August 9, 2020:
In mid-2020 Russia revealed it was working on a new generation of infantry equipment called Sotnik (Centurion) to replace the current Ratnik (warrior) ensemble. Russia plans have the first Sotnik equipment delivered to special operations troops by 2025 and to everyone else five years after that. That may be overly ambitious because Sotnik consists of a lot of high-tech items that may not be ready for combat troops in time.
Some of the new items already exist, like anti-mine boots and special cloth that will reduce the thermal (heat) that identifies troops to thermal sensors. There are similar types of cloth that reduce radar effectiveness. Because of sanctions Russian may have problems importing finished items or components for Russian made versions.
Sotnik will include more powerful digital communications gear for individual troops and tighter integration with what nearby small UAVs can see. This information will be presented on a special visor or goggle display similar to what many fighter pilots currently use. Israel already has such goggles that enable tank crews to switch on “outside view” and show what is outside the tank via a system of small vidcams on the tank exterior. There will also be an emphasis on lighter versions of existing Ratnik items, especially heavy protective items (vest and helmet) that will also become more effective. All items in the Sotnik ensemble will be lighter so that the entire Sotnik ensemble will be, at 20 kg (44 pounds) 20 percent lighter than Ratnik equivalents.
The final list of Sotnik items won’t be completed until 2023, but it was revealed that Sotnik will include new weapons and ammunition as well as use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) in electronic components. Some of the items being developed for Ratnik 3 will end up being part of the initial version of Sotnik. The proposed Sotnik items are not science fiction, but the Russian capability to manufacture these items for combat soldiers is questionable. It would not be the first time that Russian press releases got too far ahead of capabilities.
The experience with Ratnik is informative. Ratnik 1 (the original) received its last major item of equipment in early 2020 when the new Russian assault rifle, the AK-12, was finally delivered to regular infantry units. The first such unit to receive it is the 150th Motor Rifle Division of the 8th Army in the Southern Military District. The AK-12, looks like (and is) a much-updated AK-47. AK-12 was finally accepted into service in 2018 and deliveries began to special operations and airborne units in 2019. Meanwhile there were some major upgrades to the Ratnik ensemble between 2013 and the 2020a. These became known as Ratnik versions 1, 2 and 3. Some say Sotnik is simply Ratnik 4,
The government, after years of pressure and complaints from combat commanders, agreed in 2015 to make the AK-12 part of the new “future soldier” (Ratnik) set of gear for its infantry. As of 2015 Ratnik was obviously not complete and had not undergone any combat testing. Combat experience arrived in 2016 when Russian troops showed up in Syria. Ratnik is basically the kind of gear American troops began receiving in the 1990s. Ratnik got modern type (and still in use) bullet proof helmets and vests. In addition there was a monocular (one eye) night vision system as well as that included a thermal (heat sensing) scope for rifle, a flashlight, new combat uniform with one piece coverall, backpack, webbing (worn on chest to attach various items), waterproof camouflage/shelter tarp, wristwatch, protective glasses, knee and elbow pads, ear protection, heat source for combat rations (like U.S. MRE), chemical weapons detector and protective gear, medical kit, small combat binoculars and other individual items commonly found in Western armies.
New communications/navigation gear called Strelets (“Musketeer”) provided individual and larger radios. The Ratnik helmet was designed to accept a Strelets earpiece and microphone. Strelets also provided satellite navigation capability as well as optional gear for designating and transmitting location and (optionally) a picture of a target for air or artillery fire. Also included is a Russian version of the American Blue Force Tracker, which was first used in Iraq during the 2003 campaign. Russia noted that with great interest since Russian military planners and scientists had first proposed that sort of thing back in the 1950s. Western economies and electronic developments moved a lot faster than the Soviet Union (pre-1991 Russia). The U.S. was able to put Blue Force Tracker together quickly using commercial grade electronics. In the 1990s Russia got access to a lot of that tech but still has difficulty manufacturing it. This is why Strelets too so long to develop and get to the troops. For the same reason Sotnik gear may take longer to perfect than the Russians currently believe.
Much of Strelets got used for the first time in Syria and was generally successful. That combat experience quickly exposed any technical and design problems. Many of these were quickly fixed although some items took longer. Currently Russian considers Strelets mature and reliable. In practical terms Strelets did not arrive as a fully functional system until 2019.
Troops began getting most of Ratnik (minus the AK-12 and some electronic items) in 2015 and by 2017 200,000 sets of Ratnik had been delivered. That was enough to equip all the combat troops because the current Russian Army is, for the first time in history smaller than that peacetime American army. The Russian force has 350,000 troops compared to the U.S. Army with 560,000.
The current Russian ground forces consist of eight “armies.” Most of those armies only have one division and a few brigades. Not all of these units are at full strength. Russia is making the most of this and seeks to equip all these troops with the most modern equipment. That became a lot more expensive towards the end of the Cold War (1980s), and especially after the 1990s when Western forces came up with a growing number of more effective weapons and items of equipment that made their troops much more effective, and expensive to equip.
After 1991 the newly independent (of Russian control) countries of East Europe rushed to join NATO and equip their troops to NATO standards. At the same time, China was also modernizing its ground forces while using the U.S. and NATO as the standard to match. A modernized Chines army was something Russia never had to face. For centuries China had outdated military equipment compared to Russia and that did not begin to change until the 1990s. Now the Chinese are ahead of Russia and that irks Russian military commanders who realize that ultimately China is the major threat to Russia.
The Ratnik system is the Russian version of an American concept pioneered in the 1980s ("Land Warrior"), and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment. Several European countries have followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”). Russia tried to do the same but was stalled by cash shortages and debates over whether a new infantry rifle was needed. Unlike the United States, Russia included a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level, there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74.
The entire Ratnik collection underwent final acceptance tests in late 2013. All the items of Ratnik; firearms, body armor, optic, communication and navigation devices, medical gear and power supply systems, plus uniform items including knee and elbow pads, have been tested and accepted. The new rifle was more of a problem until the government finally backed the AK-12, which uses a lot of the basic AK-47 design principles but adds many new features popular in Western assault rifles. The AK-12 is but the latest in a long line of innovative Russian infantry weapons. Appearing for the first time towards the end of World War II, assault rifles have since become the standard infantry weapon, almost entirely replacing bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. The first-generation AK was the AK-47 followed by the AKM in the 1960s, then the AK-74 (which was somewhat similar to the U.S. M-16) in the 1970s, and limited numbers of the AN-94 (a much-improved AK-74) in the 1990s. Over fifty million AK-47s and AKMs were made, most of them outside Russia. Production, on a small scale, continues. It is still the most numerous assault rifle in use.