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Ground Combat Platforms: New Battlefield Player

Ground Combat Platforms: New Battlefield Player

Володимир Б. Володимир Б.
UGV Ukraine War with Russia

Unmanned ground combat platforms first emerged in Western military forces in the early 2000s, primarily remaining in the experimental and short-run production stages.

A significant shift occurred during the Russo-Ukrainian War, where armed and logistic unmanned ground vehicles transitioned from experimental to practical use in heavy combat conditions.

In the challenging landscape of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, both Ukrainian defenders and Russian invaders recognized the vital role and effectiveness of employing Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) across various tasks. These tasks included infantry support in both offensive and defensive maneuvers, logistical operations, reconnaissance, engineering missions, and the evacuation of wounded personnel.

As a result, ground drones have evolved into essential components of modern military operations, providing numerous advantages in the ever-evolving combat environment.

Cargo UGV

One of the initial objectives for the development of autonomous unmanned vehicles was focused on logistics. Military entities worldwide were enthusiastic about the prospect of employing autonomous unmanned cargo vehicles for the independent transportation of goods from point “A” to point “B.”

One of the early successful products in this domain was the MULE family, developed by Lockheed Martin. Within the framework of the United States Army program, the MULE-T vehicle was designed, commencing its development in 2002 with a capacity to transport goods weighing up to 1090 kilograms.

The MULE-T demonstrated versatility in its applications, encompassing the transportation of personnel, weapons, and equipment, the evacuation of wounded individuals, and the delivery of essential supplies such as ammunition, water, and food.

Despite its potential, the MULE-T project, with a highway range of 200 kilometers and 100 kilometers in rough terrain, faced operational challenges and was deemed impractical. The project was discontinued in 2010 after a pilot operation, with Lockheed Martin producing a total of five prototypes.

Lockheed Martin’s other development into unmanned systems also included the Squad Mission Support System, a development that underwent testing in Afghanistan. However, information about its progress has been relatively scarce since then.

A notable advancement in this field came with the introduction of the S-MET platform by General Dynamics Land Systems, which was selected for testing in 2020.

The S-MET has an impressive operational capability, remaining active for up to 72 hours. It features a range of 96 kilometers and draws energy ranging from 1 to 3 kilowatts from a rechargeable battery that can be charged on the go. Additionally, the platform has a load capacity of up to 1133 kilograms.

Numerous similar platforms, including Mission Master SP, CXT and XT from Rheinmetall, Ironclad from BAE, ULTRA from Nexter, and others, have been developed globally. However, none of these platforms have been used in real combat conditions.

An alternative approach involves repurposing standard trucks into autonomous drones. Notably, on June 6, 2023, the Australian Army achieved success by conducting an autonomous convoy of trucks on a public road.

The convoy transported supplies from Mangalore Airfield to Puckapunyal Military Area via the Goulburn Valley Highway. This test effectively showcased the functionality of sensors in real-world scenarios where various public vehicles operate.

Such autonomous platforms offer several advantages. They eliminate the need for a human crew, allowing personnel to focus on more critical tasks. Additionally, these platforms do not require rest, ensuring continuous operation. Moreover, in the event of a loss, the cost is significantly lower compared to the loss of a traditional truck with people.

Unmanned vehicles play an important role in automating routine logistics tasks, offering the potential to execute these tasks faster and more efficiently than their human-operated counterparts.

Certainly, there are drawbacks to consider. Some platforms may require an operator to enhance reliability, breakdowns can occur during the route, and adversaries may interfere with navigation or control through electronic warfare (EW) systems. Additionally, the control system itself is susceptible to failure. A significant downside is the high cost associated with these drones, which can surpass the expense of traditional trucks.

Upon weighing the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, one might question the reliability of such platforms at the current stage, leading to a debate on whether it is more prudent to stick with traditional means.

However, it is crucial to underscore that the potential loss of a conventional crewed truck still encompasses all the disadvantages of using unmanned logistics equipment.

In addition, these systems can be deployed on a large scale in rear areas, minimizing the risk of losing a drone to enemy countermeasures.

Due to leveraging a network of repeaters, cargo drones can operate efficiently in the interior of a country. This becomes particularly valuable in environments where existing communication infrastructure may be vulnerable to destruction or disruption.

Combat UGV

Infantry fire support by unmanned ground platforms for a long time did not go beyond concepts. Similarly to logistic drones, the active phase of research occurred in the early 2000s.

Typically, these platforms were developed concurrently with cargo vehicles on the same wheelbase. Lockheed Martin’s MULE family, for instance, introduced armed variants such as the ARV-A-L and ARV-A. However, unlike the MULE-T, these armed variants remained confined to conceptual layouts.

The lightweight version of the ARV-A-L was to be equipped with a 7.62 mm M240 machine gun, followed by a promising XM307 25mm grenade launcher, FGM-148 Javelin P3I ATGM, and CKEM, all of which were undergoing development at that time.

The ‘heavy’ ARV-A had to be armed with the Mk 44 30mm gun, 4 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, or the then-promising AGM-169 Joint Common Missile and other heavy weapons, including unguided missiles.

The Foster-Miller tracked TALON from QinetiQ stands out as the only serial combat ground drone currently used by the United States. In contrast to other models, TALON has seen successful deployment in real combat conditions.

TALON can be equipped with conventional rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and manipulators. By 2014, around 353 UGVs had been delivered to the United States Army and National Guard. While it may not boast high speed, TALON can be controlled remotely at a range of up to 1200 meters.

Currently, the United States Army is conducting tests on an armed S-MET developed by General Dynamics Land Systems. This armed variant is equipped with an AT-4 anti-tank grenade launcher and a Browning M2 heavy machine gun.

Many companies are striving to unify their platforms, integrating weapons without altering the chassis. This approach is evident in the practices of companies such as Rheinmetall, BAE, Nexter, THeMIS, and SpetsTechnoExport.

Beyond relatively light platforms, there are also heavy ones. Examples include the Russian Uran, Turkish ALPAR, American Ripsaw M5, and Estonian Type-X.

Taking into account the potential challenges posed by electronic warfare, many of these combat vehicles incorporate multiple control modes, using both radio communication and fiber optic cable.

Ukrainian developments

The Ukrainian defense industry showed the first serious development in the field of combat UGV in 2016. On August 29 of that year, SpetsTechnoExport presented the first version of the Phantom UGV to Oleksandr Turchynov, the former acting president of Ukraine. Later, in 2017, an updated version known as Phantom-2 was showcased. This newer iteration featured an 8×8 wheel arrangement, an upgrade from the 6×6 configuration in the initial version. The increased body size facilitated the installation of a more powerful power plant and enhanced weaponry.

The Phantom UGV is specifically designed for reconnaissance, fire support, and logistical tasks. With an operational range of 20 kilometers and a maximum speed of up to 38 kilometers per hour.

The Phantom UGV’s hybrid engine delivers 30 kilowatts of power, supporting a payload capacity of up to 350 kilograms.

Control options include a secure radio channel with a range of 2.5 kilometers and a 5-kilometer-long fiber cable.

The main weapon is a 12.7mm machine gun mounted on a stabilized platform. There is also an option to install anti-tank missile systems and pods of unguided rockets. Despite the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, the Phantom and Phantom-2 have not been reported in active combat.

Another noteworthy development is the Skorpion-3 by Temerland, unveiled in 2021. The manufacturer claims that the drone can serve as a carrier for other drones, including kamikaze drones, and various weapons.

Equipped with a 20-horsepower power plant, the Skorpion-3 has a control range limited to 5 kilometers.

It can be equipped with a 12.7mm machine gun and has a mass of 370 kilograms without weapons or ammunition.

The Myrotvorets (Peacemaker – ed.) developed by Synergiya and introduced in 2021, serves as both a logistics and combat platform. It has a control range of 2.5 kilometers, and its anti-tank missile systems boast a firing range of up to 5 kilometers. With a maximum load capacity of 480 kilograms, the Peacemaker has an operational range of 100 kilometers.

In contrast to other platforms emerging during the ATO/JFO period, the Ironclad from Roboneers has undergone testing in the challenging conditions of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

While the precise technical specifications of the modern version remain undisclosed, focusing on the characteristics declared before the full-scale war, the Ironclad has a net weight of 1800 kilograms and a maximum payload capacity of up to 350 kilograms.

It is also known that the maximum speed of the platform reaches about 20 kilometers per hour by road, and on the off-road – up to 15 kilometers.

The range reaches 130 kilometers, and the control range – up to 5 kilometers, with a repeater – up to 10. The Ironclad armored hull is designed to withstand gunfire from 7.62mm ammunition. It also offers a logistical version known as the Camel, although this variant has not been observed on the battlefield.

Introducing another innovation, the Rys’ (Lynx) logistics platform is designed to be paired with the ShaBlya Remote Weapon Station (RWS). The characteristics of Lynx are unknown.

Ground drones can be employed for two distinct purposes: mining and kamikaze attacks. In the mining role, drones discreetly deploy anti-tank mines along the paths used by enemy armored vehicles. In the kamikaze role, drones are repurposed to approach or drive beneath enemy vehicles, then detonate.

Cargo and combat platforms in the fields of the Russian-Ukrainian war

Despite the presence of countermeasures, the parties actively use a variety of wheeled and tracked cargo and combat platforms for various tasks.

The main task of such drones is logistics, which plays a key role in major trench wars. Traditional trucks and cars are vulnerable to modern weapons.

Militarnyi repeatedly talked about the defeat and destruction of enemy trucks that tried to break through to their positions.

In particular, according to Oryx, Russian forces lost approximately 2,396 trucks. The cost of the most common trucks of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, such as the URAL 4320 and KAMAZ 6×6, is estimated at about $90,000.

Drones, unlike vehicles, have a smaller silhouette and are less conspicuous to surveillance. Their distinct advantage lies in the absence of the most valuable and expensive resource of war – human presence.

However, logistic drones are not impervious to defeat. In December 2023, a Ukrainian operator operating an FPV drone successfully destroyed a Russian wheeled drone carrying a box of ammunition in the Avdiivka industrial zone.

There are many single volunteer-made platforms, such as the reported use by Russians in the same area of a tracked armored evacuation and logistics platform equipped with the Volnorez electronic warfare system.

The defense forces of Ukraine are also actively using such developments. For logistics and removal of the wounded, a part of the THeMIS drones from Milrem Robotics is used, which has a maximum payload of 1200 kilograms.

For such purposes, the domestic Lynx wheeled platform and the Czech Trail-Blazer are used.

UGV Ukraine War with Russia