The Hype And Reality Of Russian Exoskeleton Technology For The Russia-Ukraine War
The Russia-Ukraine war has provided the Russian military with a chance to showcase its latest research and development efforts, which include cutting-edge drones, tanks, electronic warfare equipment, and artillery systems. However, many of these technologies have not lived up to expectations on the battlefield. One highly publicized technology that has yet to make it onto the battlefield are Russian exoskeletons. For years, the Russian military has hyped their exoskeleton-based combat suits that reportedly offer increased armor coverage, situational awareness, and mobility. Though there is ample skepticism to the claims made about these suits, the war would be an opportunity to display these suits.
To date these exoskeletons have not made an appearance on the battlefield. Nevertheless, as the war continues, the Russian military will likely involve exoskeleton technology in their military messaging campaign. Exoskeletons are futuristic in nature, having been featured throughout science fiction, and would be popular with soldiers, regardless of their utility. Hence, deploying exoskeletons would increase the morale of Russian soldiers, especially given the low morale currently permeating through the Russian ranks. At a more strategic level, these exoskeletons could restore Russia’s image as a world-class developer of defense technology.
Similar to their actions in Syria, the Russian military will likely provide exoskeletons to select Russian soldiers who are performing somewhat limited, specialized tasks. Different news agencies have discussed the deployment and effects of Russian exoskeleton technology being deployed in Ukraine since the war started. Recently, Russia’s Ekzo Solutions reported that they have been approached to develop passive exoskeletons for artillery loaders. Note that these artillery loaders would see a larger benefit from better targeting equipment which would allow them to load significantly fewer rounds.
For years, the Russian defense industrial complex has publicized a number of exoskeleton-based combat suits through press releases, interviews, and trade shows. The most discussed suit is the Ratnik-3 suit developed by Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building or TsNiiTochMash. The Russian military claims that this suit can provide soldiers with enhanced strength, speed, and endurance through the use of a passive, un-powered exoskeleton. An early prototype of this exoskeleton was reportedly used in a limited capacity by explosive ordnance disposal units and engineer units in Syria; however, this usage was very limited.
Several other Russian defense companies are developing their own exoskeleton-based combat suits. Rostec, a large Russian state-owned defense conglomerate, is developing the Sotnik suit, which is to be built around a titanium, actuated exoskeleton. This suit can reportedly stop a 50-caliber machine gun round and is pitched as the replacement for the Ratnik-3. Another Russian defense company, Armocom, is developing the Legionnaire suit, which includes a full-body actuated exoskeleton. The exoskeleton is supposed to have been evaluated late last year, such that the suits can be sent to soldiers in Ukraine in 2024.
Despite the marketing, all of these exoskeletons, similar to other military exoskeletons, are still under development. The actuated exoskeletons must contend with the power and control challenges that plague exoskeleton projects. Both the passive and active exoskeletons must also overcome the challenges associated with limited agility. It is challenging for exoskeletons to cover the full range of motion associated with human joints, especially for a complex joint such as the hip. This issue is displayed in the demonstration videos of these suits, which show soldiers in a limited capacity moving robotically.
Even with these technical challenges solved, the exoskeletons would offer little benefit to the Russian warfighter. First, much of the war has been mechanized with Russians and Ukrainian units engaging each other at distance with tank and artillery fire. The armor on the vehicles surpass the armor worn by soldiers, so the exoskeletons would offer little advantage. Meanwhile, the exoskeletons would be uncomfortable for the wearer given the cramped cabins in the vehicles, while also hindering the soldiers from being able to exit a damaged vehicle. Additionally, the combat suits would offer minimal protection from the common threats in this war, especially artillery and drone strikes. While the armor may stop shrapnel, similar to conventional body armor, the blast wave would still incapacitate the soldier wearing the suit.
The more recent fighting in Ukraine has included dismounted operations in and around the town of Bakhmut. Even in this case, where small arms fire is a major threat, the suits would offer barely more than minimal protection. Much of the body armor can be penetrated by armor-piercing rounds or 2-3 shots of standard rifle rounds. The helmet would offer less protection than that. Meanwhile, a non-agile, exoskeleton-clad soldier would make for an easy target, given the close proximities of urban combat.
Similar to other new technology developed for the Russian military, exoskeleton-based combat suits are somewhat hyped and do not fully align with the combat operations in Ukraine. Regardless, the Russian military will likely field military exoskeletons as part of their military messaging campaign.