Weapons: Russian Droids Rush To Syria

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May 14, 2018: Since 2016 Russian firms have revealed the existence of several armed UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) but only one of them appears to have entered service; the five ton Uran-6. This one has seen action in Syria in an unarmed version for use by combat engineers to deal with landmines, roadside bombs and, most importantly, ensuring that a route is clear of mines and bombs. To accomplish that Uran-6 can be equipped with a number of accessories like a plow, flail (for setting off landmines) or robotic arms. The large size of the Uran-6 enables it to survive close proximity to exploding mines or bombs and keep going. The Uran-6 is battery powered (for up to 16 hours per charge) and remotely controlled from a distance of up to 1,500 meters. Use in Syria seems to be combat testing because engineers have been seeing double checking for mines with more conventional mine detectors after the Uran-6 had already checked a route.

Uran-6 could be armed but there is a larger (ten ton, diesel powered) Uran-9 which looks like a small tank and described as equipped to handle a variety of remotely controlled guns, missiles and flamethrowers. At least one Uran-9 has been sent to Syria for combat zone experience but there are no reports of actual combat activity. Uran-6 is designed to compete in a mature market for EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) UGVs, a market the United States and Israel have dominated for nearly two decades. Uran-6 is the largest EOD UGV and could find a niche in the EOD market if it proves successful in Syria. Armed UFVs are a more difficult sale but Russia is eager to avoid casualties among its own troops in Syria and armed UGVs are seen as a potential solution.

In late 2017 Russia revealed that it an armed UGV ready for service. This one, the Nerekhta, is literally a small tank, weighing 300 kg (660 pounds) and able to move silently on rubber tracks at up to 11 kilometers an hour. The armor protects the one meter (40 inch) long UGV from small arms fire and most shell and grenade fragments. Battery powered, it can be armed with a RWS (remotely controlled weapons system) equipped with 12.7mm or 7.62mm machine-gun or an AGS-30 automatic 30mm grenade launcher. The RWS can be quickly replaced with 50 kg of explosives and the Nerekhta can be used on a one-way mission to deliver the explosives. Sensors enable the remote operator to see around the UGV day or night. Uran-9 is a much larger version of this.

Armed UGVs are nothing new and one armed with explosives were used by the Germans (as the gasoline powered “Goliath”) during World War II. Currently, armed UGVs are most often produced by Israel and South Korea for patrolling long borders that are often 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 man 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, thus 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 Detecting System). This was a 57 kg (125 pound) remotely controlled vehicles that looked like a miniature tank. These were armed with a 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 into very dangerous situations (like a cave or building 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.

 


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