but also for uses below the level of declared war. Russia’s premier disruptive strategy is intimidation, for which it commonly uses technology as an enabler. In peacetime, Russia intimidates opponents through psychological methods, ranging from disinformation to targeted nuclear exercises. In conflict, Russia uses surprise and deception and undertakes asymmetric operations to destabilize, overwhelm, and fracture the adversary. Development of EDTs will allow Russia to further adapt its asymmetric warfare model and employ hybrid instruments against its adversaries, including NATO and its partners. EDTs will enhance deniability, which is the main feature of the Russian hybrid warfare model. AI and big data will be used alongside cyber, information, psychological, and social engineering capabilities as part of cognitive warfare. EDTs will, therefore, help Russia to continue to conduct destabilization campaigns, which are intended to impose conditions of “unpeace” in the Euro-Atlantic space.
Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think tanker. He currently serves as political adviser and head of the political section at the Permanent Delegation of Poland to NATO.
The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institution he represents.
This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Opinions, arguments, viewpoints, and conclusions expressed in this work do not represent those of RSI, U.S. EUCOM, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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