Armor: Chinese Combat Droids Evolving

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May 17, 2020: The Chinese military is developing and using a growing number of UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles). This includes USVs (unmanned surface vessels) for the navy and unarmed UGVs for the missile forces that speed up the preparation of missiles for combat use. The air force found that the UGVs are more accurate in handling the missile components and lifting them into firing position. This is also safer than using troops to do it, who are slower and more prone to accidents that injure personnel and damage the missiles.

Unlike most Western nations the Chinese are not reticent about arming their UGVs and USVs. For example, a new UGV, the Mule 200, was recently developed for getting supplies to troops in an active combat zone. The half-ton armored vehicle runs on tracks and stores up to 200 kg (440 pounds) of supplies in an armored compartment. Mule 200 can also be equipped with a RWS (Remotely controlled weapons station) using a 7.62 or 12.7mm machine-gun. The Mule 200 is remotely controlled and can move at up to 50 kilometers an hour on a road and less over even difficult terrain. The gasoline-electric engine can travel up to 50 kilometers before refueling. The cargo space can also be fitted with fuel tanks to more than double that range.

Another UGV, the Sharp Claw, was introduced in 2014 and is now in service with combat units. This UGV weighs 120 kg (264 pounds), is 70 cm (2.25 feet) long, 60 cm (two feet) tall, runs on tracks and is battery powered. Its primary use is reconnaissance in an active combat zone where there is a lot of enemy activity. Sharp Claw is protected against most bullets and equipped with enough sensors to operate autonomously and thus impervious to electronic jamming. It can be armed with a 7.62mm machine-gun that is active when operating autonomously. In other words, Sharp Claw can return fire when scouting under remote control and is thus better able to eliminate armed resistance as well as improve its chances of returning.

China makes no secret of its willingness to use armed UGVs operating autonomously. Sharp Claw can also act as a day and night sentinel in a combat zone while stationary. This provides a more reliable lookout to alert troops of an approaching enemy. There is also a one ton unarmored 6x6 Sharp Claw 2 that has a large enough cargo bay to hold the smaller Sharp Claw. This wheeled Sharp Claw 2 can move at up to 30 kilometers an hour on roads or ten kilometers an hour over rough terrain. Sharp Claw can also be armed with a 30mm autocannon or anti-tank weapons. It is battery powered with four hours of endurance before a recharge or battery replacement is needed. Both Sharp Claw vehicles are designed for use at an active front line situation to speed up operations while keeping troop casualties down. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that this use of UGVs works and is good for morale.

China has been working on ground combat UGVs for over a decade, based in part by the American and Israeli experience. For example in 2018 Chinese state TV broadcast a video of a soldier operating a T-59 (clone of Russian T-55) tank remotely. These autonomous/remotely controlled large (over a ton) UGVs are being developed worldwide. This is nothing unique as China has had armored vehicles operating autonomously since at least 2013 and has been energetically applying that technology to self-driving commercial vehicles. These are being tested on public roads with the objective of wide-scale use.

What China is also doing is developing self-driving routines for combat vehicles, so that one tank with a human crew could control a large number of tanks operated by “combat AI (Artificial Intelligence)” software. There are many other possible applications and China intends to be first in this field. To that end, in 2016, the Chinese military conducted a competition between commercial, military and academic autonomous vehicle designers to see who had the most impressive designs and be awarded a cash prize.) . China is known to be making much progress in AI but has not released a lot of details of how this would be applied to autonomous vehicles.

Israel was and still is a leader in AUV and ASV design and development for years and applied the tech to vehicles offered for export. China saw Israel as the most formidable competitor in this field and has followed Israeli developments closely. This was especially the case with military and security UGVs. In mid-2016 China was particularly interested when an Israeli firm introduced yet another in a long-line of UGVs. This one was called RoBattle. It is a seven ton vehicle that can carry up to three tons of sensors, weapons and other accessories, like robotic arms. RoBattle is a 6x6 vehicle with independent suspension so that it can move off-road with nearly as much agility as a tracked vehicle. RoBattle is designed to be equipped with numerous combinations of accessories designed to be quickly added or removed. Like earlier UGVs RoBattle can patrol roads or cross-country or remain unattended for up to twelve hours at a time in sentinel or ambush mode. RoBattle takes advantage of the development of better vehicle navigation sensors that enable it to not only move autonomously on roads but also off-road. Obstacles are automatically avoided or a human operator is alerted to intervene remotely for unusual situations (like an obstacle difficult to get over or around, or being fired on).

RoBattle is not revolutionary, but evolutionary. You could see it coming since the late 1990s. After a decade of development, in 2006 an Israeli firm produced a robotic vehicle based on the two seater all-terrain "TomCar" vehicle. Called AvantGuard, the robotic vehicle used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross country operation as well. The designers knew that improved sensors, software and computers would improve capabilities. The AvantGuard mounted a RWS turret equipped with a 7.62mm machine-gun. The vehicle had digital cameras facing every direction and used pattern recognition to identify potential threats, like people sneaking around where they are not supposed to be, or obstacles on the road. The idea was that a pair of human operators could control a dozen or more AvantGuard vehicles. This system was particularly effective at night because it had night vision and moved quietly. Weighing only 1.3 tons, the AvantGuard was protected against rifle fire and fragments from shells and smaller roadside bombs. AvantGuard proved adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza. Too many things could go wrong out in the desert (obstacles in the road, hostile action) that AvantGuard could not handle.

AvantGuard was followed in 2008 by Guardium, which built on AvantGuard tech and used the same TomCar vehicle with a remote control turret. Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium was pitched as "smart" enough to be used in urban areas and to serve as an emergency response vehicle. That is, these would be stationed along isolated stretches of the border, ready to drive off to deal with any terrorists who had gotten through the fence. The Guardium would thus arrive before a human quick reaction team, which would be stationed farther away. Guardium is still in service with the Israeli military.

Other nations have been developing their own armed UGVs. In 2014 Russia joined the United States and Israel and began using robotic vehicles to help guard five ballistic missile bases. Before that several Russian manufacturers were offering small remotely controlled or autonomous robotic vehicles for dealing with bombs or patrolling hazardous areas and detecting radiation. These were found useful by police and military bomb disposal teams, especially when providing security around Cold War era sites that were contaminated by high radiation levels. The most widely known one in the west is Chernobyl but there are several others that were never publicized and some that were actual secrets outside Russia until the Cold War ended. Thus Russia had a major incentive to design and build devices competitive with those produced in the United States, Israel, South Korea and a few other countries. Chinese manufacturers have been offering UGVs to compete with the Israeli models, which have the advantage of being “combat proven” because of their use to patrol volatile borders (like Gaza). China has another advantage in that they will sell advanced military tech to just about anyone who can pay, if only to get the stuff some combat experience. China plays the long game and sees the point where their latest UGV tech is kept at home as being close, but still a decade or more away. This is one reason why China is putting so much effort into developing more effective AI (artificial intelligence) software. That, plus the Chinese willingness to arm UGVs and let them operate autonomously makes future Chinese combat UGVs a scary possibility.

 


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