Hi-Tech Village

With Era Technolopolis, Russia puts the focus on futuristic research and deep learning

Aleksey Nikolsky

Moscow: On 25 June 2018, President Vladimir Putin signed Decree No 364 outlining the goals set before the Era Military Innovation Technopolis, an R&D centre being built near the Black Sea resort town of Anapa. The centre will be run by the ministry of defence (MoD) but utilise the principle of military-civilian partnership. Construction at the 17-hectare (42 acre) site, formerly a MoD resort, began last spring. The draft of the presidential decree ordering Era’s establishment was released for public consultation in January (Nikolski A., Bocharova S. Shoygu to replace Rogozin at the Advanced Research Foundation // Vedomosti, 26.02.2018).

Russian Federation’s ministry of defence headquarters in Moscow

The Era Technopolis concept was approved by defence minister Sergey Shoygu on 18 December 2017 (Era Technopolis // Arsenal Otechestva, 2018, No 3). The launch of the facility is scheduled for September 2018, and the completion of all construction work for 2020. Era will consist of three clusters:

  • Research Cluster for R&D, laboratory experiments and simulation modelling;
  • Education Cluster for military personnel, cadets and students studying military specializations at civilian universities; and
  • Production Cluster for building prototypes of military and special hardware (Era Technopolis // Arsenal Otechestva, 2018, No 3).
  • Era’s R&D chief is Mikhail Kovalchuk, President of the Kurchatov Institute, who is known to have been close to President Putin since the Nineties. Another interesting fact is that the Lider company, which was officially affiliated with Kovalchuk’s brother Yuri until 2016, may be chosen by the MoD as a partner for a programme of refurbishing central heating systems at military compounds across Russia. A concession agreement on which the programme will be based is currently being drafted, and pilot projects may commence any day now.

Another partner in the Era venture is the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF). Established in 2013 as a would-be Russian equivalent of America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the ARF has an annual budget of 3-4 billion roubles (USD70m). The money is spent primarily on co-funding university R&D projects that involve dual-use technologies. Era facilities will be used for some of the ARF-sponsored projects in which the foundation will be involved both financially and organisationally.

The man chosen to lead Era is Col Fedor Dedus, former deputy head of the Federal Service for Defense Procurement (abolished in 2014) and deputy chairman of the Armed Forces Research and Development Committee. Speaking during the Era project’s presentation on June 8, the colonel described its main goal as facilitating rapid (no more than three years) development of new military and dual-use hardware. At present, the R&D cycle for such technology takes an average of five to 10 years – long enough for the systems being developed to be made obsolete by the latest advances in IT. Initially, Era will not be expected to commercialise its projects, but eventually, that will become one of its goals.

Era’s R&D personnel will consist of two main categories: civilians and military servicemen, supported by conscript soldiers drafted to specialist ‘R&D companies’.

As part of the civilian recruitment drive, on 18 July 2018 the MoD announced vacancies for senior researchers (who must have five years of experience, academic degrees and published papers on their resumes), researchers (up to three years of experience), and junior researchers (fresh university graduates) specialising in technology, physics, mathematics, or military sciences (http://mil.ru/files/perechen_vakant (1).pdf).

The vacancy adverts offer a basic monthly salary of 21,000 to 37,000 roubles (USD 350-600), plus various bonuses. The unfilled vacancies bonus alone can increase the net monthly pay to USD1,150-1,400. That bonus, however, is paid only if there are many unfilled vacancies and the payroll budget is distributed between the already hired personnel filling in for their future colleagues, so once most of the vacancies are filled, the size of the bonus will shrink to only a few thousand roubles a month.

Bonuses can also be paid from revenues generated by profitable projects (commercialisation of R&D or paid work commissioned by third parties). The take-home pay inclusive of unfilled-vacancy and profitability bonuses can reach USD2,500-2,700 a month – but only for the best-performing staff, and only after years of successful work. But even USD1,000 dollars a month, sweetened by benefits and free accommodation in a popular resort area, can be fairly attractive – or so the MoD hopes, in any case.  Its vacancy advert also says that Era will create approximately 2,000 skilled jobs, including 1,000 researcher positions.

Additionally, Era will have four R&D companies assigned to it, each manned by 198 conscripts. Conscription to these four companies began during this year’s spring-and-summer draft campaign.

The first R&D companies were established in the Russian Armed Forces in 2013. They were assigned to various MoD and defence industry research facilities and manned by university students drafted into the armed forces. The armed services that already have such companies include the Aerospace Force and the army, as well as the Main Intelligence and Cryptography Directorate of the General Staff, and the military communications, NBC, and medical academies. According to MoD figures, the total number of recruits who have served with the 12 existing R&D companies since 2013 (excluding the four companies being set up especially for Era) has already reached 2,000. More than 18 per cent of them were subsequently assigned the rank of lieutenant (though that does not mean that they signed up for professional service after their conscription term was up – those figures have not been released), and 17 per cent took up job offers from various Russian defence contractors. The MoD says that during the reported period, the ‘R&D soldiers’ have been granted more than 127 patents for various inventions; they have also developed more than 1,040 operational optimisation proposals and over 700 mathematical models, pieces of software and algorithms, and published close to 2,000 research papers.

A somewhat different picture emerges after studying social network posts by soldiers who have served with these R&D companies (https://twower.livejournal.com/2110245.html). They suggest that even though the selection process was quite rigorous, the service itself was dogged by various problems and not always productive. Some soldiers have complained that the MoD and defence industry research facilities to which they were assigned could not even provide transportation, forcing the conscripts to waste hours on their commute. A lot of their time was also spent on work that had nothing to do with the stated goal of research. For example, some were issued with volunteer uniforms and used as service personnel at the Armiya forums hosted by Patriot Park in Moscow. Their remaining time was often spent on such menial tasks as updating obsolete software. Nevertheless, the experiment with R&D companies has been officially declared a success, and their number keeps growing. In fact, the MoD approach has been copied by the Russian National Guard, which has recently announced the establishment of its first R&D company. An R&D platoon has also been set up in the armed forces of Kazakhstan (https://mod.gov.kz/rus/press-centr/novosti?cid=0&rid=5191).

Some of the problems with the whole concept of R&D companies will not be relevant to Era Technopolis, which will at least have its own dedicated laboratories and testing facilities. The overall impression, however, is that Era will be little more than a new type of Sharashka – a moniker dating back to the period from the Twenties to the Fifties, when the KGB ran numerous engineering design bureaus manned by Soviet scientists and engineers imprisoned on charges of disloyalty.

Serving one’s time at a Sharashka rather than an ordinary Soviet jail was far more comfortable, and many of the Sharashkas made notable R&D achievements. Of course, the present-day R&D companies and Era Technopolis will not be manned by political prisoners – their personnel will be paid for their work, and free to come and go as they please. But that is precisely why they may not succeed at emulating the success of the Sharashkas: if they fail to offer good pay, benefit packages and working conditions, their best talent will inevitably be poached by the private sector. The location chosen for Era is favourable in terms of its climate – but it is far away from the established Russian research clusters, whereas in China, for example, similar centres where civilians conduct military R&D are hosted by major military and civilian universities. On the plus side, Era is quite close to several military testing ranges. In any event, the Russian MoD has set an ambitious goal for itself, and the project will surely prove interesting if nothing else.

(This article has been reproduced with permission from Moscow Defense Brief)


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