In 2017, the magazine ‘Business Insider’ stated that the Russian Federation was the leading country in terms of armed unmanned vehicles. This is not without reason. In recent years, Russia has developed and tested a number of unmanned vehicles, including unmanned and armed ground vehicles (UGVs), which have been overshadowed, to some extent, by the attention given to UAVs, and for some of them Syria has also been a test site where they have worked with mixed results.
In Russian parlance, unmanned vehicles are robots defined as “a technical system capable of perceiving information from the surrounding and based on that information performs certain actions both autonomously and with an operator in a control loop.” However, the systems are not a novelty in the Russian Armed Forces. The 1930’s saw the development of a number of UGVs, among them the so-called ‘Teletank’, based on the T-18 and T-26 tanks. Although the latter was used during the Finnish Winter War from 1939 to 1940, it achieved negligible results due to its thin armour that made the UGV vulnerable.
After 1945, further attempts to develop UGVs continued, among them with a radio-controlled T-34/85, albeit still without any success. What happened thereafter is less known, although an UGV based on the T-72 was tried in the 1980’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, work on UGVs for obvious reasons tendered to peter out. However, in 2000, a plan for the further evolution of UGVs was presented, leading to the development of a number of experimental vehicles, among them another UGV based on the T-72 ALISA. Yet, despite the fact that the renewed development of UGVs was successful, it led ultimately nowhere and resulted in a situation resembling the 1990’s.
A change for the better occurred in around 2010 and, in 2012, Russian Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Main Research and Testing Centre of Robotics was established. This renewed interest in unmanned vehicles also led to a committee being established for the development of robot technology in 2014 inside the MoD headed by the Minister. The same year saw a plan agreed for the further development of robot technology and, from 2016 on, annual conferences were arranged on this topic with the participation of the armed forces, industry and research institutes.
Autonomous Robotic Systems
It is clear that Russia pays great attention to the development of unmanned vehicles. President Putin realised and understood the significance of these vehicles based on his comments made in 2017: “An interesting and promising area is auton-omous robotic systems. They are able to fundamentally change all the weapon sys-tems of the general-purpose forces, and we need our own effective developments in this area as well”. Furthermore, a recent article in Armejskij Sbornik, describing the development of tactics over time, claims that the introduction of robotic systems is one of the most important tactical developments in combat.
From a Russian perspective, which has been consistent since at least 2013, UGVs perform the following roles:
- Breaking through fortified enemy positions;
- Forming ‘strongpoints’ in front of defensive positions in order to create fa-vourable preconditions for defending these positions;
- Fire support for fire offensives;
- Target acquisition and fire control for the artillery;
- Bomb disposal;
- Evacuation of casualties and damaged equipment from the battlefield;
- Mine laying, mine clearance and ensuring passages through minefields;
- Making smoke screens in areas covered by enemy fire;
- Delivery of munitions and fuel to units when under fire.
These tasks are reflected in the Russian ‘family’ of UGVs where one source lists 37 different types developed by eight research institutes and companies. This large number is because these different types are designed to each perform one specific task. However, this number might also indicate a lack of focus in the development of UGVs. The more interesting UGVs are those that are armed, introduced in the Russian Armed Forces, tested in combat or with an interesting design, among them the following:
- MARKER – a tracked vehicle equipped with a 7.62mm machine gun and ATGMs and possibly intended to work in tandem with mini-UAVs or other unmanned vehicles;
- NERECHTA – avehicle said to have been tested in Syria, equipped with artificial intelligence and appearing in three versions, fire support, reconnaissance or transport vehicle;
- R-27-BT – a further development of MRK-27, a vehicle intended for bomb disposal. It is equipped with a 7.62mm machine gun, RShG-2 rocket-propelled assault grenades and the thermobaric weapon RPO-A SHMEL;
- R-002-BG-57, VOLK-2 – equipped with a 7.62mm, or 12.7mm machine gun, alternatively a 30mm grenade launcher. In 2014, the vehicle was tested in strategic rocket troops and guarded silo-based missiles;
- PLATFORMA-M – a smaller tracked vehicle normally equipped with a 7.62mm machine gun and two RPG-26, although other alternatives exist. It has partici-pated in a number of exercises together with UAVs;
- SORATNIK – a tracked vehicle shown for the first time in 2016 and equipped with a 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine gun. In one version, it is augmented with a grenade launcher or ATGM, but even SAMs or a 30mm au-tomatic gun have been mentioned as armament. In addition, SORATNIK is claimed to be equipped with artificial intelligence;
- URAN-6 – amine clearing vehicle used in Chechnya and in Syria equipped with different mine clearing devices and a bulldozer blade. According to Russian media, a similar and modular vehicle, KAPITAN, has been recently tested;
- URAN-9 – a tracked vehicle equipped with a 7.62mm machine gun, a 30mm automatic gun, ATGM, and the thermobaric weapon RPO-A SHMEL;
- URAN-14 – a tracked unarmed vehicle with an appearance similar to the URAN-6 and fitted with firefighting equipment. In 2016, the 1st Engineer Brigade received three vehicles, while it is not known whether additional vehicles have been introduced in the Russian Armed Forces.There are also other vehicles that have received less media attention, for example, unmanned versions of the BMP-3, UDAR, VICHIR and the latest version, PALADIN, which among other UGVs, shown at the recent exhibition ARMIJA-2019. There might even be other vehicles yet unknown to a wider public.
Of the vehicles mentioned above, URAN-6 and URAN-9 are the most noteworthy. Both have been tested in Syria where it is reported URAN-9 failed to live up to ex-pectations – although the malfunctions noted are now said to have been rectified. URAN-9 is also part of a system, comprising four UGVs, a command post and vehicles for transportation and maintenance. URAN-6 has also been introduced in the Russian Armed Forces and, during 2019, at least 12 vehicles will be procured.
However, it is not only a question of developing different vehicles. One question that still has to be answered is how to use them on the battlefield? Will they be organised in separate units or incorporated in existing units? Although this question remains unanswered, during a scientific congress in 2018, the creation of a possible UGV-battalion was announced, which is probably more an idea or a ‘first draft’ and arguably will not be realised in the near future. Nevertheless, it is still interesting as it reflects Russian ideas in this regard.
Obviously, from a Russian perspective, while UGVs are seen as ensuring success on the battlefield and avoiding casualties, information on how to employ them on the battlefield remains scarce. However, a study by Bauman University in Moscow claims to have proven their advantages. Their study compared the use of a UGV unit to that of a conventional unit, reinforced mechanised company, when attacking a platoon strongpoint that had been prepared for defence for some time. The result was that the ‘conventional attack’ was more time consuming and result in more casualties, a result not changed even by introducing new tanks and APCs in the ‘conventional unit’(i.e. ARMATA and BUMERANG). Besides this study, there are also other ideas on how best to use UGVs to support a platoon-sized assault.
As of today, UGVs do not hold any advantages due to a number of problems, a fact acknowledged at a conference in 2018 when, based on the performance of URAN-9 in Syria, a high profile participant claimed that “modern Russian combat UGVs are unable to perform the assigned tasks in the classical types of combat operations.” The problems are mainly related to having an operator control the vehicle where she or he is separated from the vehicle and the operator´s situation awareness is based on footage from the vehicle or information from other onboard sensors. Therefore, the operator´s understanding of what is going on the battlefield can be flawed and the identified problems will not be solved in the coming 10 to 15 years. The solution is to give the UGVs an increased ability to act autonomously and automatically identify targets as ‘friend or foe’, which is something accomplished by the introduction of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles that are said to be developed no earlier than 2030.
Artificial intelligence in connection with armed unmanned vehicles is a controversial issue. Will armed UGVs have the ability and be allowed to autonomously employ lethal force when detecting what is perceived as an enemy or a likely target? Concerns with regard to artificial intelligence have been voiced from time to time, and a Russian analysis of the situation, made in 2018, pointed to a number of risks: a human being not involved in the decision making cycle; the strategic balance is upset by an actor getting technical or military superiority leading to an arms race; international law is cast aside; and the shortened time for intelligence collection’ and analysis implying that decisions are made based on mathematic algorithms and not on human logic.
Nevertheless, Russia is pursuing research and development on artificial intelligence for military purposes with these efforts emanating from Russian views on the nature of future warfare and a fear that other international actors might make advances in this field.
Clearly, Russia has come far when it comes to the development of UGVs with the Russian MoD realising their importance. Russia has also the advantage of having tested some UGVs in one combat environment, namely Syria, which is important for their development. Their use in Syria has revealed a number of shortcomings connected with their use on the battlefield have been noted as well as insights gained to spur their further development and introduction in the Russian Armed Forces. Their introduction demands the development of TOEs, introduction of new units, tactics and training of commanders on different levels, which will all take time. The appearance of autonomous vehicles by 2030 equipped with artificial intelligence remains debatable as Russia is lacking capacities in this sector. To this must also be added the discussion – both internationally and in Russia – regarding the use of the artificial intelligence in connection with unarmed vehicles.
To judge from the Russian interest in UGVs and the development of these vehicles, it is just a question of time until they will appear on the battlefield, although not in the short-term future. Nevertheless, it might already be prudent to consider how to engage with them. Is Russia the new ‘queen on the battlefield’?
Jörgen Elfving is a former lieutenant colonel in the Swedish army. From 2012 to 2016, he participated in a study at the Swedish Defence University focusing on the development of Russian military capability. He is a frequent contributor to magazines covering military issues, such as the Swedish Royal Academy of War Sciences Proceedings.
Mission Next-Level Weapon Stabilisation – Tailor-Made Meets ModularIn the development and production of military vehicles, time is not only money, but also relative. Years pass from the idea to the first deployment. In turn, vehicles are in service for decades before they need repairs and upgrades.