The Race for Robotic Tanks Heats Up, by Gilberto Villahermosa

The unveiling of two new robotic tanks, Russia’s Uran-9 (Uranus-9) – which was developed specifically for its own armed forces and was recently combat-tested by them in Syria – and Belarus’s Bogomol (Praying Mantis) – which was developed for export – indicate the race to field unmanned armored fighting vehicles is heating up.

As it was, the Uran-9 had a terrible combat debut. The 11-ton vehicle is heavily armed with four anti-tank guided missiles, six flamethrowers, a 30mm auto-cannon and a 7.62mm machinegun. Unveiled in September 2016, and deployed to Syria this past May, the Uran-9 was supposed to be capable of operating up to three kilometers (1.8 miles) away from its controller.

The deployed tank proved unable to operate as far away from its controllers as expected. It could only be operated out to about 500 meters (550 yards) from its operator when amid high-rise buildings. It also had problems firing its 30mm gun, and it couldn't fire effectively at all while moving.

The robot tank's operator lost control of the vehicle 17 times for up to one minute and two times for up to an hour and a half. The 30mm auto-cannon delay-fired six times and failed totally once, and it could only acquire targets out to about two kilometers (1.2 miles) as opposed to the expected 6.5 kilometers (four miles). That was due to the tank's optics failing from unexpected ground and atmospheric interference. There were also problems with the chassis and suspension, requiring repeated repairs in the field. The Russian Army will no doubt work to correct those deficiencies before redeploying an improved version to Syria for more field tests.

In the meantime, Belarus is moving forward with the its own compact-car size (1,700 lbs. / 771 kg) robotic tank-killer, the Bogomol, aimed at the export market. Bogomol is that country’s first foray into combat UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) development. Offered as an “armored ambush vehicle,” the manufacturer claims it can spot and destroy targets “many kilometers away.”

Bogomol is also listed as having advanced communication systems, including a companion copter-drone that can extend the communication range between it and its operator to over six miles (10 km). There’s also an artificial intelligence capability that enables it to find camouflaged targets. Bogomol is able to carry older-design anti-tank missiles as well as newer laser-guided ones.

Russia’s experience with the Uran-9 in Syria indicates Bogomol’s actual capabilities are probably less than what’s being touted by its manufacturer. Nonetheless, the advent of a small robotic ambush vehicle carrying ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) is an important new development. It shows that, rather than developing further large and heavy manned armored vehicles, with their inherent terrain limitations, the future lies in small and light missile carriers with relatively inexpensive optic and sensor arrays and a narrow wheel base. The latter allows them to maneuver through constricted natural and urban terrain much more easily than their larger manned counterparts.

Once a robotic vehicle has fired off its weapons, it can be programmed to auto-return to a logistical station. There it can be rearmed either manually or by another robotic support vehicle.

The costs of such vehicles will likely decline in the near future to a point where even a single one carrying an ATGM will prove cost effective and combat effective against manned main battle tanks and aircraft. When that point is reached (probably sometime late in the coming decade), it will result in swarms of them being deployed and mechanized warfare will have been revolutionized.

As Russia and Belarus move ahead to develop robotic tanks, US military leaders inexplicably continue to stymie their development for our own armed forces. It will be up to American military contractors to independently develop and test such vehicles, and then use them to convince political leaders – rather than our more conservative military officers – of their utility. The future clearly lies with robot tanks.

Note: the attached photo of the vehicle with the geometric camouflage is a Bogomol; the other is a Uran-9.

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