Armor: These Aren’t The Droids You’re Looking For

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September 13, 2021: Russia recently ordered four prototypes of a new armored UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) design; the Shturm (storm), which is based on the T-72B3 tank. This is part of a plan to organize heavy UGV companies which would contain up to ten vehicles, most of them UGVs, plus one or more similar vehicles manned by a crew of UGV operators and technicians to repair and maintain the unmanned vehicles. These UGVs would be armed and equipped for urban warfare. Weapons include short barrel 125mm and 152mm low velocity cannon as well as thermobaric (fuel air explosives) rockets and 30mm autocannon. All can be equipped with a dozer blade to remove debris blocking roads, or building rubble in general, to allow troops and manned combat vehicles to advance through a path cleared of obstacles as well as explosives in the form of mines, roadside bombs, explosive traps and explosive debris.

Storm UGVs replace manned engineer vehicles and small UGVs now used to deal with explosive obstacles. Even with the engineer vehicles and small UGVs there are casualties among the engineers and the nearby UGV operators. Storm UGVs are an intermediate design that would be replaced with UGVs based on the new Armata chassis that is better protected but a lot more expensive. The T-72B3 is currently the most widely used, popular and affordable Russian tank. The T-90 is similar but more expensive and popular with export customers. More T-90s were exported than the Russian army could afford to buy itself. T-90s are also an improved T-72 with a new name to attract more export customers. T-80s are an earlier effort to design a T-72 replacement but were not better enough to replace what already worked.

The Storm UGV is building on what was learned with earlier tank-like UGVs. Russia has not fixed all those problems but at least knows what needs work. The earlier vehicle was the 12-ton Uran-9 UGV. Two were sent to Syria in 2016 for combat testing. Uran-9 looks like a small tank and is equipped with remotely controlled 30mm and 7.62mm machine-guns as well as various guided missiles and unguided thermobaric rockets. The Uran-9s sent to Syria for combat experience did not get much of that because the remote-control system functioned poorly under battlefield conditions. The main problem was that the wireless remote-control system, while encrypted, had insufficient bandwidth (amount of data sent and received in real time) to handle what was required to remotely operate the sensors, the vehicle itself and its weapons. As designed and tested in rather less demanding conditions, the wireless datalink was supposed to operate at up to 2,800 meters. The controllers were in an armored 6x6 truck, safely out of the way as is the heavy truck that transports the Uran-9 to the battlefield.

In Syria, the command truck found it had to remain within 400 meters of the Uran 9 to maintain the datalink to any useful degree of bandwidth. Even then the bandwidth was often insufficient because of obstacles or other electronic devices operating nearby. This meant the operators could not get all the real-time data the sensors were capable of providing. The thermal and vidcam sensors were capable of spotting people or vehicles out to 6,000 meters in daylight and half of that at night. But because of the bandwidth problems, the sensors were only effective out to about 2,000 meters in daylight and half that at night. And that was only when the datalink was working at all. One problem should have been caught in testing; the sensors were not stabilized. As a result when the vehicle was moving the sensors and weapons were useless. Worse, when moving the datalink was often lost because of equipment problems or new signal interference.

The inability of the remote operator to “see” while the vehicle was moving often meant the Uran 9 hit obstacles a human operator would avoid. While tracked vehicles can travel over many obstacles, some of those obstacles (tree stumps, large chunks of rubble) put a lot of stress on the track laying system tanks rely on for greater mobility than tires. Tanks often have the driver and commander checking out the terrain ahead as the vehicle advances. A well-trained tank crew will quickly spot obstacles and know when to remind the driver slow down or evade dangerous obstacle. By comparison, the Uran 9 “driver” not only had less detailed and unreliable vision of the way ahead, but would have blurred vision while moving and have to deal with the unpredictable loss of control or vision. While the Uran 9 was armored against bullets and shell fragments, it was much more vulnerable to crippling damage because it was often driving half (or completely) blind across the cluttered battlefield. The Uran 9 spent a lot of time getting its running gear (tracks, suspension and wheels) repaired because of avoidable collisions.

The two machine-guns in the Uran 9 turret were rarely fired because the vehicle had to stop, confirm that it had a good datalink and then scan the terrain ahead for any targets. When the 30mm autocannon fired the vibrations rendered the remotely controlled sensors useless until the firing stopped. That brought out another unpredictable flaw; response delays. The remote operator would transmit a command and it would often not be received and acted on in real time. There were often delays of several seconds or up to a minute. Sometimes the command would seemingly be ignored by the Uran 9. This made use of the other weapons on the Uran 9 impossible. There were four ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) mounted outside the turret that could hit targets 6,000 meters away. These Ataks missiles were laser guided and required some operator control. This could not be reliably supplied by remote control to the Uran 9. There were also a dozen unguided rockets and if you could get one of these to fire you didn’t have to worry about guiding them.

By the time details of Uran 9’s battlefield performance got back to army headquarters in Russia, 22 of them had already been purchased and delivered. The manufacturer agreed to fix the flaws, or at least try to. At this point the Russians could understand why the Americans had tried using remotely controlled combat vehicles in a combat zone but never followed through. The Americans also encountered datalink reliability and bandwidth problems. Even operators of UAVs, which fly over the battlefield, encounter unreliable communications. Satellite datalinks are more reliable but they are not possible for smaller UAVs which rely on flight control software that automatically switches to “circle” or “return home” when there are communications problems. Russian UGV developers have a lot to learn about all this and now better appreciate why small UGVs used for EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) often rely on a data cable rather than wireless control.

Since 2016 Russian firms have developed several armed UGVs but only one of them entered service; the five-ton Uran-6, which was more successful than Uran 9 because it was based on the vast combat experience of numerous similar devices. Uran 6 saw action in Syria as an unarmed UGV for combat engineers dealing with landmines, roadside bombs and, most importantly, ensuring that a route was clear of explosives. To accomplish that Uran-6 was equipped with several accessories like a plow, flail (for setting off landmines) or robotic arms. The large size of the Uran-6 enabled it to survive nearby exploding mines or bombs and keep operating. The Uran-6 is powered by a 240 HP gasoline engine. Uran 6 could be remotely controlled from up to 1,500 meters away, but 800 meters was the most reliable distance. Use in Syria was apparently a validation effort because engineers were seen double checking for mines with more conventional mine detectors after the Uran-6 had declared the route clear. In late 2020 Uran 6 was used in Armenia for EOD work and was reported to be efficient and reliable. The year before the army had received twelve more of the latest Uran-6 models. There have been no export customers yet.

Uran-6 has to compete in a mature market for EOD UGVs, a market the United States and Israel have dominated for two decades. Uran-6 is the largest EOD UGV and Russia hoped it would find a market niche in the EOD market after it proved successful in Syria. Armed UGVs are a more difficult sell but Russia is eager to avoid casualties among its own troops in Syria and armed UGVs are seen as a potential solution.

Armed UGVs are nothing new and one armed with explosives was used by the Germans during World War II. This was the gasoline-powered “Goliath” that was not successful. Currently, armed UGVs are most often produced by Israel and South Korea for patrolling long borders that are threatened by armed intruders. American manufacturers can and have armed their UGVs but find it more profitable to let the Israelis, South Koreans, Russians and Chinese have that market.

UGVs have become more common since the late 1990s, and are usually unarmed, and useful mainly for recon and surveillance in very dangerous situations. Even though armed UGVs have been developed and remain under remote control by a human operator, many nations resist adopting them, just as they resist armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Yet there has never been similar opposition to sea-based unmanned armed weapons or even those that are not even under remote control. An example of this is the naval torpedo, which first appeared in the late 19th century. A century later it became possible to add remote control to high-end torpedo models and these are regularly carried by many submarines.

But for nations under constant threat of attack, the attitudes are different. Since 2001 Israel has developed several generations of armed UGVs. One of the more recent of these is Dogo, a smaller (12 kg/26 pounds), more aware (constant 360 degree camera coverage) and more lethal remotely controlled robot. Dogo showed up in 2016 and was designed with lots of input from soldiers and police who have been using UGVs for over a decade. Dogo is armed with a 9mm pistol loaded with 14 rounds and aimed by cameras dedicated to aiming the pistol accurately at ranges of up to 50 meters. Commandos and SWAT teams can carry one or more battery operated Dogos with them on missions that can benefit from a very mobile (it can climb steps) UGV that has night vision, is quiet and can hear as well as broadcast whatever the operator has to say (like hostage negotiation or demanding surrender). Many of these features have been found in earlier UGVs but never one as small or as capable.

Since 2006 the Israeli military has been moving its UGVs from guard duty to the battlefield. During that time Israeli infantry and several new generations of UGVs have been working together to see exactly what works and what doesn’t. The basic idea here is to have UGVs with good enough sensors to successfully move across a battlefield in front of troops and look out for mines, roadside bombs, ambushes or any signs of the enemy at all. This gives the troops following close behind a better idea of what nasty surprises the enemy has for them and an opportunity to avoid lots of casualties and hit harder than the enemy expected. Dogo can do this as well as have its 9mm weapon replaced with pepper spray, a blinding flash or other non-lethal devices to deal with human threats.

Both Israel and the United States have already discovered that armed UGVs are not very successful on their own. But Israel believes that new designs, operating in close cooperation (as an advanced guard while moving into hostile territory) with infantry and manned armored vehicles might work well enough to justify regular use. The new UGVs are similar to the armed four-wheeled vehicles Israel has been successfully using for guard duty along the Gaza and Lebanon borders. The eventual success of these UGVs encouraged trying to use them in combat.

Previous use of armed UGVs in active combat zones showed that these systems were vulnerable to attack and interference, which are the main reasons for not using them. Unless the cameras and other sensors (sound, heat and seismic) can pick up hostiles far enough away, the remotely controlled weapon can be destroyed, along with many of the sensors, blinding the operators. By 2009 both the U.S. and Israel had developed smaller armed robots. The American systems are called Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System). This was a 57 kg (125 pound) remotely controlled vehicle that looked like a miniature tank. These were armed with 5.56mm machine-guns and 350 rounds of ammo. Also known as Talon IIIB, the army spent over a year testing them in the United States before sending some to Iraq in 2008. There they found there were many ways to mess with Swords. Many tricks didn't even damage the equipment; like having a child or woman come out and throw a towel or sheet over it.

Israel has a similar system called Viper that carries a 9mm machine pistol (an Uzi) and can carry explosives, along with the usual video camera and microphones. Both Swords and Viper do have their uses, like entering very dangerous situations such as caves or buildings believed occupied by fanatical gunmen. The droids can also be used for guard duty in dangerous locations, where the enemy might get a shot off, or toss a grenade. But no matter what you have the battle robots do, the mechanical grunts lack the same degree of situational awareness of a human soldier. This requires much better sensors that have been available so far. The sensors used on droids (mainly visual and acoustic) are getting better, as is the software that can quickly evaluate what the sensors see and hear. But humans can also smell, and feel (on their skin), as well as using superior vision and hearing. Until the sensors get better, the combat robots will always be at a disadvantage. But if used with those disadvantages kept in mind, the robots do have their uses. Dogo is the latest effort to expand that usefulness and more are on the way. Russia, on the other hand, prefers their traditional brute force approach. Thus you have Uran-6 and Uran-9. When used via remote control by nearby operators these can be effective. But only a lot of combat experience will let you know just how effective. So far, not much.

 


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