Russia is Weapons Testing Unmanned Ground Vehicles in Syria

Published May 31st, 2018 - 10:28 GMT
The Uran-9 tank, via (Youtube)
The Uran-9 tank, via (Youtube)

By Eleanor Beevor

“Unmanned” or “autonomous” military technology is not nearly as new a phenomenon as we tend to think it is. Ever since the Gatling gun - the forerunner of today’s machine gun - was developed in the American Civil War, automation in warfare has presented a deadly paradox. Richard Gatling wrote once that his rationale for inventing the gun was to reduce the number of soldiers in an army, and so ultimately to save lives. The truth was the tragic opposite.

The automated gun did not reduce the number of soldiers exposed to combat. But it did amplify the destruction that one side is able to cause in a war, and it set off a chain of investment in newer, more destructive military technology.

And though the sophistication of the autonomous technology we have today has increased exponentially, the ethical concerns, and the presence of that troubling paradox, remain with us.

Russia’s unmanned tank tested in Syria

And the latest developments in unmanned artillery may cause Syria a new wave of pain. Earlier this month, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that their newest unmanned tank was operational, and had been tested successfully in Syria.

Whilst Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are becoming increasingly common in conflict zones world-over, Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) are still relatively rare in combat operations.

This announcement by Russia is not unprecedented. The new automated tank, called the Uran-9, is only the latest of the technological experiments by the Russian military in Syria. Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Defence Committee for the Russian Parliament, was quoted as saying: “As we helped the brotherly Syrian people, we tested over 200 new types of weapons”.


Russia are now ahead of the game when it comes to using HGVs in operation. However, they are far from alone in developing them, and it is safe to say that all global powers will be keeping a close eye on each other’s technology, with the view of staying ahead of the competition by developing their own.

Professor Michael Horowitz, an expert in military technology at the University of Pennsylvania, told Al Bawaba:

“Russia recognizes that military robotics are increasingly playing a large role on the battlefield, and that there are many possible opportunities for developments beyond drones, including ground vehicles such as the Uran-9. But every military power around the world is investing in uninhabited systems. Russia was behind, but is working hard to catch up. From a technology perspective, while Russia is one of the first to deploy a ground vehicle like the Uran-9, other states, including Israel, have developed sophisticated uninhabited ground vehicles as well. The United States and China are thought to have the most sophisticated uninhabited systems in the world, but Russia and others are close behind.”

The Uran-9 is Remote Operated (via Youtube, 'Military Weapons')

New generation weapons

We still don’t know enough about what tests the Uran-9 was put through in Syria to assess how much of a technological advancement it really is. But this announcement will certainly exacerbate the development and deployment of new UGVs.

The Uran-9 is the next generation of an earlier model called the Uran-6, a vehicle that was principally used to deactivate roadside munitions and explosive devices. These unmanned tanks are significantly smaller and lighter than manned tanks.

A manned tank can weigh between 60 and 120 tons, whereas the Uran-9 is about 10 tons. Nevertheless, it is armed with anti-tank rockets, a machine gun and a 30mm cannon, suggesting that it is ready to take on manned artillery in its heaviest forms.

It is, however, important to note that there are degrees of machine autonomy, and that the Uran-9 is not completely “unmanned”. It is not an artificially intelligent machine, in the sense of making its own decisions by responding to data gleaned from its surroundings. UGVs, like most drones, rely on pilots using remote signals to communicate with them.

And unlike drones, a UGV pilot needs to be relatively close to the tank to be able to communicate with it, since on land there are many more obstructions to the communication signal – buildings, hills, and so on. The Uran-9 pilot must remain within 1.8 miles of the tank to be able to work it. This is especially so in cities, the likely battlegrounds of the future as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban.

Urban Warfare Horrors

(via Rostec State Corporation) 

Syria is a case in point of the horrors of urban warfare. Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta are all haunting illustrations of what happens when civilians and fighters exist in close proximity, and there is little or no effort to distinguish them. It is situations such as this that the Geneva Conventions, the “Laws of War”, are meant to prevent, or at the very least minimize.

The proponents of unmanned military technology argue that it has the potential to deliver more targeted strikes, and so possibly reduce civilian casualties. This has been one of the key justifications behind drone technology.  

Evidence from these strikes does not always stand in that argument’s favour. However, it is incontestable that for as long as war exists, it is better to minimize civilian casualties in the process. And it is not unfeasible that unmanned technology could play a part in that. But whether it does or not rather depends on the restraint of the hands which that technology lies in, what their priorities really are, and also whether pilot or machine is ultimately in control. Samuel Bendett, a Research Analyst and specialist in Russian Military Technology at the Center for Naval Analyses told Al Bawaba:

“We know that this particular UGV, the Uran-9, is supposed to operate in teams of three or four, and that it’s armament is designed for potentially hitting heavier targets than other Russian UGVs, which are mostly armed with large-caliber machine guns. So Uran-9 is designed more for missions that probably take place outside of heavily populated urban environments. Other Russian systems like Soratnik or Nerehta, which are smaller or more lightly armed, are probably better suited for urban warfare.

Uran-9 is certainly a unique UGV, since it’s one of the biggest weapons of its kind tested anywhere. Its full effectiveness can only be computated if it can perform its mission autonomously in the rapidly-changing and complex battlefield environment, be it an urban battle or one taking place far from cities. Such fully autonomous operation so far eluded its Russian developers, who are nonetheless working towards achieving such operational goals for their UGVs.”


Thus even if a completely autonomous UGV isn’t joining the ranks of the Russian military yet, they are doing all they can to ensure that it will in the future. And whether such a vehicle is being developed with the protection of civilians as a priority is extremely questionable. No party to the Syrian conflict will come out without crimes to answer for.

But joint bombing raids by Russian and Syrian armed forces, such as those over Aleppo, were shockingly indiscriminate, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and involved the apparent targeting of hospitals, all illegal under the Geneva conventions.

Representatives of the Military University of the Russian Ministry of Defence, when speaking at a conference by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), also expressed that complying with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in urban battles could contradict the tasks assigned to the military by their leadership, and also lead to additional losses among personnel during the performance of such orders”.

This is certainly not to say that the West should get too self-congratulatory by contrast – both America and Europe have shameful violations of IHL on their records too. And it is one thing to vocally express support for IHL, and quite another to actually prioritize adherence to it on operations. But the blatant disregard for IHL by Russia in Syria has been truly troubling. And adding autonomous weaponry to this battlefield will throw in another troubling dynamic, which is a lack of accountability.

Dr. Hugo Slim, Head of Policy for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Al Bawaba:

“The ICRC is working closely with States as they consider the legal and policy requirements of new weapons systems. The Geneva Conventions require all new weapons to be designed to comply with international humanitarian law, and the ICRC is urging all states to ensure that there is always a human “in the loop” who maintains functional and operational control of robotic weapons. Human control is essential so that human combatants are always responsible and accountable for the use of force. Only humans, and not machines, can respect or violate law.”

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