February 4, 2023:
When Ukraine finally got its Western supporters to send tanks, Ukrainians were encouraged. The tanks sought were the German Leopard 2 and the American M1. Both tanks are roughly equal in performance but Leopards are more numerous in Europe and can be delivered quickly by European NATO. The Americans are far away and generally ignore that fact the closer you are to Russia the more bad experiences you have had with Russia, the more sympathetic you are to the Ukrainian situation and their need for whatever weapons they believe will do them the most good. It’s no secret that the M1 tanks have faced Russian tanks several times since the 1990s and confirmed the degree of superiority the M1 has over Russian tanks and anti-tank weapons. American also tend to believe that Russians are open to sincere negotiations and that East European attitudes towards Russia are often exaggerated.
What this means is that while Leopard 2s are already arriving in Ukraine, the M1s won’t arrive for months. This despite that there are already several hundred M1s in Europe. To Poland and other East Europe NATO allies, American attitudes often appear as mystifying as the Russian. An example of this is the Russian attitudes and reactions towards M1s and Leopards. Early on the Americans saw sending M1s to Ukraine as a counterproductive move because the Russian might escalate or even resort to nuclear weapons. The Americans disregarded Ukrainians and east European pointing out that Russia had already escalated and had nothing left to escalate with except empty threats of retaliation.
An example of this came from Russia in response to the news that Leopards and M1s were on the way. Russia pointed out that M1s would be destroyed in Ukraine by a new Russian anti-tank weapon, the three-ton Marker UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle). Russia claims that Marker contains revolutionary mobility and target detection and identification software and sensors. Marker has been known about for at least six years, and was known to have been tested as an unmanned security system for a Russian spaceport (Cosmodrome). Marker was apparently able to reliably carry out the patrols and identify what it saw. These Markers were not armed, because the Russians were not yet confident that they had perfected a system that would ensure no accidental gun fire at the wrong targets. Now Russia claims that the Marker navigation and detection/identification sensors and software are operational and have an effective range of 14 kilometers. Marker is now supposed to be armed with an unidentified weapons system that will destroy M1s and Leopards.
The reality of Russian UGV developments reveals a different situation. Russia has been trying to develop an effective military UGV since the 1990s. This has led to an impressive list of failures. The latest one is not Marker but a 2021 development. Russia ordered four prototypes of a new armored UGV design called Shturm (storm). This one is based on the widely used (by Russian troops) T-72B3 tank. This was 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 would replace manned engineer vehicles and small UGVs now used to deal with explosive obstacles. Even with the engineer vehicles and small UGVs, there are still casualties among the engineers and nearby UGV operators. Storm UGVs are considered an intermediate design that would be replaced with UGVs based on the new Armata tank/IFV chassis that is better protected but a lot more expensive. The T-72B3 is the most widely used, popular and affordable Russian tank.
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 data link 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 data link 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 data link 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 to slow down or evade dangerous obstacles. 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 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. 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 data link 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. Starlink communications hardware enables Ukrainian UAVs with satellite links to be smaller than Russian ones.
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. Marker is supposed to deal with all these problems by operating autonomously and use more reliable sensors and software that can navigate a battlefield as effectively as an experienced human tank driver. Proof of these claims has yet to appear.
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 and sell UGVs that are far more capable that what the Russians have come up with.