December 3, 2022:
Germany is sending Ukraine 14 THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) vehicles. These are UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) and Ukraine has been using one since September for getting casualties safely out of areas under enemy fire. The first THeMIS was provided by the manufacturer, an Estonian company and was very successful. Germany will deliver seven THeMIS CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) models by the end of 2022 with the next seven delivered four months later, configured for route clearance, which means clearing mines and other explosives from a road under remote control from a distance of to 1,500 meters. In the last two months Ukrainian forces have cleared Russian troops out of a lot of territory. The Russians left a lot of mines and other explosive devices behind, especially on the roads.
The CASEVAC saves a lot of manpower getting casualties to a rear area and does this more quickly and safely. THeMIS has a ”follow me” capability that enables one person to lead the THeMIS along a safe path. One or two casualties on stretchers or half a dozen seated can be carried.
THeMIS was introduced in 2015 and entered service in 2020. It is a tracked 1.6-ton UGV with a remarkably effective sensor system that enables it to find its way through any terrain. It is a compact UGV measuring 2.4 meters (7.8 feet) long, two meters (6.6 feet) wide and 1.15 meters (3.75 feet) high. THeMIS uses a diesel generator to recharge UGV batteries. When operating, electricity is used for propulsion for five or more hours of continuous use. THeMIS has a 1.2-ton payload, which can consist of cargo, casualties, more sensors or even weapons. Top speed is 20 kilometers an hour but it normally moves at a walking pace. At least ten NATO members have evaluated THeMIS and most then purchased THeMIS. Russia would like to obtain a THeMIS but sanctions prohibit that.
Several weeks after THeMIS first arrived in Ukraine, Russia offered a $16,000 bounty to anyone who could obtain and deliver an intact THeMIS UGV to them. Because one of these UGVs was in Ukraine, Russia considered it fair game. After all, Ukrainian forces have captured many advanced Russian systems intact and shared that booty with NATO. That’s one reason NATO nations are so generous in providing Ukrainian forces with weapons and equipment. For decades Russia has obtained advanced Western military tech from foreign combat zones where American aircraft and missiles crashed but were still largely intact. All this American high tech helped Russia develop similar weapons.
In Ukraine Russia has been providing Ukrainian forces with enormous amounts of battlefield booty. The September Ukrainian offensive resulted in the capture of billions of dollars’ worth of intact Russian tanks and other armored vehicles as well as some major electronic systems.
Russia has not obtained any UGVs from battlefields and sensed an opportunity in Ukraine. Russia has obtained some Western military tech in Ukraine but THeMIS is seen as a rare opportunity that justifies announcing a bounty. The bounty is not offered by the Russian government but by a Russian think-tank that does most of its work for the Russian government. The Russian government has earned itself a reputation as a deadbeat in Ukraine, where many Russian troops are cheated out of their pay and bonuses by the government. So far the bounty has not worked and Ukraine has held onto its THeMIS.
Russia has had a difficult time developing effective UGV systems. For example, in 2021 Russia ordered four prototypes of a new armored UGV design; the Shturm (storm), which is based on the T-72B3 tank. This was part of a plan to organize heavy UGV companies which would contain up to ten vehicles, most of them UGVs, plus one or more similar vehicles manned by a crew of UGV operators and technicians to repair and maintain the unmanned vehicles. These UGVs would be armed and equipped for urban warfare. Weapons include short barrel 125mm and 152mm low velocity cannon as well as thermobaric (fuel air explosives) rockets and 30mm autocannon. All can be equipped with a dozer blade to remove debris blocking roads, or building rubble in general, to allow troops and manned combat vehicles to advance through a path cleared of obstacles as well as explosives in the form of mines, roadside bombs, explosive traps and explosive debris. The Shturm project was put on hold by unexpectedly severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The Storm UGV is designed to replace manned engineer vehicles and small UGVs now used to deal with explosive obstacles. Even with the engineer vehicles and small UGVs, there are casualties among the engineers and nearby UGV operators. The Storm UGV was an intermediate design that would be replaced with UGVs based on the new Armata chassis that is better protected but a lot more expensive. The T-72B3 is currently the most widely used, popular and affordable Russian tank.
The Storm UGV is building on what was learned with earlier tank-like UGVs. Russia has not fixed all those problems but at least knows what needs work. The earlier vehicle was the 12-ton Uran-9 UGV. Two were sent to Syria in 2016 for combat testing. Uran-9 looks like a small tank and is equipped with remotely controlled 30mm and 7.62mm machine-guns as well as various guided missiles and unguided thermobaric rockets. The Uran-9s sent to Syria for combat experience did not get much of that because the remote-control system functioned poorly under battlefield conditions due to limited range and unacceptable response times under battlefield conditions. UGVs like THeMIS work and are reliable. That’s what Russian UGVs need a lot of.