American and Russian Development of Military Unmanned Ground Vehicles

By Samuel Bendett, Associate Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses' International Affairs Group, member of the Russia Studies Program

The pace of development of unmanned systems for the military is picking up around the world, with many countries and even non-state actors fielding air, land and seabased models for current and future use. Russian Federation is one of the global leaders in the use and development of such systems.

Russian military experts argue that in the near future, their country will need various military robotic systems, given Russia’s large territory, extreme physical-geographical and climate conditions, future demographic restrictions and other factors that necessitate the development and creation of remotely controlled and semi-autonomous systems that protect and defend the country on land, air, and sea.


With the backing of the Russian government and its domestic industries, over the past few years Russia saw the development of a wide range of unmanned ground vehicle platforms, or UGVs. The government is interested in augmenting Russian warfighting capabilities – earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin stated that “an important and promising direction (for the military) is the development of autonomous robotic complexes. They are able to fundamentally change the whole system of armament of general-purpose forces, and we need effective achievements in this field.” Russia has also launched a series of modernization drives in order to fund the development of state-of-the-art technologies for its armed forces. The basis for the new State Armaments Program from 2018 to 2025 will be the development and purchases of what Russians call “intelligent systems” – electronic warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic strike weapons. In order to fulfill government and Ministry of Defense (MOD) requirements, Russian developers are pursuing multiple projects that include development and testing of artificial intelligence to command and navigate the new machines. At the same time, United States military has been utilizing a wide range of unmanned ground vehicles in its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. What’s interesting about American developments is the prevalence of smaller, more agile UGVs and the absence of larger, combatoriented machines in the field, especially when compared to the UGVs Russian are currently working on. Both countries are now working on systems that would augment warfighter capabilities, but each state is pursuing its own path when it comes to policy and acquisition of military robotics.


Russia is currently pursuing a number of UGV concepts and projects, all at various stages of use, development, testing or evaluation. For example, Russian forces used UGV solutions in Syria, from the smallest to one of the largest UGVs in the world today. “Uran-6”, tracked demining robot has been assisting Russian sappers across Syria, helping clear recaptured areas from mines, improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordinance. Weighing at approximately 6 tons and designed to operate in extreme environment, this machine has been operating for almost a year at this point. According to Russian and Western sources, Russian demining teams were also operating the “Scarab” and the “Sphere” small UGVs. The “Scarab” is a light tracked system designed to collect audio-visual data. The “Sphere” is a baseball-sized wireless exploration drone equipped with cameras, microphones, sensors, signal processing and data recording. The “Sphere” is designed to efficiently collect audio-visual data in hard to reach or dangerous zones, such as tunnels or collapsed structures.

Russia has built and begun to integrate its first combat UGV – “Platforma-M” medium-sized vehicle is designed for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance roles; it is armed with a 7.62 mm machine gun and four grenade launchers. This UGV is already in service with the Russian Pacific Fleet. With a weight of about 800 kilograms, it can work on a 48 hour battery.

Given Russian success on the Syrian battlefield, there has already been some speculation whether Moscow-allied Syrian forces actually used Russian armed UGVs in recent combat operations. A closer international investigation by Bellingcat revealed that such use of combat unmanned ground systems probably did not take place, though numerous Russian UGV designs point to their potential use in combat scenarios. So far, Russian UGV development exhibited the absence of inter-service rivalry when it comes to funding, testing and fielding such systems downrange, although this may have more to do with the novelty of UGVs as a Russian force multiplier.

At the same time, Russian military is gearing up to use ground military robots in future conflicts as it works on UGVs fit for such roles. One such design, armored “Uran-9”, is built specifically for combat operations – weighing in at 10 tons, it is armed with a 30 mm cannon, 7.62 mm machine gun, and can potentially fire “Ataka” anti-tank missiles and “Igla” surface-to-air missiles. Russian military experts think this particular UGV could be used in Syria in the near future in support of Russian ground forces. “Uran-9” intimidating and futuristic-looking prototype has been actively featured in Russian and Western media as the sign of “things to come” in unmanned combat.

Additionally, in 2015, Russia unveiled heavy armored “Udar”, a UGV based on the BMP-3 armored vehicle chassis. The BMP-3 chassis was chosen by designers as the most versatile platform that is widespread across Russian armed forces, easing potential vehicle maintenance and repair. This UGV carries heavy armaments such as 30 mm cannon and potentially even a multicopter drone for greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role. This tank-sized vehicle is planned in three variants: combat, engineering support, and transportation/evacuation. Today, it has been renamed as “Vihr” (Hurricane) and its evaluation continues by the Ministry of Defense.

Mid-sized unmanned “Nerehta” was recently unveiled – armed with weapons including 7.62 mm machine gun. This machine is also envisioned to operate in three variants – combat, intelligence gathering and transportation/logistics support. Earlier, Russia’s Foundation for Advanced Studies (equivalent to American DARPA) chose “Nerehta” as a research and development platform for new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and cooperation with unmanned aerial vehicles. This UGV has been recently tested for cooperation with small unmanned aerial vehicles in battlefield conditions, and it is also a testing and development bed for voice/signal communication with “Ratnik” – Russia’s newest warfighter gear.

Until recently, “Nerehta” was often sited together with “Soratnik” UGV, which was unveiled in September 2016 by the “Kalashnikov” Design Bureau during “Army-2016” expo. This larger 7-ton UGV was designed for combat, patrol and security roles, responding to the Russian MOD specifications. “Soratnik” has an operational range of 400 km, a maximum road speed of 40 km/h, and can be remote-controlled out to a distance of 10 km. In addition to direct control, the system could operate at varying levels of autonomy. Both UGVs were recently tested by the Russian MoD, indicating increasing interest in using such systems for combat. However, it was recently announced that “Soratnik” would not enter serial production for the Ministry of Defense; instead, it will be used as a test platform for further UGV developments. On the other hand, “Nerehta” is prominently featured as a sample “military robot” in discussion and deliberations of Russia’s state armaments program through 2025.

More Russian large ground vehicles are in development, such as a sapper and demining “Prohod-1” (“Pathway”) – it has undergone state trials by the end of summer 2016. According to designers, it is intended to create safe corridors of up to 4.5 (14 feet) meters wide for soldiers and equipment. Unlike “Uran”-family of vehicles, “Prohod-1” can be operated in both manned and unmanned configurations.

Besides afore-mentioned “Platforma-M”, Russia has several mid-sized UGV in the works that are designed for helping warfighter on the battlefield. In 2013, Russian MOD evaluated “Argo” – this wheeled system is designed for patrol and intelligence gathering, and is armed with a 7.62 mm machine gun and several rockets. It weighs about one ton, and can be also armed with RPGs. “Argo” can also be used for conducting amphibious operations and logistics support.

Another UGV in development is the Mobile Autonomous Robotic System (MARS) – an infantry support platform able to carry six fully equipped soldiers or 500 kilograms of combat load. Powered by a 65 horse power diesel engine, it can provide battery charging for the military squad. This vehicle can travel up to 200 km at a speed of 32 km/h using internal fuel, or 500 km with external fuel tank. Moreover, in April 2016, Russia unveiled “Lynx-BP” biomorphic robot weighing up to 400 kilograms that is able to move in multiple complex environments, and its state tests are scheduled for 2019. The platform has a “4-lever driving force”, which means that this robot, like the American Boston Dynamics’ “beasts”, will walk on four “legs”. Its load-carrying capacity will be anywhere from 60 to 200 kilograms, depending on the model.

Russian promotional videos recently featured a humanoid military robot “Fedor”. Dubbed “Russian Terminator”, it’s designed mainly for civilian use, such as for work abroad space stations – however, it made for great public relations as a menacing-looking metal skeleton holding two large guns in each “hand.” Recently, Russia’s Foundation for Advanced Studies announced that “Fedor” will be augmented with artificial intelligence.

What is evident at this point is that Russians are trying to design distinct models fit for a particular purpose for the UGVs size and armaments. There is also an emerging discussion that heavy UGVs are meant to ultimately replace manned Russian tanks and armored vehicles, such as the recently unveiled plans by “Uralvagonazavod”, the maker of Russia’s main battle tanks. Thus initially, the armored UGVs are going to play complementary, followed by a substitution, role in the Russian order of battle in the coming several decades. There is also emerging evidence that Russian designers and testers are trying to get various unmanned systems to communicate with each other for the benefit of the warfighter. While unmanned systems are an emerging trend across the world’s militaries, Russians are already making sure they can properly coordinate such developments between the government/military needs and militaryindustrial complex capabilities. In that they may be borrowing from recent American efforts at steering UGV developments through its military agencies, government support and oversight.

So far, Russian armed forces have not published their public “roadmap” for UGV development and incorporation – however, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced in March 2017 that “ten major scientific research institutes and centers have been established to work on information technology, robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles. Together with the Russian Academy of Sciences, higher educational institutions, federal executive bodies and leading organizations of the defense industrial complex, basic criteria for key technologies have been formulated, as well as priority directions for basic research were outlined. The results of this work formed the basis for a draft of new state armament program, currently under discussion.”

Such government support is also evident in recent statements by officials like Major-General Kordyukov: according to him, Ministry of Defense issues the requirements of tactical and technical characteristics for UGV development assignment. At the same time, many Russian developers offer their own inventions and prototypes. Therefore, “in order to develop a unified ideology and order for the creation of military robots, and in order to reduce the number of types and varieties of prototypes, as well as to facilitate unification and interdepartmental coordination of such work, a Commission for the Development of Robotic Military Complexes was formed under the leadership of the Minister of Defense.”1

Kordyukov further stated that “the main results of the Commission's work were conceptual documents in terms of ensuring the development and implementation of advanced military, special and dual-purpose technologies, as well as organization of broad cooperation of industrial enterprises, including carrying out works to create robotic complexes in the interests of the Armed Forces.” It’s too early to judge the results of this nascent cooperation, though such MoD leadership can be a necessary step in the right direction, as new and advanced unmanned technologies begin to see the light of day.


While Russia has pursued a range of unmanned ground systems, the United States take a somewhat different path in UGV development across its military branches. Over the past two decades, the US has engaged primarily in expeditionary and COIN (counter-insurgency) operations around the world, where it operated without peer adversaries, which in turn led to unmanned systems requirements mainly in logistics, Intel/Surevillance/Reconaissance and situational awareness (SA) roles. In planning and design for such unmanned systems, there was no need for a heavily armed military ground robot – America’s UGV park consisted of mostly demining and SA systems. United States’ past battles also shaped perceptions of future military robotics in upcoming conflicts, without due consideration to fighting a potential peer adversary that may field conventional weapons like tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy aircraft. Therefore, notions like combat in “mega-cities” – sprawling urban centers with over 10 million population – shape current American military’s thinking about where its forces may deploy in the coming years or decades. The relatively recent emergence of China and Russia as potential peer adversaries has caught US military establishment by surprise, and as Department of Defense seeks to shift its preparedness to counter such potential threats, its UGV development seems to lag behind.

America’s ground robotics program dates back to the end of the Cold War – in 1990, the Office of the Secretary of Defense established the Joint Robotics Program to coordinate all of the ground robot programs of the individual military services. Back then, the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Ground Vehicle Master Plan provided a comprehensive overview of the current unmanned vehicle programs and their status. The Unmanned Ground Vehicle Joint Program Office (UGV JPO) was stood up in Huntsville, Alabama2 ; other offices tasked with unmanned robotic systems included various Air Force, Navy and other military services and their research laboratories, along with agencies like DARPA. Curiously enough, the absolute majority of the UGVs developed and tested by all these branches shown in public documents and “roadmaps” were either unarmed or on the smaller side – even somewhat larger models were designed mostly for mine-clearing and explosive detections. 

Starting with 2009, US Department of the Army began publishing the Unmanned Ground Systems Roadmap3 through its Robotic Systems Joint Project Office as a “tool to share information with external stakeholders including the UGV user community, Science & Technology base, and Industry.” The intent of the Roadmap was “to provide the stakeholders with much needed insight into the current and future state of the Army and Marine Corps UGS development, procurement, and sustainment.” The Roadmap was also supposed to provide American decision-makers insight into emerging capabilities relative to the current and future programs4 .

Recent publicly-available information from US Department of Defense’ publications and military news sites reveal that the United States Marine Corps have recently tested a machine gun-wielding robot5 . This multi-utility tactical transport, or MUTT, consists of a family of tracked and wheeled ground vehicles that can carry a payload of anywhere between 600 to 1200 pounds (272–544 kilograms)6 . At this point in development, it can be armed with a .50-cal machine gun – without indicating if heavier weapons can be mounted on it – and launched from an amphibious assault vehicle. In a recent military exercise at Camp Pendelton, US Marines reviewed a number of technologies about the future of amphibious warfare, such as UAVs and military robots. During the exercise, MUTTs launched small quadrocopters as part of an effort to create working “drone teams” – much like their Russian robotics counterparts are training to do as well7 . Made by General Dynamics, MUTTs are advertised as easy to operate, quiet, highly mobile vehicles with a good range8 . On the other hand, they can put additional logistics tasks for the soldiers, such as extra maintenance and training required to operate them, increasing the burden on the warfighter. At this point, US Marines do not seem to be testing UGVs larger or more sophisticated than the MUTTs displayed at Camp Pendleton.

For its part, the United States Army is developing a range of unmanned ground vehicles, but the process of fielding such machines in future battles would be “slow and cautious,” according to American defense officials. The key policy that guides such developments is the “Robotic and Autonomous Systems Strategy,” or RAS9 , released in February 2017 by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. This public document details how the Army will incorporate emerging technologies into its force structure, along with the benefits these advancements provide, such as:

• Increasing soldiers’ situational awareness;

• Lightening the warfighters’ physical and cognitive workloads; • Sustaining the force with improved distribution, throughput and efficiency;

• Facilitating movement and maneuver;

• Protecting the force.

This effort by the Army aims to define proprieties several decades into the future, and will include “increased situational awareness with persistent reconnaissance from swarming systems, improving sustainment with autonomous aerial cargo delivery and facilitating maneuver with advancements to unmanned combat vehicles.” Again, there is no specific mention of developing mid- to large-size armored UGVs to actually assist or replace the warfighter in combat10.

So far, US Army branches such as Army’s Rapid Equipment Force and Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) are working with small, light UGVs designed for specific roles such as subterranean operations11. In recent testing and evaluation, these forces used UGVs similar to MUTTs, as well as to Russia’s “Scarab” and “Sphere” – small devices capable of fitting and operating in constrained and dangerous environments12.

What kind of UGV developments currently guides American military services? According to recent news, US Army officials are gearing up to pursue the nextgeneration combat vehicle, also known as the NGCV. According to Col. William Nuckols, Jr., director of mounted requirements at the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, “robotics and autonomous systems are… going to be a part of the concept. When you start thinking about futurepossibilities and the effect that robotics might play, it could be a game-changer.”13 Interestingly enough, unlike their Russian counterparts, it’s unclear if these NGCVs will replace American tanks or infantry fighting vehicles – however, there are potential plans on the drawing board to have American Abrams tanks replaced with heavy UGVs at some point down the road.

There is also evidence that the US Army is being cautious with its UGV developments. According to Maj. Michael Dvorak, robotics branch chief at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, “the Army needs to take baby steps to achieve some type of unmanned vehicle that can operate with its mounted armored formations.”14 According to this Center, adding a remotecontrolled robotic system to an existing manned platform such as the M113 armored personnel carrier would be a logical move in creating a heavy combat UGV in the near future.

The Army’s robotics and autonomous systems strategy, approved in February, calls for fielding unmanned combat vehicles with advanced payloads in the 2021 to 2030 timeframe. Meanwhile, like their Russian counterparts, the American defense industry is forging ahead of government priorities with its own developments, such as the BAE Systems prototype Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle (ARCV) – a teleoperated platform designed to be remotely operated from the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle15.

How quickly the US Army will actually field some of the more advanced forms of automation for ground combat vehicles remains uncertain. One reason for this is that introducing robotic systems into land warfare is more difficult than in the air or sea domains because the operating environment is more crowded and complex. It is also apparent, from ongoing debates and discussions within American defense establishment that trust in autonomous and robotic systems is going to influence the rate and speed of adoption of unmanned military components. Some even go as far as indicating that such adoption “…is going to be an evolutionary thing but… not a linear evolution.” Yet others urge faster adoption of new technologies, especially as potential American adversaries like Russia are forging ahead with successful testing, evaluation and fielding of potential UGVs16.

There is emerging evidence that the US Army is not sitting still while countries like Russia forge ahead with diverse UGV developments – it recently launched several competitions to define its future unmanned ground systems fleet. Due to the rapid procurement of several thousand small UGVs, the Army now has a “petting zoo” of various ground robots – none of which are “Platforma”, “Soratnik” or “Nerehta” equivalents. Among these are several variants used for the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) mission; robots for engineering battalions to conduct route clearance, as well as machines for CBRNE contingency and global response tasks17. According to the Army’s Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat System Support, “one of the issues or challenges in some of the things that we’ve learned over time is these systems are, one, proprietary. So they don’t necessarily communicate with one another and, two, changes that we would need to make with them have to go back to the original contractors to make those changes.”18

According to American military publications, the US Army’s way forward streamlines UGVs so there are just a few common chassis in the small, medium and large ranges and a “universal controller,” making the systems interoperable and open to take on new sensors and capabilities more easily. The Man Transportable Robotic System (MTRS) Increment II will be the Army’s next medium-sized robot to provide standoff capability to identify and neutralize explosive hazards. The MTRS Increment II system will have a common chassis with the ability to plug in various payloads for current and future missions19.

Recently, the US Army and industry developed a “ground robotic interoperability profile” in advance of procuring the next generation of UGVs. MTRS will be the first contract that requires various payloads like fiber optics, manipulator arms and radios to work within the profile. For the Army’s future small UGV – the Common Robotic System (Individual) – the service wants a “man-packable robot that is under 25 lbs (11 kilograms) and highly mobile, equipped with advanced sensors and mission modules for dismounted forces.” The design will allow operators to reconfigure for various missions quickly in the field20. Further down the road, the Army is expected to procure a Common Robotic System (Heavy), a vehicle-transportable system weighing 500 to 1,000 lbs (226 to 453 kilograms) to perform “highly dexterous manipulation procedures” for explosive detection and disarming vehicle-borne IEDs from a safe distance, according to a presentation slide included in the briefing at Selfridge. The CRS(H) UGV will also be designed to easily reconfigure with various modules and payloads. Other concepts in the Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy include leader-follower technology where a manned lead truck would be followed by three unmanned vehicles in a convoy. The idea is to be able to increase the number of convoys that can run in a 24-hour period and keep soldiers out of harm’s way21. CONCLUSION Besides the Russian Ministry of Defensedirected office mentioned earlier, in order to formulate battlefield needs for the next 10–20 years and to justify developments of military robotics, Russia launched an annual conference in 2016 called “Robotization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Colonel Sergey Popov, head of the Main Research and Testing Center for Robotics of the Ministry of Defense, spoke on February 10, 2016 at the inaugural event, stating that “the main objectives of Russian Armed Forces' robotization are to achieve a new quality of weapons to improve the effectiveness of combat missions and to reduce losses among servicemen.” In particular, he said: “By using military robots, we will be able to reduce combat losses, minimize damage to life and health of servicemen in the course of their professional activities and at the same time ensure the required efficiency in accomplishing military tasks.” The main goals of this annual conference are attempts at standardization of designs and testing criteria, as well as facilitation of inter- and intra-government dialogue on UGV developments. These goals are also in line with American wish-list for its own UGV developments for the next several decades.

Russian military publications like “Independent Military Review” (NVO) recently highlighted the slow but steady progress of domestic robotic systems development in the country: “Last year (in 2016), the development of normative and technical documents of general requirements for robotic systems was completed. Today, the government, military and industrial bodies are clarifying current conceptual and policy documents that will determine the strategy for the development of robotics in the Armed Forces. There is also a state defense order for research and development work on creating promising models of such military robots.”

Interestingly enough, the United States seem to be behind Russia – for now – in developing heavier, tank-sized machines like “Uran-9” and “Vihr”, and are ahead of Russia when it comes to small UGVs designed to ease the burden of situational awareness, demining and explosive ordnance disposal. Much of this has to do with each country’s threat perception that so far has guided its unmanned systems development. Since Russia is first and foremost a Eurasian land power, it is envisioning military robotics assisting in land operations against well-armed and fortified enemies, necessitating tank-like UGVs, along with a system of other unmanned machine supporting the future versions of “Uran-9” and “Nerehta” vehicles.

On the other hand, the United States have engaged primarily in expeditionary operations around the world, where it operated without peer adversaries, which in turn led to unmanned systems acting mostly in logistics and situational awareness roles. Over the past two decades, American military has also engaged in COIN (counter-insurgency) operations, and simply did not need a heavy military robot to fight COIN adversaries who were far behind the US technologically – its UGV park consisted of demining and SA robots. This type of outlook shapes many US perceptions of future military robotics in upcoming conflicts, even as peer adversaries like Russia and China have made great strides in military modernization and operational capabilities.

Today, notions like combat in “megacities” – sprawling urban centers with over 10 million population – shape American military’s thinking about where its forces (especially Marines) may fight in the coming years or decades. The United States are looking at emerging threats where military, economic, religious, ethnic and socio-cultural threats combine, and that means precision-style fighting where collateral damage is unwelcome. Such planning calls for smaller unmanned systems on the US Army’s and Marine’ drawing boards. In contrast, Russia may be gearing up for a different type of war, even as its recent battlefield experience in Chechnya, Eastern Ukraine and Syria is bringing its closer to America’s aperture of combating state and non-state actors in dense population settings.

That does not mean that the US is actually behind technologically in this new unmanned race, since American forces have a wide array of other advanced weapons to augment their existing warfighting capabilities with land, sea, space and sea-based information and situational awareness, as well as strike platforms. What this does reveal are short-to-mid-term priorities of both militaries as new technology allows for rapid innovation and experimentation with existing and emerging concepts. Unless a major crisis prompts Americans to rapidly field a tank-sized UGV armed to the teeth, both the US Army and US Marine Corps will pursue a slow development and implementation strategies aimed at easing their warfighter burden and not necessarily replacing existing manned ground platforms with UGV-based heavy firepower.

Russia, meanwhile, will pursue the testing and continued evaluation of its numerous combat platforms, and we may get to see such UGVs in action before Americans field theirs. On the other hand, given how much US forces and observers were surprised by adversarial use of unmanned platforms in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, the American military may prompt its leadership and defense industries to come up with similar solutions in the shortest possible time.

For now, Russia seems to lead the pack of advanced international militaries that includes United States, European Union, Israel and China in heavier-armored unmanned ground platforms.











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