Russia’s new exoskeleton probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
One of Russia's largest defense contractors, Rostec, released new footage of their most advanced military exoskeleton in use on Monday, and as is so often the case when Russia makes such an announcement, a number of media outlets have taken their claims at face value in their reporting.
However, historical precedent would suggest that we might want to hold off on congratulating Russia on cracking the exoskeleton egg. Russia has a long history of headline-grabbing military tech claims that have repeatedly proven misleading at best, and downright fabricated at worst.
Perhaps the most egregious falsehood Western Media briefly fell for in recent past was the Russian bipedal robot dubbed "Borris" that was unveiled in December of 2018 at the Putin Youth Forum in the city of Yaroslavl, Russia. The robot performed impressively, seemingly handling a number of complex tasks with ease, suggesting to many that Russia may be further along in the robotics game than many had previously suspected.
That is, until some people began to notice that it looked an awful lot like their incredible new Boris robot was actually nothing more than a person in a robot suit.
(Screen capture from Russian State television)
That theory was soon proven true.
The tweets translate to:
"At the youth forum Putin was shown "the most modern robot Boris". But this is just a man in a suit."
"Here is that "modern robot" for you – an exclusive photo of the preparations for Putin's youth forum in Yaroslavl."
Of course, that wasn't Russia's first robotic claim to be full of hot air in 2018. In April, famed AK-47 maker Kalashnikov unveiled their own intimidating battle suit that was hailed by Western media outlets as something "straight out of Aliens the movie," despite actually being little more than a statue with automated arms… that bears a closer resemblance to Robocop's Ed-209… in that it too can't go up stairs.
Kalashnikov claimed a more mobile version would be unveiled in 2020, but has yet to manifest. (Kalashnikov)
Not all of Russia's exoskeleton or robotic failures have been quite so openly fabricated, and indeed some could be chalked up to little more than Russia's propaganda machine spinning up faster than the nation's real military technology could keep pace. Such was likely the case with Russia's (once again) headline-grabbing Uran-9 unmanned ground combat, or infantry support, vehicle.
Russia's Uran-9 in rehearsal for the Moscow Parade (Dmitriy Fomin on Flickr)
The entire world reported on Russia's announcement that their armed infantry drone, the Uran-9, would be deployed to Syria for combat operations and further testing. The fact that Russia was already placing an armed, semi-autonomous robot into combat suggested to many that Moscow was demonstrating a significant lead when compared to Western efforts to do the same… but after a flurry of coverage regarding the deployment, coverage ceased regarding it's use. The reason was that Russian state-media outlets (where most Western coverage of these advancements are derived) stopped covering the platform.
It wasn't until months later that the Uran-9's long list of deficiencies made its way to the public, not through press coverage picked up by the West initially, but rather after discussions between military leaders held months later found their way online.
Uran-9 unmanned combat ground vehicle displayed in 2016 (WikiMedia Commons)
In 2018 discussions at a Russian security conference called "Actual Problems of Protection and Security," held at the N.G. Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg, made their way to the press. The truth regarding the Uran-9, it was revealed, was not nearly as impressive as its coverage in the West would have suggested.
A.P. Anisimov, a Senior Research Officer from the 3rd Central Research Institute of the Russian Defence Ministry, concluded that the platform was incapable of performing the tasks it was designed for. Press coverage claimed a three-kilometer range for the control of the ground drone, but the truth was that operators lost control of it at distances as short as 300 meters or any time they lost line of sight. Operators lost complete control of the vehicle for at least one minute on new fewer than seventeen separate occasions, with two of those instances lasting longer than an hour.
Keeping it on the truck for the Moscow Parade was probably a good decision. (Dmitriy Fomin on Flickr)
Other significant issues included the chassis repeatedly failing, forcing repairs in the field, the cannon failing to function on six different occasions, and its targeting system proving so poor that engaging targets at any distance was almost impossible.
Of course, does a history of making up news related to Russia's military exoskeleton and robotic capabilities in the past mean this new Rostec system is similarly more hype than function? Not necessarily. Exoskeleton design has been at the top of many firm's priority list in recent years. In fact, the Marine Corps started receiving real robotic exoskeletons for testing earlier this year, though the Corps is focused on using them for logistics, rather than combat — as the margin for error is much higher in a warehouse than a firefight.
Marine Corps exoskeleton (Sarcos Defense)
Of course, America's tech innovations aren't immune to being propagandized either, but the Marine Corps' decision to slow the introduction of exoskeletons until the technology is robust enough for combat at least seems like a more realistic progression.
There are a few more related announcements made by Russian military tech firms recently that later proved to be bunk, aside from their unconfirmed claims about the capabilities of real (and likely largely functional) platforms like the Su-57 stealth fighter, the PAK-DA stealth bomber, or the Su-70 Okhotnik-B stealth UCAV.
In 2018, Russia claimed to have developed active camouflage that could hide soldiers and even vehicles behind a Predator-style cloak of invisibility. Those claims were also made by Rostec, the same firm responsible for this new exoskeleton, and have yet to materialize.
The Ratnik-3 combat suit. (Rostec)
In another social media gaff, Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti tweeted that Vladimir Putin was observing the exercises of Russian military robots, again hyping Russia's emphasis on combat robotics. The news outlet reported that the students were demonstrating their own robot invention.
However, it was soon revealed that the robots were actually South Korean-sourced toys that can be purchased on Amazon.
In other words, based on historical precedent… it would be logical that we hold our applause until some evidence of Rostec's system actually functioning properly in field conditions finds its way to the media.