The industrialists of La Défense bet on armed terrestrial drones

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In recent weeks, no less than 4 major announcements have been made concerning the development of armed ground combat drones in the Western camp. While guidance systems and on-board artificial intelligence allow UGVs[efn_note]Unmanned Ground Vehicle[/efn_note] to move efficiently over terrain, advances in energy and battery efficiency have made it possible. autonomy, and carrying capacity. These drones not only make it possible to transport loads to accompany dismounted forces, but they can implement their own weapon systems, ranging from automatic machine guns to anti-tank missiles. Often overshadowed by aerial and naval drones, land drones could well have, in the years to come, a role just as decisive as the latter.

The European MUGS Program

Financed by European Defense funds, the MUGS program, for Modular Unmanned Ground System, brings together Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Finland and Latvia, around the THEMIS drone for Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System developed by the Latvian Milrem Robotics. The Program aims to extend the capabilities of the drone, in the areas of load transport, but also in the implementation of sensors, or lighter drones, such as airborne reconnaissance drones.

MUGS Germany | Belgium | Communication and Defense Networks
The THEMIS platform is at the heart of the European MUGS program

Even if the Themis has already been the subject of armed tests, in particular with an automatic turret mounted with a 7,62mm machine gun, or MMP anti-tank missiles, it does not currently appear in the agenda of the European program to expressly develop an armed drone. But the versatility targeted by the program will, without a doubt, cover this type of missions and capabilities, especially since competitors and adversaries do not deprive themselves of it.

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The Rheinmetall – WB Group program

On the sidelines of the DSEI exhibition which is held near London, the German group Rheinmetall and the Polish group WB Group presented an 8×8 land drone model using up to 6 WARMATE micro aerial combat drones, intended for suicide attacks. The Warmate, from the Polish WB Group, carries a military fragmentation charge, shaped charge or light thermobaric charge to nearly 40 km, at a speed of 80 km/h. It has a battery life of 50 minutes to find its target and aim at it.

The German-Polish program, developed independently by manufacturers, meets the firepower needs of European forces, in an environment where air power can be neutralized by opposing anti-aircraft defense. The Warmate, with its very small dimensions and weak thermal image, is certainly difficult to intercept for today's anti-aircraft systems, designed to detect and destroy combat planes, helicopters and cruise missiles. The drone is already in service with the Polish armies, which has ordered 1000 units, as well as with the Ukrainian and United Arab Emirates forces. The association with Rheinmetall's 8×8 all-terrain drone allows dismounted infantry units to deploy a significant number of suicide drones, even in difficult-to-access environments.

Rheinmetall drone Germany | Belgium | Communication and Defense Networks
Artist's impression of the Rheinmetall drone using a WARMATE drone

The Raytheon – Kongsberg demonstrator

In the experimental phase at the US Army experimental center in Redstone, Alabama, this program is based on a Joint Venture between the American Raytheon which produces the Javelin anti-tank missile, and the Norwegian Kongsberg which produces the PROTECTOR combat drone based on the TITAN from QiteniQ and Milrem Robotics. The system has already demonstrated its ability to use the Javelin anti-tank missile as well as the 12,7 mm machine gun which equips the turret. The objective of this program is to provide a combat drone capable of being deployed in risk areas, in place of soldiers, so as to provide a tactical advantage and increased security to contact units.

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If the United States has a certain lead regarding heavy land drones, particularly in the field of armored combat vehicles, light land combat drones have not been the subject of advanced programs. This Joint Venture certainly aims to present the operational interests to the American military, so as to be able to finance the development of more advanced systems.

The MBDA demonstrator – Milrem Robotics

The last Western system in this overview, the demonstrator presented by the European missile manufacturer MBDA to implement the light Brimstone missile from a Themis UGV from Milrem Robotics, omnipresent in these programs. MBDA had already done the same with the French MMP medium-range anti-tank missile. If the MMP offers enhanced engagement capabilities within a 5 km radius against heavy armored vehicles, the Brimstone has an increased range of up to 25 km, and guidance by laser or millimeter radar. With a mass of almost 50 kg, the British missile cannot be deployed by dismounted infantry forces, and the use of the drone, in fact, is perfectly justified, to provide a tactical advantage and a boost in power. fire in the depths to these forces. Remember that Brimstone was initially developed to equip combat aircraft and helicopters. It equips the helicopters of the British Army Air Corps, the Saudi forces, and was selected by Germany and Qatar.

The Russian Uran-6 and Uran-9 robots

Let's end this presentation with the only two operational systems today, the Russian Uran-6 and Uran-9 ground combat drones. Weighing more than 5 tons, the Uran-6 is a mine clearance robot with an autonomy of 16 hours, capable of neutralizing mines or IEDs of up to 60 kg of TNT. Controlled by a single operator, it can move up to 1500 m from the control station. It is given to have a mine clearance capacity equivalent to that of 20 engineering sappers. The robot was tested in a combat environment in Syria and is said to have satisfied Russian forces.

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The Uran-9 is a heavily armored and heavily armed combat robot used by Russian forces for engagements in high-risk areas. It uses a 30mm cannon, 4 long-range Ataka anti-tank missiles, and 12 Shmel-M thermobaric rockets, as well as a 7,62mm machine gun. The Uran-9 entered service in early 2019 with the Russian forces, despite the disastrous results recorded during tests in the Syrian combat zone. It seems that since then, the malfunctions observed have been corrected, the robot having since participated in numerous exercises including the Vostok 2018 exercise.

Uran9 Germany | Belgium | Communication and Defense Networks
If the Uran-9 is the most powerfully armed of the combat drones, it is also the least autonomous

Russian Uran ground combat robots differ from their Western counterparts by their mass, but also by the essential presence of a control operator near the robot dedicated to this task. Currently, these systems do not have any autonomy. These are remote engagement systems.

Conclusion

If for the moment, only Russia has operational combat robots, it appears that many armies and industrialists are working on this promising concept. Certain programs seem to stand out, such as the European MUGS with its versatility, destined to become, in the words of the program director, “The F16 the terrestrial drones”, or the Rheinmetall program, which offers a very accomplished tactical vision. The fact remains that between the expressions of need or declarations of development teams, and operational systems capable of effectively supporting forces in combat zones, there is often a very significant gap. The Russians are experimenting with this in Syria with Uran-9.

Because it is not enough to mount a turret clad in sensors and weapons to make a land combat drone, which is based above all on a system synthesizing the autonomy necessary in a combat zone, and the needs for interactions. and control of these drones by the forces involved. A lesson which seems to be the guiding principle of the European MUGS program, which, we have no doubt, bodes well for its future success.

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