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China Is Ahead In Building Battle Robots

November 16, 2021
Via Chinese state media.

In the six days occupied by Air Show China 2021 (September 28 – October 3) more lethal technology was displayed under one roof than at any comparable event in Europe or North America. Although the main attraction were the aerobatics demos by locally manufactured aircraft a spacious indoor venue was reserved for exportable weapon systems and equipment. In fact, this year’s emphasis on the military products of state-owned manufacturers was too strong. Gone was any pretense of a thriving civil aerospace sector; China on its own is a gargantuan weapons factory.

A conglomerate like Norinco, besides its activities in energy and resource extraction, boasts a product line that can equip militaries with everything it needs; from the soldier’s weapon of choice all the way up to the semi-secret ballistic missile stockpile. Acres of indoor exhibition space provided at this year’s Air Show China gave enough room for Norinco to display its latest offerings–unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in whatever size a potential end user requires. Most impressive was the VU-T10, a tracked battle robot armed with a 30mm cannon, a coaxial machine gun, and what look like tandem anti-tank rockets.

Since Air Show China 2021 is meant to promote Chinese aerospace and “defense” technology the VU-T10 is available for export and its sales abroad could alter military balances in specific regions. The advantage of fielding UGVs are in enhancing the logistical reach needed by infantry and, when armed variants are involved, deploying additional firepower. Despite the US military’s decades of reliance on small UGVs it was the Russian military that leapt ahead in armed UGVs with Rostec’s Uran-9, which has been available for export since 2016. The Norinco VU-T10 is its direct competitor and carries identical weaponry.

The battlefield role of the UV-T10 is obvious enough. It functions the same as an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) providing fire support and some measure of transportation for the troops it’s embedded with. The choice of its main armament is telling; a 30mm cannon has the impact and range for neutralizing soft-skinned vehicles, some armored vehicles, blasting through structures (unless these are hardened), and even targeting low-flying aircraft such as small drones. The availability of the VU-T10 along with other Norinco UGVs, one is an 8×8 all-terrain vehicle dubbed “mule” for hauling supplies, is a compelling sales pitch to militaries that plan on embracing robotics as a leap beyond their aging vehicular inventories.

Another surprising feature of the VU-T10 is its competitive advantage versus other armed UGVs. The Russian Uran-9 is one rival but there are others. Its analog in the US is the Textron Ripsaw M5 that also carries a 30mm cannon for its main armament. Meanwhile, in Europe, the startup Milrem Robotics has a “Type-X” armed UGV being developed. France and Germany also have examples of promising UGVs that support weaponry. The Rheinmetall Mission Master SP, which is based on a wheeled chassis, is able to support weapons as well aside from performing various roles.

The idea that Chinese military technology trails the West–NATO and other countries allied with the US–is a persistent myth. Since the 2000s the evidence to the contrary has kept growing. Beyond adapting and reverse-engineering foreign technology China’s state-owned manufacturers are reaping the rewards of civil-military fusion and enormous production output to innovate in record time. By comparison, other East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea pursue the same but not as quickly as China. What’s still surprising is Chinese companies are allowed to export their newest weapon systems with the full knowledge these may alter the dynamics of a localized conflict. There’s ample evidence of this happening in the African continent and very soon in Central Asia.

If Norinco finds success exporting the VU-T10 and its “family” of multirole UGVs some countries with once dismal military power can transform their armed forces and the ways in which they’re used.

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