By Will Anderson
Beginning in at least 2015, a Russian state arms company began promoting the Uran-9, a remotely operated unmanned ground vehicle system, to the international market. Equipped with an array of thermal and electro-optic imaging, a laser warning system, and loaded with a coaxial PKM, a 30mm 2A72 automatic cannon, six Shmel-M rockets, and with further options of either Ataka guided anti-tank missiles, IGLA surface-to-air missiles, or Verba MANPADS (1), the Uran-9 looked to be a heavily armed, modular platform capable of engaging a variety of targets while simultaneously decreasing the risk to soldiers themselves. While this is simply one platform in a larger years-long move by the Russian government to develop, test, and deploy unmanned systems (2), what makes the Uran-9 interesting is the fact that it has actually been tested in near-combat situations in the Syrian Civil War.
However, there have been conflicting accounts of the performance of Uran-9 from its time in Syria. In an interview from January 24th, 2019, Vladimir Dimitriev, General Director of Kalashnikov Concern, responded to a question about the Russian Military’s adoption of the Uran-9, saying: “Yes, moreover, production of the first serial batch is now coming to an end. In general, [the Uran-9] is a good scientific and technical reserve for further products…”. When specifically asked about the performance of the platform in Syria, he stated “Syria is an excellent range that allows you to understand the weaknesses and strengths of any weapon, so the finalization is carried out everywhere and by everyone. We’re no exception.” (3).
While this might seem evasive or even vague, other sources are more directly critical of the platform’s performance and highlight shortcomings in nearly every aspect of the system. An Article in RIA Novosti cites a report “available to Novosti” from the Third Central Research Institute of the MoD, saying…
when [the Uran-9] moved independently, low reliability of the chassis – support and guide rollers, as well as suspension springs – was found. The robot also showed unstable operation of the 30-mm automatic gun, untimely activation of the starting circuits, failure of the thermal imaging channel of the optical-receive station. Military specialists consider the inability to shoot on the move to be a big disadvantage of [the Uran-9]… (4)
This information mirrors other sources, who provide more details on the technical shortcomings of the Uran-9 – but most sources only cite an article from Defence Blog, which in turn cites a report delivered by a researcher named Andrei P. Anisimov at the internal “10th All-Russian scientific conference ‘Actual Problems of Protection and Security’, which was held from 3 to 6 April 2018 in the N.G. Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg” (5).
In addition to the failure of the imaging, track, and weapons systems, Defence Blog states that the Uran-9 platform experienced “17 cases of short-term (up to 1 min) and 2 cases of long (up to 1.5 hours) loss of Uran-9 control…” , critical underperformance of the platform’s target identification and tracking system, and the inability to fire on the move. In summary, the article states “Russian combat UGVs are not able to perform the assigned tasks in the classical types of combat operations”, with other sources stating that the UGV is 10-15 years away from being able to perform in a combat role (6).
Defence Blog gives what appears to be the 9th page of a slide from a Russian presentation as a primary source. A cursory translation of the slide validates the information and claims of the article. However, in Russian-language portions of the internet, the whole presentation is still available through Live Journal publications, and Andrei Anisimov is indeed a researcher at the Third Central Institute of the Ministry of Defence; through this, we can reasonably assume the Uran-9’s poor performance in Syria as factual. Other sources, such as the Russian government’s claims to have improved the platform since Syria, indicate there were at least some issues. Likewise, opinions in the defence industry, like BAE Systems’s evaluation on the UGV as shown here, might offer additional validity to the reported failures of the platform.
Anisimov’s presentation, specifically slide 10, does outline current ways in which the platform may be useful. Anisimov advises that the Uran-9 should be used either in “assaulting objects and fortified areas” or deployed in short-term fixed firing positions with “service points … as close to the firing positions as possible, in such a way as to ensure their maintenance, reloading, and sending to firing positions…”. Other suggestions include the pairing of the Uran-9 with other maneuvering elements. Ultimately, Anisimov concludes that “independent use of [Uran-9] subdivisions, in case of loss of control or failure of point management, can lead to non-fulfillment of the assigned task by combined arms units”. In short, the Uran-9, at least at the time of Anisimov’s presentation, is more of a liability which must be catered to than a revolutionary, or even simply effective, battlefield asset.
It is important to note too that other members of the Uran robotic “family”, the Uran-6 minesweeper & Uran-14 vehicle recovery unit, have been consistently paraded, drilled, and deployed due to their success, and, according to reports, appear to have operated well in Syria where the Uran-9 didn’t. In comparison, the relative absence of the Uran-9 from the MoD’s public footprint, outside of recent testing and trial announcements, can be telling in and of itself.
However, Anisimov’s presentation isn’t only an airing of the remote platform’s failures, but a proposal for future trajectories in Russia’s development of UGVs. It is true that the Russian military has been tight-lipped about the performance of the Uran-9 platform in Syria, but they likely hold continued hopes for the Uran-9 platform as a test-bed for future Russian combat robotics. The platform is still undergoing continued tests, but more recent reports indicate a move by the Russian MoD towards autonomous armored columns (7), as well as the development of new, autonomous platforms, such as the modular Marker UGV, which has been pictured in wheeled and tracked configurations (8).
This new system navigates completely autonomously, and recently completed a 30 km trek through “unprepared territory – a forest-steppe with a snow cover,” and demonstrated an ability to modify its route and move around obstacles. The Marker platform seems promising, at the very least, and advancements in autonomous function seem to have answered at least one of the critical dilemmas of the Uran-9; through autonomous navigation, the problems of remote ground control can simply be bypassed. It is also important to consider that it doesn’t matter that the Uran-9 performed well, but that it has opened up pathways for Russia’s continued development of robotic, and increasingly autonomous, combat systems. In combination with parallel developments in autonomous targeting, such as IAI’s line of loitering munitions, the Uran-9, as well as its continued legacy in R&D projects such the Marker UGV, mark steps into a future where Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems will take on a potentially significant and revolutionary role in the future of land-based warfare.