Here's What You Need to Know: The underwhelming combat test in Syria highlights why robot tanks haven’t shown up on the battlefield sooner, despite the component technologies have been available for decades. Developing reliable long-distance communication links, sophisticated autonomous operation algorithms, and well-integrated sensors and targeting systems to allow a distant operator to identify and engage targets all pose significant practical challenges.
In May 2018, the Russian military revealed it had combat-tested its Uran-9 robot tank in Syria. The diminutive remote-control tank is noted for its formidable gun and missile armament.
However, just a month later Defense Blog reported that Senior Research Officer Andrei Anisimov told a conference at the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg that the Uran-9’s performance in Syria revealed that “modern Russian combat Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) are not able to perform the assigned tasks in the classical types of combat operations.” He concluded it would be ten to fifteen more years before UGVs were ready for such complex tasks.
This stands in contrast to a source that told Jane’s that the system had “…demonstrated high performance in an operational environment.”
Robotic armored vehicles are in development across the world, with the U.S. Army planning for its Bradley fighting vehicle replacement to be “optionally-manned.” However, Russia arguably has more aggressively moved towards combat-deploying UGVs. In 2015 Russia’s Military Industry Committee announced its objective of deploying 30 percent of Russia’s kinetic weapons on remote-control platforms by 2025. Current projects include the MARS six-seat infantry carrier, the robotic BMP-3 Vihr (“Hurricane”) fighting vehicle, robotized T-72 tanks, and tiny Nerekhta UGVs that can evacuate wounded soldiers, fire a machine gun or kamikaze charge enemy positions.
The Russian Army reportedly procured twenty-two Uran-9s in 2016 from the JSC 766 UPTK company. The robo-tanks are apparently attached to support infantry and engineer units by engaging in reconnaissance and fire support missions, rather than being concentrated in independent maneuver formations. The Uran-9 is also being offered for export by the state-owned Rostec Corporation and was photographed being inspected by General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of Myanmar’s armed forces.
The first UGVs were developed a century ago during World War I. By the 1930s the Soviet Union deployed two battalions of remote-controlled “Teletanks” armed with flamethrowers and demolition charges which saw action during the 1939-1940 invasion of Finland. Today, UGVs such as Russia’s Uran-6 have are being successfully employed to clear mines and IEDs in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, few UGVs have been operationally deployed for such complex tasks as detecting and engaging enemy forces.
The rhombus-shaped Uran-9 weighs twelve tons and measures five meters long, one-fifth the weight and just over half the length of a T-90 tank. A diesel engine allows the vehicle to accelerate to twenty-two miles per hour on highways, or six to fifteen mph off-road. The robot’s steel armor plates reportedly protect it from shell splinters and small-arms—though implicitly it may remain vulnerable to other relatively common weapons such as RPGs or heavy machine guns.
Two Uran-9s are transported to the battlefield by a large truck, and then radio-controlled by an operator and commander in an armored 6x6 Kamaz truck. Thermal and electro-optical sights and sensors mounted atop the turret allow the operators to “see” through the tank. There is also a hand-held control unit option.
A “Skynet” Unified Tactical Management system allows up to four Uran-9s to network together, either spread out up to four miles apart or strung together in a column formation. The robo-tanks do have some limited autonomous capabilities if they lose their signal—particularly for maneuvering around obstacles when moving along pre-programmed paths. Some sources claim the Uran-9 may also be able to detect, identify and engage enemy forces without manual human direction.
The robo-tank’s turret mounts a rapid-firing 2A72 30-millimeter autocannon that can blast light-armored vehicles and infantry to deadly effect, as well as a 7.62-millimeter machine gun. Furthermore, a firing rack can extend from the turret to launch two or four 9M120-1 Ataka anti-tank missiles which can spin away to bust tanks up to 3.7 miles away while guided by a laser. And top that off, a further six to twelve Shmel flamethrower rockets with air-combusting thermobaric warheads can be mounted on two rotating launchers on top of the turret to flush out entrenched infantry up to a mile away. If there’s a threat from low-flying aircraft, those rockets can be swapped out for Strela or Igla short-range anti-aircraft missiles.
You can see the Uran-9s moving about and shooting in one of several music videos.
However, all that impressive firepower is only useful if the Uran-9 and its operators can actually detect enemy forces and fire accurately at them—and that turned out to be a problem when field-tested in Syria.
To start with, according to Anisimov, the Uran-9’s thermal and electro-optical sensors proved incapable of spotting enemies beyond 1.25 miles—one-third of the 3.75-mile range in daytime or half that at night officially claimed. He also stated, “The OCH-4 optical station does not allow detecting optical observation and targeting devices of the enemy and gives out multiple interferences on the ground and in the airspace in the surveillance sector.”
Furthermore, the sensors, and the weapons they guided, were useless while the Uran-9 was moving due to a lack of stabilization. When fire commands were issued, on six occasions there were significant delays. In one case, the command simply didn’t go through.
The Uran-9’s tracked suspension also was reportedly frequently bedeviled by unreliable rollers and suspension springs, requiring frequent repairs that effectively limited the duration of any deployment.
Arguably most problematic of all, however, was the discovery that the remote-control system, which officially had a range of 1.8 miles, only proved effective up to 300 to 400 meters in a lightly urbanized environment. Over such short distances, the control vehicle is likely to become exposed to enemy fire.
Unlike high-flying drones, remote-controlled vehicles are susceptible to having their control signals disrupted by hills, buildings and other terrain features. During field-testing in Syria, this caused Uran-9s to suffer seventeen lapses of remote control lasting up to one minute, and two events in which they lost contact for as long as an hour-and-a-half.
The problem grows more acute when considering that modern war zones like Syria already experience extraordinary electromagnetic activity from communication signals and drone-links—as well as extensive jamming, spying, and other forms of electronic warfare. The bandwidth consumed by the Uran-9s might not only limit how many can be deployed in a given sector but may make them a conspicuous target for hostile electronic attacks, despite the manufacturer’s claims that the data-links are hardened against such interference.
According to Jane’s, Rostec is still working to improve the Uran-9’s range, response-time, and data-bandwidth. During the huge Vostok 2018 military exercise, the robot-tanks were reportedly deployed to provide overwatch fire support for Uran-6 de-mining UGVs and combat engineers while they cleared simulated defensive obstacles.
Theoretically, the Uran-9 could be useful at reducing the risk of losing human lives in high-risk operations such as scouting out the location of concealed enemies or providing covering fire for assaults on well-defended positions. However, unless reliability can be improved and the “tether” distance between the robo-tanks and their command vehicles can be extended, the Uran-9s would be of limited military use except in static, set-piece scenarios.
In a sense, the underwhelming combat test in Syria highlights why robot tanks haven’t shown up on the battlefield sooner, despite the component technologies have been available for decades. Developing reliable long-distance communication links, sophisticated autonomous operation algorithms, and well-integrated sensors and targeting systems to allow a distant operator to identify and engage targets all pose significant practical challenges.
Thus, the Uran-9’s unflattering debut will serve as a valuable, if cautionary, learning experience for engineers working to perfect forthcoming robotic ground warfare systems.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in January 2019.