Key point: Despite being at the cutting edge of technology, World War II–era drones were only effective in highly specialized circumstances, not ideal for the fast-paced ground warfare of the conflict. The Soviet teletanks were an ambitious attempt to practice the sort of remote-control drone warfare that is rapidly becoming a reality today.
On April 18, Moscow announced that it would feature its Uran-9 robot-tanks in its military parade celebrating the seventy-third anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. The compact Uran-9 bristles with a 30mm cannon and anti-tank missiles—and it is of course, unmanned. The defense ministry also periodically insists that it will develop an unmanned version of its new T-14 Armata main battle tank.
Curiously, Moscow has been developing robot-tanks for nearly ninety years. The Soviet Union’s first tanks were French FT-17 light tanks captured from White Russian forces. In 1929, an FT-17 was rigged with a simple MOST-1 radio system, allowing it to follow three simple commands—stop, turn left or turn right—while crawling forward at 2.5 miles per hour. Soviet technicians tried to do one better by installing a more sophisticated command system on seven T-18 tanks, a domestically built version of the FT-17 with a new turret.
Being able to move the tank into danger without exposing the crew was promising. But the command crew, observing from up to a mile away, could have a difficult time gauging the terrain the robot tank was driving through. One must remember that tanks of the era were highly prone to breakdowns traversing rough terrain. Trials in 1933 found that the robot TT-18s had a low weight (only six tons) and narrow tracks, leaving them lurching left and right across the battlefield whenever they encountered difficult terrain. Moreover, the effective range of the radio system was only 500–1,000 meters, even less in inclement weather.
More importantly, how could the drone tank’s operators, hundreds of meters away, aim weapons with any degree of accuracy? Although Soviet inventor Leon Theremin developed a 100-line television in the mid-1920s, the technology was far from the sort of higher-resolution remote video feeds todays drone operators rely upon.
The Soviet’s solution was to equip drone tanks with flamethrowers, chemical weapon dispensers and remotely deployed time bombs. These dealy options were short-range weapons and required less in the way of ‘aiming.’
The ‘Telemechanical Group”
In 1933, the Soviet Special Technology Bureau, under Vladimir Bekauri, focused on the T-26 light tank—one of the most capable designs at that time. Though only thinly armored with 15mm of steel and poky with a maximum speed of nineteen miles per hour, the T-26’s 45mm cannon outgunned most German tanks at the outbreak of World War II.
In 1933, 1936, and 1938 the Soviet Union produced 162 TT-26 robot chemical tanks and TU-26 command vehicles in progressively improved batches, using first TOZ-IV and later TOZ-VI radio control systems. These served together in ‘telemechanical groups.’
Veteran teletanker Viktor Dimitrievich described the training and tactics of the unit in an interview:
We were given an assigned task: on a certain rise there was an enemy pillbox, and before it lay a ditch, a mine field and an anti-tank obstacle… A lot of time was given over to driving. To conduct even a standard tank over ground pitted with craters was no easy task, but to do so from a distance of a kilometer – well, you can imagine. As an example of the tactics involved: the crew of the TT tank, having approached the enemy positions, would “bail out” - taking the machine gun with them. The problem was not to allow enemy infantry from getting close to the teletank, which was accomplished through the use of the flame thrower and by the TU tank, which was armed with a 45mm gun and a machine gun.
Dimitrievich described the radio control system in the TU-26, which had sixteen or twenty buttons in rows of four that actuated pneumatic controls in the TT-26. The first row of buttons included commands to open fire and deploy a smokescreen. The lower rows included five different gear settings, turret rotation controls, standard reverse, turn left and turn right commands. If the robot tanks lost their signal for more than thirty second, they would automatically cut their engines.
The glass vacuum-tube radio system was mounted on a spring-based shock absorber, and could be switched between a VHF or UHF frequencies—but would have been relatively easy to jam. According to Dimitrievich, the electromagnetic interference from a nearby communication line was once enough to cause a teletank to breakdown. Weather also affected the voltage of the teletanks systems, causing the vehicles to perform sluggishly in a low-voltage state or become highly responsive in a high-voltage conditions.
The Soviet Union also tested teletank variants of the T-20 Komsomolets tractor, the T-27 tankette, the T-38 amphibious tank, and the BT-5 and BT-7 cavalry tanks. A report from early 1941 notes that the T-38 and T-20 performed poorly in trials, struggling to overcome terrain. The speedy BT-7, equipped with advanced Christie suspension, did prove more reliable. However, because the basic BT-7 cost twice as much as the T-26—and did not come in a flamethrower variant—development of the TT-BT-7 was not recommended.
The same report notes that the teletank remote control system was prohibitively expensive—before the cost of the two tanks was factored in! The teletank program also encountered a major setback when the research bureau’s head, Bekauri, was executed early in Stalin’s purges of the Red Army.
The Winter War
By the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union had two teletanks battalions, the 152nd and 217th Independent Tank Battalions. These finally saw combat in Stalin’s opportunistic invasion of Finland, known as the Winter War of 1939–1940. The Scandinavian nation should not have stood a chance against the Soviet juggernaut, but it had three formidable assets: the winter warfare prowess of the Finns; the brilliant flexible defense tactics of commander-in-chief Carl Mannerheim; and the fortifications of the Mannerheim Line. The Red Army lost over three thousand tanks to Finnish anti-tank weapons and Molotov cocktails.
The flamethrowing teletanks of the 217th battalion and the 7th Independent Tank Company were attached to the Soviet 20th Heavy Tank Brigade (equipped with T-28s) and charged with rolling strait up the fortifications of the Mannerheim line and hosing them with fire. Combat reports are patchy, but according to Steven Zaloga in his book T-26 Light Tank: Backbone of the Red Army, the teletank units lost forty-two vehicles, six of which were irrecoverable. They proved vulnerable to mines, anti-tank obstacles and heavy snow. The radio control system also frequently failed in the harsh winter weather.
A report by Gen. Kombrig Yermakov of the 100th Rifle Division is a bit more equivocal about teletank performance, claiming they performed “quite well” but could not always be employed because terrain had a “large number of depression and potholes.” Nonetheless, he claimed, they had “proved” themselves in the “destruction of pillboxes No. 39 and No.35”, which were blown up despite being of the “strongest construction.” Indeed, a renewed Red Army offensive in February 1940 finally broke through the Mannerheim line, forcing the Finns to sue for peace.
The Red Army also deployed the new turretless TT-26-Sh Podryvnik (“Blaster”) model to the Winter War, which had a reinforced suspension system, bolt-on applique armor and an improved control system. In place of a turret, the T-26’s glacis mounted a 30mm armored bin which carried an explosive charge weighing between 660 to 1,500 pounds. A remote signal deployed the bomb with a fuse set for up to fifteen minutes. The Blaster was supposed to scoot up to enemy bunkers, drop the bomb next to them, then roll back to enemy lines before it detonated. According to Zaloga, they may not have been used in action.
Fate of the Teletanks
After the Winter War, a report shows the Red Army came close to a breakthrough on the teletank. An early 1941 report notes that it was testing a “remote television apparatus: a transmitter and a receiver with a 9 by 12 cm screen. This device transmits images over radio (television) of terrain surrounding the tank and objects in its field of view over 100-150 meters.” A video feed, the report notes, “may be a solution to the issue of aiming flamethrowers.”
However, development of the system was interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22. A report from July 7 recommends refurbishing teletank command systems and using them as expendable scouts to ferret out enemy minefields and anti-tank weapons, and for assaulting machine gun nests and pillboxes.
However, in the half-year of desperate and highly fluid warfare that ensued, it proved impossible to orchestrate the very specific siege or trench-warfare like circumstances in which the teletanks were at all effective. The teletanks did see combat, but with manned crews and the remote-equipment removed. The 152nd Battalion was wiped out near Rovno in the Battle of Brody, an initially promising but unsuccessful Soviet counterattack launched in the first week of fighting. The 217th remained deployed near Moscow, and was finally thrown into combat at Ryazan as German Panzers closed on the Soviet capital late in 1941—without using the remote control system.