1LT Andrew Shaughnessy is a U.S. Army Field Artillery Officer and current Field Artillery Captain Career Course student. He commissioned out of Georgetown University in 2016 and previously served in 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division as a Fire Direction Officer, Platoon Leader, and Executive Officer. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Alternative Future: Assessing Russian Reconnaissance Fire Complex Performance in the Third Chechen War

Date Originally Written:  June 11, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  August 10, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a company-grade U.S. Army Field Artillery Officer interested in the military implications of emerging technologies. The author has previously written on the effects of additive manufacturing and predictive maintenance on the U.S. Army.

Summary:  The Russian Army’s artillery forces played a decisive role in the Third Chechen War due to the effectiveness of the Reconnaissance Fire Complex. Empowered by Target Acquisition Companies that employed Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Electronic Warfare, the Russian Army showcased a devastatingly fast artillery targeting cycle.

Text:  Beginning in 2014, the Russo-Ukrainian War created a laboratory for the Russian Army to develop new tactics on how to employ their artillery. The successful use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to coordinate artillery strikes in Ukraine[1] caused the Russian Army to make UAS a central element of their targeting process[2]. Electronic Warfare (EW) platforms also proved to be effective target acquisition systems by detecting electromagnetic signatures and then targeting them with artillery[3]. Learning from their experience in the Russo-Ukrainian War, the Russian Army significantly invested in these systems as part of their artillery modernization program. Ultimately, these systems would give the Russian Army a decisive advantage in their 2033 War in Chechnya.

Despite budgetary pressures in the 2020s, the Russian Army continued to invest in its advanced Reconnaissance Fire Complex due to it being a valued Soviet-era concept and its operational validation during the Russo-Ukrainian War[4]. This concept aimed to digitally link advanced target acquisition sensors, UAS, and Military Command systems to artillery platforms to provide incredibly responsive fires. The Russian investment in the Reconnaissance Fire Complex during the 2020s took the lessons learned from Ukraine and made them a permanent part of the Russian force structure.

In a 2028 reorganization, each Russian Brigade received a dedicated Artillery UAS Company and EW Target Acquisition Company. While the Brigade retained other UAS and EW assets, these companies existed for the sole purpose of continuously pulling targeting data to feed the largely autonomous Reconnaissance Fire Complex.

Major technology advances that supported the Reconnaissance Fire Complex included sophisticated UAS platforms, automated fire direction systems, and improved EW capabilities. The lethality of the Artillery UAS Companies improved substantially with the advent of autonomous UAS[5], drone swarming[6], and 3D-printed UAS[7]. Advances in military Artificial Intelligence programs allowed most UAS sensor to shooter loops to occur free of human intervention[8]. Electronic Warfare detection systems became more precise, mobile, and networked with other systems. These advances allowed Artillery UAS Companies to field hundreds of autonomous UAS platforms simultaneously while the EW Target Acquisition Company hunted for high-value targets based on electromagnetic signatures. The effective integration of autonomous UAS and EW companies played a decisive role in the 2033 War in Chechnya.

The 2033 War in Chechnya was the product of Chechen fighters returning from Syria, the assassination of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, and the collapse of oil prices. Compounding instability and the inability of the Russian political establishment to respond allowed rogue paramilitaries to seize control of the republic and declare the new Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Following several years of autonomy, a resurgent Russian state invaded Chechnya in April-2033.

While separatist Chechen forces had organized, they proved to be no match for the extraordinary performance of the Russian Army’s artillery and automated fire support network. In less than a month, the Russian army had destroyed all of Chechnya’s conventional forces and thoroughly depleted their ranks of irregular fighters. While the Russian Army performed adequately overall, it was their Reconnaissance Fire Complex that drove their successive victories.

During the Third Chechen War, the Chechen sky was continuously saturated with an enormous number of autonomous UAS platforms. Interwoven with each other and the broader Reconnaissance Fire Complex, these UAS platforms autonomously detected probable targets such as mechanized vehicles. Autonomy and swarming allowed the Russians to deploy hundreds of these UAS simultaneously. UAS coming from 3D-printed manufacturing meant that low cost made them expendable. Even when the Chechens successfully shot down a UAS, due to forward 3D-print capabilities, Russian forces would replace it within minutes.

Without human intervention, UAS pushed probable targets to Russian Fire Direction Centers (FDC) that further assessed targeting criteria using machine learning to avoid misidentification or fratricide. Within seconds, a UAS-detected target bounced from the sensor, to the FDC, to the artillery platform set to engage the target. The result was that as soon as any Chechen vehicles or heavy equipment began to move, Russian forces detected and engaged them with artillery, destroying them within minutes. While most of this artillery fire came in the form of massed thermobaric and cluster munition strikes, UAS would laser designate for guided Krasnopol artillery shells when Russian forces required precision[9]. Chechen forces could never escape the panopticon of Russian UAS, and given the Russian preference for long-range artillery, could always be engaged 10]. This perfect synchronization of sensors and firing assets allowed them to destroy all of Chechnya’s mechanized and motorized forces within days.

EW Target Acquisition Companies also played a major role. At the advent of the conflict, Russian forces remotely triggered kill switches within Chechnya’s Russian-made military radios, rendering them ineffective[11]. This forced Chechen forces to rely on less secure commercial off the shelf radios and cellphones as their primary communication systems. This commercial reliance proved to be an enormous vulnerability, as Russian forces were able to quickly pinpoint specific cellphone locations by using both social engineering and heat maps, allowing them to locate and target Chechen leadership[12].

EW Target Acquisition Companies forces would measure electromagnetic signatures for large swaths of an area, create heat maps of where signatures were emanating from, and then target what they believed to be enemy command nodes[13]. As soon as a large group of cellphones or radios began to concentrate outside of a city, Russian EW companies designated that as a possible target. While this method was imprecise, often generating considerable civilian causalities, Russian forces considered that a secondary concern. EW Target Acquisition Companies also targeted smartphone applications with malware to pull refined location data from probable combatants[14]. EW-based targeting proved highly effective against Chechnya’s cadre of irregular fighters, decimating them. By May-2033, with Chechnya’s forces defeated, the province capitulated and was back under Russian control.

The effectiveness of the Reconnaissance Fire Complex allowed Russian artillery to be an overwhelming force in the Third Chechen War. Without it, Russian maneuver forces would have been mired in a prolonged conflict. A devastatingly fast artillery targeting cycle, empowered by autonomous UAS, Artificial Intelligence, and EW systems resulted in a rapid and decisive Russian victory[15].


[1] Freedberg, S. J., JR. (2015, November 23). Russian Drone Threat: Army Seeks Ukraine Lessons. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://breakingdefense.com/2015/10/russian-drone-threat-army-seeks-ukraine-lessons

[2] Grau and Bartles (2016). The Russian Way of War. Foreign Military Studies Office. (Pages 239, 373-377) https://www.armyupress.army.mil/special-topics/world-hot-spots/russia

[3] Asymmetric Warfare Group (2016). Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook. Asymmetric Warfare Group. https://www.awg.army.mil/AWG-Contributions/AWG-Recruiting/Article-View/Article/1809255/the-us-army-has-a-handbook-on-russian-hybrid-warfare

[4] Grau and Bartles (2018, May). The Russian Reconnaissance Fire Complex Comes of Age. The University of Oxford Changing Character Of War Centre. http://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/blog/2018/5/30/the-russian-reconnaissance-fire-complex-comes-of-age

[5] Tucker, P. (2019, November 08). Russia Says It Used Autonomous Armed Strike Drones in a Wargame. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2019/11/russia-were-testing-autonomous-armed-strike-drones-wargames/161187

[6] Atherton, K. (2019, December 18). Russia will test swarms for anti-robot combat in 2020. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/2019/12/13/russia-will-test-swarms-for-anti-robot-combat-in-2020

[7] Bartles, C. (2015). 3D Printers will “Bake” Future Russian UAVs. Foreign Military Studies Office OE Watch, Vol 5. (Issue 7), 48-49. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/195454

[8] Konaev, M., & Bendett, S. (2019, July 30). Russian AI-Enabled Combat: Coming to a City Near You? Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://warontherocks.com/2019/07/russian-ai-enabled-combat-coming-to-a-city-near-you

[9] Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. (2019, May 20). The Use of Krasnopol Artillery Shells in Ukraine. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://medium.com/dfrlab/the-use-of-krasnopol-artillery-shells-in-ukraine-d185ef4743b7

[10] Collins, L., & Morgan, H. (2019, January 24). King of Battle: Russia Breaks Out the Big Guns. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.ausa.org/articles/king-battle-russia-breaks-out-big-guns

[11] Trevithivk, Joseph. (2019, October 30th). Ukrainian Officer Details Russian Electronic Warfare Tactics Including Radio “Virus.” The War Zone. Retrieved June 07, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/30741/ukrainian-officer-details-russian-electronic-warfare-tactics-including-radio-virus

[12] Collins, Liam. (2018, July 26th) Russia gives lessons in Electronic Warfare. AUSA. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from, https://www.ausa.org/articles/russia-gives-lessons-electronic-warfare

[13] Trevithivk, Joseph. (2020, May 11th) This is what Ground Forces look like to an Electronic Warfare System and why it’s a big deal. The War Zone. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/33401/this-is-what-ground-forces-look-like-to-an-electronic-warfare-system-and-why-its-a-big-deal

[14] Volz, Dustin. (2016, December 21). Russian hackers tracked Ukrainian artillery units using Android implant: report. Reuters. Retrieved June 07, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-ukraine/russian-hackers-tracked-ukrainian-artillery-units-using-android-implant-report-idUSKBN14B0CU

[15] The author would like to extend his appreciation to Andrew Gibbs and Primo Ramirez for reviewing and giving feedback to the first draft of this paper.