When Russia shows off equipment at this year’s annual victory parade, included in that number will be an armed robot that Russia claims saw action in Syria. The Uran-9 looks like a tank in miniature ― 30mm cannon on a turret on top of a small tracked body. But unlike the armored beasts of war seen on battlefields for over a century, there’s no human nestled inside. And, according to statements published today in Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti, Deputy Minister of Defense Yuriy Borisov confirmed that the country tested Uran-9 robots in Syria.
“This is where it gets interesting. The exact RIA quote is as follows: ‘В военном ведомстве заявили, что отлично зарекомендовали себя в Сирии роботизированные комплексы ‘Уран-6’, предназначенные для разминирования местности, и ‘Уран-9’ — многофункциональные комплексы разведки и огневой поддержки подразделений на поле боя’,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “Verbatim translation: The defense ministry announced that the robotic Uran-6 complexes designed for mine clearance were well-proven in Syria, as well as Uran-9 multifunctional reconnaissance and fire support system.”
While observers have written about the Uran-6 mine-clearing robot in Syria, and Russian media has even released video of the Uran-6 in action, the Uran-9 would be an altogether different phenomenon. Bendett says that, is all his time following Russia’s use of robots in Syria, there was only a single instance that purported to be the Uran-9, an instance that under further scrutiny was revealed to be not the robot, but a blurry photograph of a souped-up Soviet battle tank, the T-55 MBT, in Syrian government hands.
“In reality, Uran-9 tests in Syria should have garnered major attention from all major Russian news outlets, given how proud Russian are of their remote-controlled tank,” says Bendett. “Still, such tests may have taken place in secret – the way Russians supposedly tested Soratnik UGV in ‘near-combat conditions.’ Such ‘conditions’ may or may not have referred to Syria proper, although officially Russians announced tests at temperatures exceeding +30 Celsius, which many thought means Syria. Such tests may in fact have taken place in Russia’s own Ryn Desert - we tend to forget that Russia actually has a real desert near Kazakh border, on the Caspian Sea shore, with extreme heat of up to +45 Celsius.”
The statement from Borisov is clearer about the theater in which the robot was tested, but doesn’t resolve any of the questions about why no observers have spotted the Uran-9 yet, and why Russian media itself hasn’t heralded the fighting power of the robot. Indeed, when it comes to listing the capabilities of the machine, RIA is upfront.
“According to MOD as quoted in that RIA NOVOSTI article”, Bendett translates, “’Uran-9’ was created to protect personnel from enemy’s fire. It has powerful weapons that can hit not only live force and lightly armored vehicles, but also tanks, as well as other highly protected objects. Uran-9 is built into the Unified Control System at the tactical level, and has protection from unauthorized access and electronic warfare means.”
The exact nature of the armament here is less interesting than the fact that the Uran-9 is armed. How armed robots are fielded and controlled is a question for the future and a pressing concern on battlefields today. If the control is at the tactical level, what rank does that put the person operating it? Are they directing the Uran-9 by waypoints on a tablet or steering it remotely, with a person constantly responsible for its every movement. What kind of communications is it relaying back to the person operating (supervising?) it? Is it making targeting decisions on its own, and then checking in with a human before firing? Just how protected from unauthorized access can a robot be when it’s controlled in-theater.
And finally: if the Uran-9 is in fact in Syria, why hasn’t it been seen in combat yet, and what is Russia learning from the experience? Syria is hardly the first civil war to be used as a testing ground for new weapons of war, and how those lessons are interpreted can have far-reaching ramifications for entire families of technology.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.