Murphy's Law: Syrian Reality Defeats Russian Robotank


January 27, 2019: Russia sent two 12 ton Uran-9 UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) to Syria in 2016 for combat testing. Uran-9 looks like a small tank and is described as equipped to handle a variety of remotely controlled 30mm and 7.62mm machine-guns and various guided missiles and unguided rockets. The Uran-9s sent to Syria for combat zone experience did not get much of that because the remote control system functioned poorly under battlefield conditions. The main problem was that the wireless remote control system, while encrypted, had insufficient bandwidth (amount of data sent and received in real time) to handle what was required to remotely operate the sensors, the vehicle itself and its weapons. As designed (and tested in rather less demanding conditions) the wireless datalink was supposed to operate at up to 2,800 meters. The human controllers are in an armored 6x6 truck, safely out of the way as is the heavy truck that transports the Uran-9 to the battlefield. In Syria, the command truck had to remain within 400 meters of the Uran 9 to maintain the datalink to any degree (of bandwidth). Even then the bandwidth was often insufficient (because of obstacles or other electronic devices operating nearby) to give the operators all the data the sensors were capable of. The thermal and vidcam sensors were capable of spotting people or vehicles out to 6,000 meters in daylight and half of that at night. But because of the bandwidth problems, the sensors were only effective out to about 2,000 meters in daylight and half that at night. And that was only when the datalink was working at all. One problem should have been caught in testing; the sensors were not stabilized. As a result when the vehicle was moving the sensors and weapons, were useless. Worse, when moving the datalink was often lost because of equipment problems or new signal interference.

The inability of the remote operator to “see” while the vehicle was moving often meant the Uran 9 hit obstacles a human operator would avoid. While tracked vehicles can travel over many obstacles many of those obstacles (tree stumps, large chunks of rubble) put a lot of stress on the track laying system tanks rely on for greater mobility. Tanks often have two people (the driver and commander) checking out the terrain ahead as the vehicle advances. A well-trained tank crew will quickly spot obstacles and know when to remind the driver. By comparison, the Uran 9 “driver” not only had a less detailed and unreliable vision of the way ahead but would have blurred vision while moving and had to deal with the unpredictable loss of control or vision. So while the Uran 9 was armored against bullets and shell fragments, it was much more vulnerable to crippling damage because it was often driving half (or completely) blind across the cluttered battlefield. The Uran 9 spent a lot of time getting the running gear (tracks, suspension and wheels) repaired.

The two machine-guns in the Uran 9 turret were rarely fired because the vehicle had to stop, confirm that it had a good datalink and then scan the terrain ahead for any targets. When the 30mm autocannon fired the vibrations rendered the remotely controlled sensors usefulness until the firing stopped. That brought out another unpredictable flaw, response delays. The remote operator would transmit a command and it would often not be received and acted on in real time. There were often delays of several seconds or up to a minute. Sometimes the command would seemingly be ignored by the Uran 9. This made use of the other weapons on the Uran 9 impossible. There were four ATGMs on the turret that could hit targets 6,000 meters away. These Ataks missiles were laser guided and required some operator control. This could not be reliably supplied by remote control to the Uran 9. There were also dozen unguided rockets and if you could get one of these to fire you didn’t have to worry about guiding them.

By the time details of Uran 9’s battlefield performance got back to army headquarters in Russia 22 of them had been bought and delivered. The manufacturer agreed to fix the flaws, or at least try to. At this point, the Russians could understand why the Americans had tried using remotely controlled combat vehicles in a combat zone but had never followed through. Again it was datalink reliability and bandwidth problems. Even operators of UAVs, which fly over the battlefield, encounter the problems of unreliable communications. Satellite datalinks are more reliable but they are not possible for smaller UAVs which rely on flight control software that automatically switches to “circle” or “return home” when there are communications problems. Russian UGV developers have a lot to learn about all this and now better appreciate why small UGVs used for dealing with bombs often used a data cable rather than wireless control.

Since 2016 Russian firms have revealed the existence of several armed UGVs. Only one of them appears to have entered service; the five ton Uran-6, which was more successful in part because it was based on the vast combat experience of numerous similar devices. Uran 6 saw action in Syria in an unarmed version for use by combat engineers to deal with landmines, roadside bombs and, most importantly, ensuring that a route was clear of mines and bombs. To accomplish that Uran-6 can be equipped with a number of accessories like a plow, flail (for setting off landmines) or robotic arms. The large size of the Uran-6 enables it to survive close proximity to exploding mines or bombs and keep going. The Uran-6 is battery powered (for up to 16 hours per charge) and remotely controlled from a distance of up to 1,500 meters. Use in Syria seems to be combat testing because engineers have been seeing double checking for mines with more conventional mine detectors after the Uran-6 had already checked a route.

Uran-6 is designed to compete in a mature market for EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) UGVs, a market the United States and Israel have dominated for nearly two decades. Uran-6 is the largest EOD UGV and could find a niche in the EOD market if it proves successful in Syria. Armed UFVs are a more difficult sell but Russia is eager to avoid casualties among its own troops in Syria and armed UGVs are seen as a potential solution.

Armed UGVs are nothing new and one armed with explosives were used by the Germans (as the gasoline-powered “Goliath”) during World War II. Currently, armed UGVs are most often produced by Israel and South Korea for patrolling long borders that are often threatened by armed intruders. American manufacturers can and have armed their UGVs but find it more profitable to let the Israelis, South Koreans, Russians and Chinese have that market.

UGVs have become more common since the late 1990s and are usually unarmed and useful mainly for recon and surveillance in very dangerous situations. Even though armed UGVs have been developed and remain under remote control by a human operator, many nations resist adopting them, just as they resist armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Yet there has never been similar opposition to sea-based unmanned armed weapons or even those that are not even under remote control. An example of this is the naval torpedo, which first appeared in the late 19th century. A century later it became possible to add remote control to high-end torpedo models and these are regularly carried by man submarines.

But for nations under constant threat of attack, the attitudes are different. Since 2001 Israel has developed several generations of armed UGVs. One of the more recent of these is Dogo, a smaller (12 kg/26 pounds), more aware (constant 360 degree camera coverage) and more lethal remotely controlled robot. Dogo showed up in 2016 and was designed with lots of input from soldiers and police who have been using UGVs for over a decade. Dogo is armed with a 9mm pistol loaded with 14 rounds and aimed by cameras dedicated to aiming the pistol accurately at ranges of up to 50 meters. Commandos and SWAT teams can carry one or more battery operated Dogos with them on missions that can benefit from a very mobile (it can climb steps) UGV that has night vision, is quiet and can hear as well as broadcast whatever the operator has to say (like hostage negotiation or demanding surrender). Many of these features have been found in earlier UGVs but never one as small or as capable.

Since 2006 the Israeli military has been moving its UGVs from guard duty to the battlefield. During that time Israeli infantry and several new generations of UGVs have been working together to see exactly what works and what doesn’t. The basic idea here is to have UGVs with good enough sensors to successfully move across a battlefield in front of troops and look out for mines, roadside bombs, ambushes or any signs of the enemy at all. This gives the troops following close behind a better idea of what nasty surprises the enemy has for them and an opportunity to avoid lots of casualties and hit harder than the enemy expected. Dogo can do this as well as have its 9mm weapon replaced with pepper spray, a blinding flash or other non-lethal devices to deal with human threats.

Both Israel and the United States have already discovered that armed UGVs are not very successful on their own. But Israel believes that new designs, operating in close cooperation (as an advanced guard while moving into hostile territory) with infantry and manned armored vehicles might work well enough to justify regular use. The new UGVs are similar to the armed four-wheeled vehicles Israel has been successfully using for guard duty along the Gaza and Lebanon borders. The eventual success of these UGVs encouraged trying to use them in combat.

Previous use of armed UGVs in active combat zones showed that these systems were vulnerable to attack and interference, which are the main reasons for not using them. Unless the cameras and other sensors (sound, heat and seismic) can pick up hostiles far enough away, the remotely controlled weapon can be destroyed, along with many of the sensors, thus blinding the operators. By 2009 both the U.S. and Israel had developed smaller armed robots. The American systems are called Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detecting System). This was a 57 kg (125 pound) remotely controlled vehicles that looked like a miniature tank. These were armed with a 5.56mm machine-guns and 350 rounds of ammo. Also known as Talon IIIB, the army spent over a year testing them in the United States before sending some to Iraq in 2008. There they found there were many ways to mess with Swords. Many tricks didn't even damage the equipment; like having a child or woman come out and throw a towel or sheet over it.

Israel has a similar system called Viper that carries a 9mm machine pistol (an Uzi) and can carry explosives, along with the usual video camera and microphones. Both Swords and Viper do have their uses, like entering into very dangerous situations (like a cave or building believed occupied by fanatical gunmen). The droids can also be used for guard duty in dangerous locations (where the enemy might get a shot off, or toss a grenade.) But no matter what you have the battle robots do, the mechanical grunts lack the same degree of situational awareness of a human soldier. This requires much better sensors that have been available so far. The sensors used on droids (mainly visual and acoustic) are getting better, as is the software that can quickly evaluate what the sensors see and hear. But humans can also smell, and feel (on their skin), as well as using superior vision and hearing. Until the sensors get better, the combat robots will always be at a disadvantage. But if used with those disadvantages kept in mind, the robots do have their uses. Dogo is the latest effort to expand that usefulness and more are on the way. Russia, on the other hand, prefers their traditional brute force approach. Thus you have Uran-6 and Uran-9. When used via remote control by nearby operators these can be effective. But only a lot of combat experience will let you know just how effective.




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