The Buzz

Get Ready, NATO: Could Russia Build Lethal Combat Robots?

The defending soldiers are in a fortified position on elevated ground or a reverse slope. They’ve arranged machine guns and anti-tank weapons to kill anything that comes into view. They’ve dug into the ground to help them survive the initial artillery barrage. To bolster their defenses even more, they’ve covered the area in front of them with mines.

If the Russian assault force was human, then it’d probably be too dangerous to go ahead with the attack. But it’s not. Over the horizon comes a mix of mostly-robotic vehicles — and the NATO troops don’t have much of a chance.

That’s science fiction, but a future scenario like that one recently appeared in the pages of Russian defense trade newspaper Military-Industrial Courier. It’s an interesting idea, and the article is notable for its realistic depiction of combat robots used on a relatively large scale. But the concept has a few problems.

“To attack fortified defenses and minimize human and material losses, you must create a robot company, in addition to tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and remote-controlled military robots and assault machines,” Leonid Orlenko, a professor at Moscow State University, wrote in the Courier.

Orlenko presents the idea as the solution to a real military problem. Modern armies have entire textbooks on how to break through fortified defenses, which is one of the most dangerous kinds of battlefield operations. It’s also an arena in which Russia could exploit military robots to its advantage.

The Kremlin certainly won’t get ahead in the air, where Russian drones have lagged far behind the United States and China. Decades of neglect and technical limitations have kept Moscow’s drones relatively crude and limited to light surveillance duties. Russian aircraft have tended to be on the heavy, over-engineered side — which runs opposite from the engineering philosophy required for nimble drones and their miniaturized, lightweight components.

That’s not a big problem on the ground. Like self-driving cars, a robot works just as well built into an existing frame. Russia has even rushed ahead on developing prototypes, such as the Wolf-2 armored car equipped with a 12.7-millimeter machine gun, a seven-ton robotic fighting called the URP-01G and a “military cyborg biker.”

Orlenko envisions his robotic assault force deriving from existing, modified vehicles. He describes a Russian assault company attacking in three waves. The first wave, comprised of six robotic armored engineer vehicles, stops just short of the enemy defenses. Their job is to clear mines and conduct reconnaissance.

The second wave begins with rocket, artillery and mortar fire. Three human-piloted tanks and three robotic “assault machines” then attack. These assault machines could be built on the basis of T-72, T-80, T-90 and Armata tanks – but armed with larger guns, guided missiles and 30-millimeter cannons to shoot into hard-to-reach places.

Once the second wave pummels and suppresses the defense, a third wave of seven infantry fighting vehicles – likely BMPs – attacks under the cover of the preceding waves. The infantry then disembark from the vehicles and complete the attack.

Orlenko argues ground combat robots would reduce the total number of soldiers needed to assault a defense. Reducing manpower is a similar rationale behind the Pentagon’s own tests, though U.S. Army experiments have struggled with robots needing too many human operators. Then you have to find enough bandwidth.

“We’re running out of radio frequencies,” Ellen Purdy, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, told National Defense in 2009. “Most of the spectrum goes to manned vehicles. We get the scraps.”

Those are only some of many problems. The Kremlin could resort to more automation — as opposed to having humans piloting the machines remotely — but that’s another area where Russia lags far behind.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here

Image: Creative Commons.