In recent years, the Kremlin has touted its development of unmanned ground combat vehicles. Its small Platforma-M has been somewhat of a press marvel, with pictures of it supposedly patrolling a submarine base going viral. The Uran-9, on the other hand, is a much more powerful and larger drone that is supposedly capable of doing a job similar to an armored fighting vehicle, without anyone aboard. Now the big question is this: does this thing have the ability to actually be useful on the battlefield?
The Uran-9 is not a subtle machine. It is heavily armed with a 30mm 2A72 automatic cannon, a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun and multiple 9M120 Ataka anti-tank guided missiles. The Uran-9 also has a suite of optics and targeting systems that includes thermal imaging and a laser designator. Based on armament alone, this thing has the ability to take out anything from soft targets (i.e. people) to main battle tanks and everything in between.
The fun doesn’t stop there. The Uran-9 can be reconfigured to carry different weapons, including point-defense surface-to-air missiles like the Igla and Strela, as well as different sensors. Each Uran-9 system consists of two vehicles and a transporter truck for moving them from place-to-place and for command and control of the vehicles while operational.
But is it really needed? What you really have here is an advanced radio-controlled light tank. In other words, it has a man-in-the-loop operating system, meaning controllers are driving it and employing its weapons from a trailer nearby.
A big limitation of such systems is the range at which it can operate from its control vehicle. Unmanned ground vehicles with man-in-the-loop control concepts have a serious disadvantage in comparison to unmanned aircraft as their line-of-sight radio signals can be blocked by terrain and man-made structures easily. Just the curvature of the earth is a much more pronounced obstruction for ground dwelling unmanned systems when compared with flying ones.
Using a satellite data-link is not nearly as viable a command and control communications solution for unmanned ground systems as it is for airborne ones. Mountains, and structures, and even foliage, can still block data-transmission and the fragile equipment needed to make it happen is not conducive to a mini-tank that likes to bust through fiery obstacles like the Uran-9. Also, the bandwidth required is huge and would limit the amount of vehicles that could be used at any given time. There is also the question of how capable Russia’s abilities are when it comes to high-speed satellite data-links in the first place.
There are some partial antidotes to these restrictions, such as using an aircraft or aerostat as a beyond-line-of-sight radio relay, but this too has similar limitations of a satellite system. There is also the question of how susceptible the Uran-9's radio signals are to electronic attacks and jamming.
With this in mind, when it comes to something like the Uran-9, you end up with is a vehicle that can only support very local missions because the second the signal to its command vehicle is significantly degraded or blocked it becomes a big boulder with a target painted on its side. In essence this means that it could scout an area very close by, depending on the terrain, but its not like it can make an armored charge over the horizon.
Even on a very “local” operations level, the Uran-9 seems to have limited utility. It could provide security for large bases and work as a sentry for checkpoint duty and similar missions, but considering it is packing a large load of very deadly anti-tank missiles, there are few scenarios where such heavy firepower would be needed.
Also, because there are still multiple people controlling and supporting the system when it is operating, the efficiency of it is highly questionable. This prompts the question: why not just use a manned combat vehicle for these types of missions?
In order for this thing to be really useful in a dynamic and fast-moving ground battle, its control vehicle would have to keep up with it as it advances with other forces., a notion that is not highly plausible.
As far as counter-terror operations, the vehicle could take the place of manned armored car, leading troops to access points while giving them cover, but with humans still involved in such an operation, bringing in an unmanned element is a little puzzling. On the other hand, if the intent is to just blow everything up then yes, operators could drive this thing in-front of a structure and just unload on it.
There is also the issues of spatial orientation, intuition and just plain old situational awareness, all of which are highly degraded when you are controlling something on a computer monitor from inside a trailer. This is not an ideal handicap when dealing with highly volatile terrorist situations in urban areas.
So under very specific circumstances, yes, the Uran-9 could be able to mitigate a small amount of operational risk. But “Skynet” it is not. Does its limited capabilities justify its expense? That is hard to say. It does not look cheap though so probably not.
There are potentially ways that unmanned ground-based weapons systems could one day become effective in dynamic combat over reasonable ranges, but it would require an advanced daisy chain of data-links and an active network capable of great bandwidth placed over the battlespace. Even then there are issues and limitations, and really this is all theoretical.
We will have to wait and see exactly how Russia ends up employing the Uran-9 operationally, but maybe building a tactically viable robo-tank is not the goal of the Uran-9 at all.
This heavy armed RC tank is probably more about trying to show that Russia is advancing the unmanned combat space than anything else, and absurd Russian media reports would seem to support this hypothesis.