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Russia Leads The Way In Battle Robots

December 31, 2021
The B-19 at Zapad-2021. The Uran-9 is parked at the foreground. Via Russian defense ministry.

The past year was crowded with large and small-scale exercises featuring Russia’s military and its preferred allies. The massive Zapad-2021 in September was a standout as it deepened the ongoing project to further establish a “Union State” with Belarus; clearly the most intriguing geopolitical project in Europe at the moment. Zapad-2021 also had the token participation of other countries but an overlooked detail were the army’s fondness for testing its battle robots. Media coverage of Zapad-2021 revealed new models that should worry NATO commanders.

Russia’s defense ministry has envisioned fully autonomous combat vehicles for some years now. When it made its earliest public appearance in 2015 the hype surrounding the T-14 tank always mentioned it will receive an even larger main armament–a 152mm gun–and become fully roboticized soon. Of course, neither has happened. But the intention was there and Russia’s state-owned media crafted many different types of content to promote similar efforts. From 2015 onward the BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle served as a test bed for the “Vikhr” that was supposed to become a modular IFV with alternate weapon stations. One of its alternate turrets had a 57mm cannon.

It seems like the Vikhr was discontinued and another variant was attempted called the “Udar” that had an Epokha turret. But for this year’s Zapad-2021 the Russian army teased its latest update on the proven BMP-3. Apparently, it’s designated the “B-19” and mounts the Epokha turret found on other combat vehicles such as the Kurganets-25 and T-15. (The B-19’s export approved variant is called “Manul.”) Russian media claim the Epokha features boasts an intimidating suite of armaments such as a 57mm cannon, a coaxial machine gun, and four Kornet anti-tank missiles. But the intended role the B-19 is supposed to fulfill is unclear since the army has vast stocks of BMP-2’s kept in working order and enough BMP-3’s. The B-19 may also dampen the introduction of the Kurganets-25 and the T-15, two heavy IFVs whose future usage are now muddled.

But joining the B-19 at Zapad-2021 were two battle robots the army seem fond of. The Uran-9 and the smaller Nerekhta had their share of live fires and even “fought” small battles together with the B-19. This suggests the underlying concept for the B-19 may lead to “teaming” where battle robots steered by pilots in a distant control station are sent alongside a mechanized unit and their heavy IFVs. Descriptions of the B-19 haven’t clarified if it’s supposed to be a transport first or a “support vehicle” meant for tracking and eliminating pockets of the enemy while its accompanying IFVs approach their objective. When a B-19 is paired with the Uran-9 the accumulated firepower they possess is daunting. The armaments of an Uran-9 includes a 30mm cannon and a light machine gun plus four Ataka ATGMs and 12 thermobaric rockets in cyclical launchers.

The Russian army enjoy a robust infrastructure for developing battle robots faster than separate NATO armies have and this advantage is hardly a secret. Another distinguishing feature of Russian UGVs, at least those tailored for combat, are their armament and size. It’s only a matter of years until a fully autonomous IFV is introduced such as the Udar or an improved B-19 that networks with other vehicles. Meanwhile, a less imposing cohort are now ready for infantry engagements and securing perimeters. The Uran-9 can team with the smaller tracked Nerekhta battle robot that carries a single 12.7mm heavy machine gun paired with an automatic grenade launcher. At least one Nerekhta was filmed at Zapad-21 on a scouting role where it fired its main armament.

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