Land combat robots – the future of the battlefield. What Russia, US and other countries have?
This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.
WARSAW, (BM) – Although many countries around the world are accelerating work on the development of unmanned land combat platforms. Some countries despite their significant scientific and industrial potential – do not decide to start government work in this area.
A land combat robot or, more simply and with regard to the present possibilities, for most people, an armed robot is associated with a machine made like a man, operating independently, as part of several copies or even mass armies. This image of a robot soldier can be found in numerous science fiction novels or movies. And this, in principle, remains in the minds of many of us. How does it actually look like? Let us try to present the current state of research and the first effects of introducing armed land robots into operation on the example of a few selected countries in the world.
Time to arm the robot
To begin with, let’s ask ourselves – why is the robotization of military operations needed at all? The answer seems relatively simple. Because the dynamics of the activities carried out today, the requirement to maintain the maneuverability of troops, the necessary short reaction time to rapidly changing scenarios on the battlefield, the multiplicity of signals and stimuli simply exceed human capabilities more and more often. In turn, the greatest advantage of the robot, in relation to the currently operated manned platforms, will be the lack of a human being. It seems to be the weakest element of the modern combat system.
The unmanned machine will be much lighter, more maneuverable and mobile (tactically and operationally). It can move freely in almost any environment. What’s more, also in the area contaminated with weapons of mass destruction or endangered with explosion, fire, flooding, etc. Unmanned platforms can be much more prepared to meet the challenges in the sphere of diversified military operations in urbanized areas. Their loss will not result in such socio-political repercussions as death or wounds suffered among soldiers (for example, bearing in mind the so-called Mogadishu effect in the case of the American armed forces). In addition, in the era of reducing the manpower of the armed forces in the world, it is unmanned platforms and robotization that are indicated in terms of the possibility of relieving the army, with simultaneously growing operational needs.
From the military point of view, the disadvantage of the current generation of robots is their high sensitivity to physical damage and attacks with the use of WRE (radio-electronic warfare) systems, including, for example, an advanced cyber attack on systems supporting / managing unmanned platforms systems or on one of them.
It is also worth paying attention to the problem, often raised by specialists, of maintaining the right balance in the cost-effect relationship in the development, production and use of robots. At the present stage, it is pointless to design a universal armed machine, capable of cooperation with any Land / Special Forces formation, in almost all terrain and environmental conditions. The contradictory tactical and technical requirements as well as the high cost of armaments and specialized equipment of such a robot mean that considering such a construction is currently a mistake for utilitarian and economic reasons. The Russians know it best, now trying to develop families of specialized robots of various scales of structural unification.
The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (FR) have quite extensive experience in the use of land robots, including armed robots. There are, among others, in operation The Uran-9 remotely controlled reconnaissance and combat vehicle, which has already been tested in combat in Syria. According to the Russians themselves, it often happened that the operator controlling such a robot, quite accidentally, lost it. In addition, problems with the use of the 30 mm automatic cannon (including delays in the opening of fire or problems with its stabilization), incorrect operation of the optoelectronic head (occurrence of the interference phenomenon) and failure to adjust its parameters to the specific environment of the robots’ operation were noted.
Additionally, there were minor problems with the suspension and running gear. In most cases, these were typical technical defects, which could be removed by some modifications or the introduction of appropriate substitutes. However, another, much more serious problem was the limitation of missions possible for a single robot. Its tactical and technical parameters meant that it was not able to carry out all the tasks desired by soldiers in a given situation.
The aforementioned Uran-9 complex includes an armored reconnaissance vehicle / robot (4 copies), a mobile checkpoint, transport and spare parts kits. The robot itself is remotely controlled using a radio channel (the range depends on the operating environment, not less than 3000 meters). It can move in a silent mode (using an electric drive), autonomously along a set route (with independent detection and avoidance of encountered terrain obstacles), retranslate commands (at a distance of not less than 1000 meters) from a control station or remote control panels to other vehicles and autonomously track detected targets.
The armament of Uranus-9 consists of a 30 mm 2A72 automatic cannon, a 7.62 mm PKTM gun, four 9M120-1 Ataka ATGMs and six 93 mm RPO PDM-A Bumblebee-M rocket flamethrowers. In addition, it was equipped with smoke grenade launchers and a warning system for radiation with a laser or pulse illuminator.
The weight of the wagon is 14,000 kg, it is 5600 mm long, 2500 mm wide and 3100 mm high. The main source of propulsion was a JaMZ-5347-16 diesel engine with a capacity of 300 kW, ensuring a maximum speed of 35 km / h and a range of 200 km.
The BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle has already been used as a base for the Wichr unmanned system. It was presented, among others with a light position of the MB2-03. The systems and systems used in it (remotely controlled optoelectronic sensors, tracking, laser rangefinders and a central control unit) can also be mounted on other chassis weighing from 7 to 15 tons.
A completely new turret, on one of the gift robots, weighs 1450 kg, and its armament is a 30 mm 2A72 automatic cannon, a coupled 7.62 mm PKT / PKTM gun and two triple integrated 9M133 Kornet-M ATGM launchers. Other weapons systems proposed to be mounted on this robotic chassis include AA rocket launchers Needle or Verba, 30 mm automatic grenade launcher GSH-6-30K or 12.7 mm NSWT / Kord.
Moreover, such a vehicle could also carry a small, tethered multi-rotor UAV which would have an almost unlimited flight time thanks to the wired link (and the data acquisition would not be sensitive to disturbance). It is also proposed as a mother platform for four MRP-100/300 small wheeled robots, designed for close reconnaissance on the ground.
Another suggestion to robotize this IFV is Udar, this time with the famous Epoch tower. This remotely controlled robot would ultimately be a fully autonomous combat unit, capable of independently carrying out combat and reconnaissance tasks. The Paladin robot complex, on the other hand, consists of a specially adapted BMP-3 Dragun chassis, and additionally, the set includes a portable control panel.
However, not only the BMP-3 is proposed for an unmanned version, in the case of the Russians it is also about tanks from the T-72 family. As part of the Sztorm program, four new unmanned variants of this vehicle are to be created, namely:
- a tank armed with a 125 mm D-414 cannon with a barrel length of 32 calibers. This 50,000 kg vehicle would be additionally equipped with a blade, and would be used primarily in urban combat;
- combat vehicle with RPO-2 Trzmiel-M launcher package;
- a universal combat machine with a turret system with two 30 mm 2A42 automatic cannons, RPO-2 launchers and a blade;
- Carrier for the 220 mm MO.1.01.04M 16-guide missile launcher.
All of them will also be equipped with ASOP (capable of intercepting up to 10 ÷ 15 missiles with rgppanc.) And 7.62 mm PKTM.
The Marker unmanned modular ground vehicle, on the other hand, has a tracked chassis, a hull with specialized equipment and the possibility of placing various sensors, optoelectronic heads, radar and weapons on its roof. In the disclosed variant, it transfers the ZSMU with a MG and two ATGMs. The specialist equipment includes, among others warning and self-shielding systems, thermal sensors, infrared cameras, optional mini BSP, laser and laser rangefinder, highlight the target, autotracker or ID (IFF).
Marker is also equipped with a multispectral vision system and a modified data processing system. The latter includes neural network algorithms, which include enable full analysis of the environment and data obtained from own and cooperating sensors, which in turn ensures operation in a fully autonomous mode.
The said robot can also be remotely controlled or cooperate with soldiers. In the latter case, he receives data about the targets directly from the targeting system mounted on their weapons or from portable sets intended for detection / precise determination of the target’s position or its illumination.
The Platforma-M armored robot is to become one of the elements of the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile defense system. In addition, it is to be used for reconnaissance, patrolling and support for the operations of land and special forces, also in anti-diversion or anti-terrorist actions. It was armed with a 7.62 mm PKT / PKTM MG and a universal launcher for four anti-tank grenade launchers (on stabilized platforms). However, the imaging and reconnaissance system includes a radar reconnaissance station and a stabilized optoelectronic head equipped with, among others in day and night vision / thermal cameras and laser rangefinders. It can work in automatic and semi-automatic mode. The operating range of the steering system is estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 meters from the operator.
One of the latest proposals is the combat Nierecht (Нерехта), which is part of the Kungas robot family. The machines included in its composition are designed to perform various tasks, but they have compatible control systems with the possibility of their supervision from one, extensive operator’s station. It was decided to create a whole complex of universal robots of various sizes, carrying out specific tasks individually or mutually cooperating (complementing each other).
Nierecht is available in three versions – combat, reconnaissance vehicle for artillery and transport. It enables carrying up to 500 kg of payload. Its maximum speed is 32 km / h (hybrid, diesel-electric drive), and the ability to detect potential targets is up to 5,000 meters (recognition up to 2,000 meters). The armament to be carried is usually an ATGM, 7.62 mm PKTM machine gun, 12.7 mm Kord MG, or a 30 mm AG-30 automatic grenade launcher. The robot also has armored places that are vulnerable to fire or shrapnel destruction. It is already an autonomous vehicle.
This robot is especially useful for reconnaissance and combat in urban areas, including supporting infantry soldiers with fire, conducting patrols or performing special missions behind the lines of military contact. In addition, it will be equipped with systems capable of controlling it by voice and gestures.
In 2008, TALON robots in the SWORDS version (Special Weapons Observation Reconneissance Direct-action System) were used in Iraq, equipped with the 5.56 mm M249 MG. Initially, there were a few technical problems with them, but they were resolved over time. The TRAP T-250D Mk IV module used on them also allowed for the installation of 7.62 mm km M240 or 12.7 mm M109 MGs. These robots were operated in the 3rd Brigade Combat Group, which was part of the 3rd Infantry Division. This is the first type to receive a safety certificate for an armed land unmanned vehicle.
The modular MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) has become the direct successor of the TALON. Depending on the nature of the mission, it can be equipped with a 7.62 mm M240B KM module or a manipulator with a grapple capable of handling objects weighing up to 45 kg. Module replacement is quick and can be done in the field.
Currently, the US Army has developed a document called “Robotic and Autonomous Systems”, referred to as the strategy for the development of this type of machines in the future (published in March 2017). It is a kind of vision describing the cooperation of manned and unmanned steered systems, as well as semi-autonomous and fully autonomous systems on the future battlefield. It also includes guidelines for infantry companion robots, which are considered urgent needs.
The very concept of a companion robot, in the form of the SMET (Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport) program, dominates the US Army. In the USMC, however, we deal with the MUTT (Multipurpose Unmanned Tactical Transport) program.
And although SMET will mainly create robots to relieve infantry soldiers in the transport of weapons, ammunition, food and other necessary equipment, or to carry out reconnaissance tasks and tasks related to the detection and removal of dangerous goods along the way, the proposed structures themselves can also be armed.
And so, the MUTT of the GDLS concern, i.e. a platform with a 4×4 drive system weighing 385 kg and a marching speed of over 13 km / h, can be armed with a KM, GWM or 60 mm mortar.
On the other hand, HDT Global Hunter WOLF (Wheeled Offoad Logistics Follower) in a 6×6 chassis, hybrid drive (engine / integrated generator with 130 HP) is also adapted to mount ZSMU with 7.62 mm km, 12.7 mm kgm or 40 mm Automatic grenade launcher (or a combination of these weapons), light trawl or assault bridge, backhoe loader set or carrying special stretchers for two wounded. The same applies to the tracked RS2-H1 from Howe & Howe.
Moreover, interesting constructions include the CaMEL robot (Carry-all Mechanized Equipment Landrover). It is a multifunctional task platform that can perform both fire support and protection tasks. The hybrid engine used in it ensures quiet, continuous operation for over 20 hours.
In addition, older versions of the M113 transporters have been converted into unmanned combat vehicles (the so-called “drive-by-wire” application will be installed in them). As a result, they will act as replacement (test) platforms for the next-generation light (L-Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV), medium (M-RCV) and heavy (H-RCV) robots sought by the US Army.
The program has several stages. In the first, such robot transporters are controlled by operators operating from manned platforms. In the next stage, it is planned to introduce limited and full autonomy to these selected platforms. Everything incl. thanks to the appropriate package of special sensors, artificial intelligence and the ability to independently search and target targets (AiTD / R).
The robotic M113 is controlled by the Bradley IFV, referred to in this program as Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators (MET-D), because it is equipped with a number of functions and sensors cooperating with the weapon and data acquisition system.
Other interesting facts include the autonomous M1296 Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle-Dragoon (ICV-D), armed with the ZSMU Protector MCT-30 with a 30 mm XM813 automatic cannon and a 7.62 mm M240 machine gun. This vehicle was equipped with an interface and software tested on the above-mentioned M2 and M113 for the purpose of fire tests.
In India, the Muntra robot research program developed on the basis of the BMP-1 is being implemented. We are basically dealing with three robotic vehicles. Muntra-S would be used for reconnaissance and observation of the battlefield, Muntra-M is an engineering robot (mine search and removal or IED) and Muntra-M will collect data on the effects of nuclear strikes. The modest data shows that they were equipped with radar stations, optoelectronic heads and laser rangefinders.
In Belarus, a compact tracked robot was constructed as part of the Bogomol complex, one of the variants of which may be a tank destroyer. So far, it is supervised by an operator away from it up to a maximum of 305 meters. So it can be used in an ambush or where the decisive factor is the surprise.
However, further work is underway to increase the control range and introduce greater autonomy of operation. One of the considered variants is the additional use of a multicopter UAV, which would increase the communication range to over 9600 meters. Several types of ATGMs are listed as possible armaments, incl. Bassoon, Competition and Metis, as well as the Hornet missile guided by a laser beam. The robot carries up to four such missiles. Its weight is approx. 1,850 kg and the armor withstands fire from a 7.62 mm caliber at a distance of 300 meters.
Another robot from this country is the Centaur, which was designed to perform reconnaissance missions and limited fire support for anti-terrorists, reconnaissance units and subunits fighting in urban areas. The armament carried by this robot includes two four-barrel GShG-7.62 machine guns, which can fire at selected land and air targets moving at speeds of up to 300 km / h at a maximum distance of 1000 meters. Such a system can be used for surface protection (patrolling along a designated route) or for automatic protection of the facility. The control range is up to 5000 meters (depending on the environmental conditions of the operating area). In addition, the robot is equipped with an advanced optoelectronic head, smoke grenade launchers or a specially dedicated drive system.
One of the most famous companies in the world dealing with robots is the Estonian Milrem Robotics, which has been developing the unmanned THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) for years.
The idea of creating this structure is primarily to support the activities of subunits of land forces (including direct fire support, transport of equipment, disarming IEDs, evacuation of the wounded or conducting reconnaissance in the area occupied by the enemy).
The high versatility of this machine has been achieved thanks to the unusual design in which the drive and power system components (electric motor and battery pack) are placed in a special system of tracks constituting two identical modules. This solution provides a relatively large usable space in the middle of the platform, and thus the installation of various ZSMUs or other types of weapons. Recently, THeMIS with a Brimstone or MMP 6 missile launcher was presented.
THeMIS can be used for 10 hours of continuous operation, in remote control mode or as an autonomous vehicle in operation. The latest models are the Type 3 and the slightly longer (approx. 300 mm) Type 4 with increased loading capacity. They are equipped with a positioning system based on GPS, 3D LIDAR or stereoscopic cameras. The next step will be to use artificial intelligence elements in the control system.
An ambitious land-based robot development program is underway in South Korea. In principle, two unmanned vehicles are considered. The first in a 6×6 system, with a hybrid-electric (lithium-ion batteries) drive, intended to be used as a combat platform armed with, among others ZSMU with 7.62 mm MG or two ATGM launchers. This prototype is 4300 mm long and 2500 mm wide, and its maximum speed on the road is approx. 60 km / h (each wheel with independent suspension is driven by a separate electric motor located in its hub).
The second platform is 4,400 mm long and has a front-mounted mine detection radar (the platform can be optionally manned). It can also serve as a logistic support system for military operations. It is assumed that in the future the new vehicles will cooperate with a new generation of combat vehicles and will be connected to the network of modern C4ISR systems.
In Israel, a special role in the RoBattle robot was placed on achieving high tactical mobility. This robot is capable of negotiating vertical obstacles with a height of 1,200 mm and carrying a load of up to 3,000 kg. The extensive set of sensors and applied systems include, among others ZSMU, ISR reconnaissance sensors, electro-optical heads, IED anti-charge systems, radar / LIDAR, laser and electronic support modules in independent decision making.
Another robot from this country is the Rambow, in which each wheel is driven by an independent electric motor, and the running gear has independent suspension of all wheels. This vehicle weighs 3,500 kg and has a payload of over 1,000 kg. A special, removable rear module enables easy reconfiguration of the vehicle for tasks such as logistic security, medical evacuation or combat support. Thanks to the mounted sensors (including electro-optical, ultra-sonic or laser sensors), it has the ability to autonomously move in a given area, detect and avoid obstacles, so that the operator can concentrate more on the mission, not on the control itself. It can be equipped with a ZSMU or a retractable mast with an optoelectronic head.
ST Kinetics from Singapore develops the Jaeger family of machines. The vehicles are available in the configuration 6×6 – Jaeger 6 (2400 mm long and 1450 mm wide) and 8×8 – Jaeger 8 (2900 mm long and 1600 mm wide). The first, with a curb weight of 730 kg, has a load capacity of over 250 kg, and the second, 1000 kg, over 680 kg. Both are based on solutions and systems from the civil market (e.g. the 8×8 output platform itself is very similar to the Israeli Amstaf). The hybrid electric / combustion drive system is powered by lithium-ion batteries and a diesel engine. With GVM, the vehicle is capable of operating for four hours, at speeds of up to 16 km / h using electric drive and up to 24 hours using a diesel engine.
This robot can be controlled by two methods – using a portable console within sight (distance up to 1000 meters) or semi-automatically (using a combined system including 2D LIDAR and GPS system). Further work is aimed at increasing the robot’s autonomy (more efficient navigation and imaging systems) and implementing the soldier following function. Another direction of research is to ensure the cooperation of both machines, so that the lighter platform performs RSTA tasks and transfers the obtained data to a larger machine, which is the armed-executive version.
There is relatively little information about Chinese armed land robots. However, knowing the Chinese and the advancement of their unmanned platforms, there must be a lot of prototypes, tested and operated in this country. Certainly, there are several small robots equipped with shotguns (e.g. the 18.5 mm QBS 09 smoothbore) or MG and GWM. A robotic Type 59 tank was also tested (for research purposes).
The British Army ordered four Mission Master – Cargo robots from Rheinmetall at the end of 2019 as part of the Robotic Platoon Vehicle program, aimed at increasing the capabilities and efficiency of soldiers at the platoon level. This type is also offered in Mission Master – Rescue (for transporting two wounded soldiers and medical equipment) and Mission Master – Protection. The latter can be armed with two 7-tube 70-mm unguided missile launchers, or a 12.7 mm GRM or a 40 mm automatic grenade launcher. The Mission Master could also be seen with the Warmate Polish circulating ammunition launcher.
The M113AS4 robotic transporters are being tested in the Australian army. The program assumes testing the impact of the effectiveness of the use of such robots on the future battlefield. The conversion of the transporters to a completely new role for them was performed by BAE Systems Australia with the use of a special package of autonomous technologies (systems and software).
During demonstration tests, the possibility of using such robotic transporters for carrying out reconnaissance and logistic support missions was presented. However, they did not work fully autonomously and under the supervision of a man (man-in-a-loop) who remotely made key decisions.
At present, we have a small group of countries in the world (such as Germany and France) that believe that armed robots, subject to stricter human control, should first be thoroughly examined / tested. On the other hand, other countries (such as the USA, Israel, Russia and Great Britain) are against it and are trying to regulate the legal and international issues (creating something like a military code of conduct) allowing the construction of autonomous armed machines.
For them, it is also important to recover the enormous amounts invested in research already carried out and the prospect of future, huge profits (similar to the development of BSP, where Europe or other countries still lag behind the US or Israel). The Russians believe that the primacy in the use of artificial intelligence gives a huge advantage on the battlefield. On the other hand, the United States openly says that all intelligent weapons are more humanitarian than traditional ones, because they make fewer mistakes and reduce losses among the civilian population.
However, it is known to everyone that the loss of a machine is not as critical a factor as the loss of a soldier. In addition, the robot does not require as much training and maintenance as humans. The resources allocated to research and development of the next generation of robots are small, and the risk of their failure is much lower, compared to the next generation of systems being developed, such as hypersonic, high-energy systems. Robots can also be successfully used in conflicts of less intensity, anti-terrorist and stabilization operations, or to help civilians in the event of natural disasters or catastrophes. Individual solutions of military robots could be successfully used in machines intended for the civil market.
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