Unmanned ground vehicles rapidly finding their place on battlefields

Unmanned ground vehicles rapidly finding their place on battlefields

Global militaries are increasingly building, deploying, and operating unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs. Mykhalio Fedorov, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for Innovations, wrote on Twitter that, “I believe ground robotic systems will become the next game changer in this war, the same as drones.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has used the QinetiQ explosive ordnance disposal robot for years and the U.S. Army is developing robotic combat vehicles as part of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle program. Estonia, Germany, Israel, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and the UAE are all building UGVs too.

Like unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, UGV systems range broadly in size and mission from MacroUSA’s Bettle N-UGV weighing only 1 kg to the 30-ton RCV-Heavy with a 50mm AI-assisted cannon. The missions vary equally widely: UGVs can be used for reconnaissance, logistics, medical evacuation, explosive ordnance disposal, anti-tank warfare, anti-access / area-denial, and others.

The broad range of UGVs means a one-size-fits-all defense is unlikely to be successful, but a few clear options exist.

— Jamming: Like UAVs, UGVs typically rely on external signals to provide command and control for operations. Commercial UGVs may run on the same frequencies as commercial UAVs (e.g. 2.4 GHz), so the same electronic warfare assets used against commercial UAVs may work against commercial UGVs. But commercial and military UGVs are likely to favor lower frequency bands (below 1 GHz) which better penetrate obstacles.

This is because UGV operations are likely to encounter significantly more obstacles that inhibit signal propagation compared to a UAV flying in the empty air. During a 2020 wargame conducted by RAND, the requirement to maintain unobstructed, unjammable line-of-sight communication to remotely operated UGVs “imposed constraints on Blue forces, slowing the pace and complicating the management of Blue’s advance. Red’s effective use of jamming substantially limited Blue’s ability to use those vehicles.” (Emphasis added)

— Anti-Vehicle Weapons: UGVs often have limited to no armor, making them vulnerable to light anti-vehicle weapons and likely small arms. For example, Ukraine’s Ratel S consists of an anti-tank landmine strapped atop a small remotely controlled vehicle. Rules of engagement for UGVs can also be much more permissive because engaging UGVs poses minimal risk to human life.

The primary concern is detonating any onboard explosives that could harm nearby people. Defenders will also need to consider the relative costs of defensive munitions against the defeated system. Using a $78,000 Javelin missile against a modified commercial UGV might not be sustainable over time, but would make sense against a large, expensive system like Russia’s Uran-9.

— Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Strikes: Defenders could use bomb-dropping or kamikaze UAVs to destroy UGVs, as Ukraine has done on occasion. UAVs offer the advantage of being relatively cheap and could be useful to find UGVs too. As UGVs are typically smaller than equivalent manned vehicles, they are also often harder to detect.

However, a UAV could autonomously search an area, perhaps using sensors equipped with machine vision to detect and recognize UGV threats. When Russia sent a platoon of five or six UGVs equipped with 33-inch AGS-17 grenade launchers against Ukrainian positions in March 2024, Ukrainian UAVs destroyed at least two of them.

— Physical Barriers: UGVs are confined to the ground, so ground-based barriers restricting vehicle access are useful to defend against UGVs. Anti-tank concrete barriers (“dragon’s teeth”), bollards, fences, and anti-ram gates all could be useful. However, the type and spacing between barriers need to be aligned with the UGV threat, because small UGVs could slip between widely spaced barriers.

Of course, having options is not enough; defenders need to determine which works best, and which are most appropriate for their context. In the short-term, jamming seems a highly effective approach, because electronic warfare equipment used to defeat UAVs might be readily applied to UGVs. But as unmanned systems become more autonomous, jamming will be less effective and defenses will need to emphasize other approaches.

The limited armoring of UGVs suggest that practice and training with using light anti-vehicle weapons and small arms could be quite valuable. Physical barriers to defend fix sites seem sensible too, though may require some slight rearrangement to ensure they can protect against smaller vehicles. Defenders should also model, simulate, war game, and conduct live fire exercises to determine which approaches seem most effective, and what trade-offs exist.

Zachary Kallenborn is the lead researcher at Looking Glass USA, a UAS and counter-UAS consulting and investment firm. He is also affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the National Institute for Deterrence Studies, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His extensive research, writing, and analysis on drone warfare, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and existential risk has received global news coverage and influenced a broad range of state, federal, and global security policies and strategies.

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