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 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.
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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.