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Why Russia’s New ‘Super’ Military Weapons Always Seem to Flop

Armata Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of “advanced” Russian weapons unveiled to the media. Unfortunately for Russia, many of them have turned out to be total duds.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union played the roles of competing super powers, with each nation investing heavily into new weapons technology they hoped would give them a decisive edge against the competition. Of course, the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, leaving the Russian people to pick up the pieces and the United States reigning as the world’s sole remaining super power.

Less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin (a Russian politician and former KGB agent) rose to power, and although he’s shuffled titles periodically to avoid term limits, the nation has remained under his control in one form or another since 1999. Putin is a popular figure among large portions of the Russian people (thanks in no small part to a government-controlled media) but internationally, he’s seen as an aggressive leader with few qualms about ending lives as he pursues his vision of Russian interests. Over the years, Putin has been tied to a number of public assassinations and attempts, including the poisoning of a former Russian military intelligence officer turned MI6 informant (Sergei Skripal) on English soil in 2018.

It’s because of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy that the nation’s economy has struggled to find new footing since the end of the Soviet glory days. Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014 serves as one significant example of Russia’s knack for circumventing international norms through the use of irregular warfare. Russia’s attempts to influence foreign elections in Europe and the United States serve as yet another.

Sanctions placed on Russia by the international community following those and countless other incidents have left the Russian military with an ever-shrinking pot of money to invest in Putin’s force-wide modernization efforts. As a result, Moscow has adopted a “best bang for their buck” mentality, with less emphasis placed on actual combat operations, and far more placed on developing high profile weapons that draw global attention. That attention helps Russia posture as though they remain a global military threat, while also bolstering foreign weapons sales–providing the nation’s military apparatus with a much-needed injection of funds.

But not all of these “advanced” Russian weapons are quite what they seem. In fact, many of Russia’s high profile technological leaps in military prowess have since proven to be little more than publicity stunts. The Su-57, Russia’s 5th-generation stealth fighter, exists in too few numbers to matter even if it were good, though it may well become a capable jet in the long term. Likewise, Russia’s T-14 Armata main battle tank may also prove to be among the best in the world, if only Russia could afford to build any.

But while capable platforms like those wait patiently for enough Rubles to kick-start production, these other headline-grabbing efforts made a splash in the media, only to quietly fail once the cameras were off.

The Uran-9 Infantry Drone

Back in 2018, Russia’s state-owned media outlets were aflutter with reports of the Russian military’s new advanced infantry support drone dubbed the Uran-9. Shortly after the platform was unveiled, Moscow announced that they were deploying the drone mini-tank to Syria, where it would participate in combat operations in support of Bashas Al Assad’s Russian-backed regime.

At first glance, the Uran-9 looked like something to behold. The tread equipped mini-tank boasts a 30mm 2A72 autocannon as it’s primary weapon, along with a 7.62-chambered PKTM machine gun, four anti-tank missiles, and 6 thermobaric rocket launchers. It was designed to work via remote control and, according to Russian media, was built to withstand heavy fighting in urban environments.

It wasn’t until a few months later that reports of just how poorly the Uran-9 performed in combat started to bubble to the surface. In a Russian Security Conference held later in 2018, A.P. Anisimov, a Senior Research Officer from the 3rd Central Research Institute of the Russian Defence Ministry, discussed a laundry list of issues the Uran-9 encountered before offering his final conclusion that the platform simply couldn’t do the tasks it was built to do.

Aside from lots of structural problems with the chassis and weapons platforms, operators regularly lost control of the platform when line-of-sight was obstructed. The platform also uses a non-stabilized camera for targeting, which Anisimov described as making identifying, tracking, or engaging any targets at any distance nearly impossible.

The Nuclear-Powered ‘Skyfall’ Cruise Missile

A few years ago, Vladimir Putin delivered a national address that, among other things, touted a number of new and highly advanced Russian missile systems. Although he discussed a number of missiles, it was the nuclear-powered cruise missile NATO has dubbed the SSC-X-9 Skyfall (known in Russia as the 9M730 Burevestnick) that caught the most attention.

According to Putin, this new missile would have a near-unlimited range thanks to its on-board nuclear reactor. That would theoretically allow the missile to strike any target in the world, as well as allowing for evasive maneuvers to avoid being intercepted by anti-missile defense systems.  As a result, Putin called it “invincible.”

The idea of a nuclear-powered cruise missile wasn’t particularly new. The United States experimented with nuclear propulsion systems in the 1950s, but scrapped the effort out of concerns that the nuclear-system could spread radiation on anything below its flight path. Concerns about the safety of such a propulsion system were once again brought to light last year after one nuclear-powered Skyfall cruise missile went missing after its nuclear engine failed to fire up and the missile fell into the ocean. Another explosion at Russia’s Nenoska test range was believed to have involved the same missile. It killed seven scientists.

American intelligence agencies have spoken publicly about Putin’s “invincible” missile, pointing out that thus far, the nuclear propulsion system has failed to propel the missile in every test launch Russia has attempted.

The Flying AK-47 (Shotgun Drone)

In 2019, Russian media unveiled what they claimed would be a game-changing technology: a new drone that, at first glance, appeared to be equipped with an AK-47, but that later turned out to be intended for use with an AK-style Carbine Vepr-12 Hummer 12 gauge shotgun. The small drone was reminiscent of a remote-controlled airplane, with what looked like a standard issue rifle occupying the majority of the fuselage. Of course, building an aircraft around a weapons system worked for the A-10 Thunderbolt II, but a 12-gauge shotgun is no GAU-8 Avenger.

At first glance, the drone seemed pretty cool, but the more you think about it, the less effective a single flying shotgun with a 10-round magazine could really be in most combat situations. Unlike quad-rotor drones that can hover in place and take careful aim, this drone has to maintain forward momentum to keep from crashing–which makes it extremely difficult to level the weapon directly at a target. That became even more apparent when video was released of the drone in action.

This drone might seem like a whole lot of fun to operate, but it certainly won’t tip the scales of any conflict in Russia’s favor.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.