The Russian military-industrial complex wants to make your dreams of powered armor a reality again.
Russia is losing ground every single day, with the entire Ukrainian nation holding its ground steadfastly. So instead of going back to the drawing board for the military generals, Moscow is using their national media to appease people with a hyped “Iron Man” suit of armor.
According to RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian defense contractor Armocom is developing an “Iron Man” armored suit that protects the wearer like a Medieval knight’s armor for use in a new combat suit called “Legionnaire.”
The Armocom deputy director general Oleg Faustov told RIA Novosti that the full-body system would consist of body armor that would be easy to protect the wearer from small-arms fire and an exoskeleton that would be required to support the plan.
According to RIA Novosti, a military-industrial source claims that the Legionnaire suit will eventually replace Russia’s other next-generation battle armor, TsNiiTochMash’s Ratnik (or “Warrior”) combat outfit, which defense company Rostec-affiliated TsNiiTochMash said in 2018 that it would eventually have an exoskeleton that would allow soldiers to fire machine guns with one hand.
Between 2008 and 2018, the Russian military has received more than 300,000 early-generation Ratnik combat suits composed of 59 individual subsystems, TASS has noted, while Ratnik-3, which has an integrated exoskeleton, is still being tested, has an objective identification and targeting system attached to the helmet visor, as of November.
In an interview with the state-run Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper in 2021, Russian Ground Forces commander-in-chief Gen. Oleg Salyukov said that ‘robotic’ combat equipment for soldiers of the future would include exoskeletons, micro-, and mini-UAVs, as well as wearable robotic complexes.
На молодежном форуме Путина показали «самого современного робота Бориса». Но это просто человек в костюме «Робот Алеша…
Видео: «Россия 24» pic.twitter.com/iHUtAoxUMo
— ЧТД (@Chtede) December 12, 2018
The new Legionnaire armor isn’t the only combat suit that may be used as the Russian military’s battle suit of choice in the future. According to Rostec, its futuristic fourth-generation Sotnik armor (‘Centurion’) can allegedly withstand a direct shot from a .50 caliber Browning machine gun.
The apparel, supposedly composed of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fiber, would offer maximum protection for soldiers while not restricting their mobility or allowing them to carry the extra weight required for special operations, Bekkhan Ozdoev of Rostec Industrial Group said in an interview with Russia Beyond. This excess weight would include “roboting equipment and integrated systems for exchanging information,” he said.
Российские военные роботы показали разминку перед Путиным pic.twitter.com/YkdRVzQkXZ
— Кремлевский пул РИА (@Kremlinpool_RIA) April 23, 2019
By 2021, the Sotnik’s third-generation iteration was projected to replace the existing Ratnik combat uniforms currently used by Russian troops by 2025, while Rostec perfected the fourth-generation version’s subsystems. Although the exoskeleton component is still being developed, Rostec recently presented a “Shturmovik” (or “Stormer”) combat exoskeleton to help Russian soldiers carry heavy loads on the battlefield to demonstrate how far the technology has come in recent years.
The US and Russia have been engaged in a combat exoskeleton arms race for the past few years. The Defense Department has been working towards creating a combat exoskeleton for soldiers for nearly 50 years. However, the most recent effort, US Special Operations Command’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), did not result in a fully-integrated suit of armor when it was released in 2019. Although system integration issues have hindered the US, Russia has been able to conduct field trials of such equipment in war-torn Syria and now Ukraine, which has benefitted from this.
Even though they appear impressive and futuristic, the Ratnik’s hexagonal latticework of plates or the Sotnik and Legionnaire projects’ futuristic promises are not signs of real technological progress. In 2020, military and technical analyst Alex Hollings made this point during Rostec’s Ratnik media blitz. The Russian military and associated industrial complex tend to hype next-generation weaponry systems (among other things) that do not function in actual combat situations.
Samuel Bendett, a scholar at the Center for Naval Analyses specializing in unmanned systems, told Task & Purpose that the Russian military might be investing in combat suits, given how many Russian soldiers were maimed and injured by munitions and shrapnel in Ukraine. However, the broad adoption of high-tech (and pricey) equipment is still a big challenge.
According to Bendett, scaling up the Russian defense industry may need more capacity to perform this on a large scale.
“[The Russians] can make a proof of concept, but scaling it up across the services is a different story, and is unlikely,” Bendett told Task & Purpose. “Much depends on the state of the Russian defense industry, which may not have enough capacity to undertake this on a large scale.”
In addition to the Ranik combat outfit being worn, some units likely have newer gear while others still have older equipment, he said.
For years, the Russian military-industrial complex has promised that the future Russian soldier will pilot a suit of powered armor straight out of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It’s an alluring promise: who doesn’t fantasize about charging through hostile territory impervious to small-arms fire, causing mayhem, and looking like a “big steel gorilla armed with gorilla-sized weapons,” as described by sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein.
The truth is, the outcomes of the Russian military’s ventures in powered armor are probably going to look a lot like the unbelievably phony battle suits unveiled at a 2019 technology conference in Ghana than futuristic warriors wearing armor like a ‘medieval knight’ as Armocom’s Faustov promised. If Faustov sees himself as Tony Stark for this new Iron Man suit, he may be more like Justin Hammer.