Man Over Machine

Tactical needs of UGVs including tactical concepts for their employment need to be worked out

Mandeep Singh retdCol Mandeep Singh (retd)

In a wargame conducted by US Army in 2019, a robot-reinforced platoon was tasked to dislodge a defending company of infantry of about 120 soldiers. The platoon, using its drones and robots, was able to control the area that probably a battalion would have been able to control in the preliminary operations. The platoon used its air and ground robots in a synchronized assault, overcoming numerically superior defences each and every time the platoon attacked the defending company in a series of validatory exercises.

It was a textbook demonstration of man-machine collaboration and of what the future of warfare might be, but it was also not a true reflection of existing capabilities as a number of near future technologies were used in the simulated battles. However, the prospects of achieving this synergy with manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT) are exciting and that is what is driving most of the advanced armies as they race to exploit emerging technologies in the field of robotics, AI, augmented reality, and the ilk to dominate the battlefield of the future. Some initial steps have already been taken with Russia and China emerging as frontrunners, with United States trying to catch up.

The MUMT concept describes the interaction between humans and uninhabited vehicles at the tactical level for the achievement of specific missions and tasks. MUMT is applicable across land, sea and air domains. A 2013 US Army Strategy Brief described MUMT as “the synchronised employment of soldier, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, robotics and sensors to achieve situational understanding, greater lethality and improved survivability.”

MUMT can be carried out at several levels with live streaming of data by an unmanned system to a manned platform at the basic level to the control of all aspects of the uninhabited vehicle’s operation by the manned platform at Level 5 i.e., the highest level of integration in MUMT. This teaming is presently being explored in the land environment to support mounted and dismounted forces by gathering ISR data, and potentially delivering electronic and kinetic effects under human supervision to support manoeuvre. With autonomous combat vehicles e.g., AI driven tanks already making their debut, the MUMT will need to be scaled up to carry out not only support manoeuvres but offensive tasks as well.


Developments in China and Russia

Leading the race are Russia and China with robotic soldiers already being deployed closer home along the Line of Actual Control by China’s PLA. The ‘Sharp Claws’ and ‘Mule 200s’ are categorized as robots operating by wireless. The ‘Sharp Claws’ looks like a toy tank with machine guns attached to it. 88 Sharp Claws have reportedly been deployed in Tibet with around 38 of them in the Ladakh region. Mule 200 complements them, serving as a transport vehicle for supplying ammunition. It can haul up to 200 kilograms of ammunition, supplies, or weapons for a distance of approximately 50 kilometres. China has reported to have stationed 120 of them along the Lone of Actual Control (LAC). In order to supplement these, 70 VP-22 armoured military vehicles are used by the PLA.

These are not the only unmanned systems employed by PLA Ground Forces as a recent PLA exercise in June 2022 saw a range of unmanned ground systems including unmanned reconnaissance vehicles, unmanned anti-tank vehicles, self-propelled weapon stations and robot dogs being integrated as part of a large-scale invasion drill in which more than 1,200 Chinese soldiers from multiple military installations in Shijiazhuang took part. The exercise was reportedly overseen by a special platoon ‘dedicated to unmanned warfare.’ Interestingly, the unmanned systems were employed not only for enhancing the troops’ situational awareness, command and control, but also their capability to launch strikes on targets. One of the aims of the exercise was to test the concepts of unmanned combat.

With field trials and experience of having fielded an armed UGV in combat, it is Russia that is the front runner. Its Uran-9 UCGV (unmanned combat ground vehicle) was developed by JSC 766 UPTK and saw deployment on the ground in Syria and in the large-scale Vostok drills in 2018. It is fitted with a 30mm 2A72 autocannon, as well as 4×9M120 Ataka anti-tank missiles and up to 12 Shmel-M thermobaric rocket launchers. The autonomous units were part of further large-scale tests in 2021, with Russian armed forces chief General Oleg Salyukov confirming the Uran-9 would be accepted into service by the Russian Ground Forces during 2022 for both combat and reconnaissance purposes.

Israel is the only other country to have fielded armed UGVs in actual combat situations. Guardium, an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) was used for patrolling the area along Gaza’s border. Though the programme was terminated in April 2016, the vehicle has remained in service with the Israel Defence Forces. Rex MK II is another multi-mission unmanned system that can provide direct support to manoeuvring infantry units including tactical logistic support, tactical ISR, operating lethal weapons through target acquisition and evacuating wounded soldiers. The Rex includes “follow-me” driving mode adapted for infantry forces.


Developments in India

There has been some movement in India too. Some recent actions include establishment of a high-level Defence AI Council (DAIC) and a Defence AI Project Agency (DAIPA). An Artificial Intelligence (AI) roadmap for each Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) has been developed, under which 61 defence specific projects have been identified for development. Out of these 61 projects, 26 have been completed by the defence PSUs.

While AI training courses for all defence personnel have been initiated, the artificial intelligence (AI) centre at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE), Mhow, has over 140 deployments in forward areas with the active support of industry, deep-tech start-ups and academia. The ‘AI in Defence’ (AIDef) symposium and exhibition held in July at New Delhi showcased some new products including autonomous and robotic systems.

However, Indian Army is still a long way off from operationalising even older generation technologies pertaining to Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and Information Operations (IO). How the new technologies are proposed to be adopted and integrated is not clear and given its track record, the DRDO it is not likely to be successful in developing lethal and non-lethal autonomous systems without the necessary pull from the army. With focus of surveillance, navigation, logistic support and the like, it will take some time before the concepts of integrating and teaming armed UGV is refined in India.



Notwithstanding the initiation of the programmes by defence PSUs and private organisations, there remains several challenges in achieving a practical and effective teaming between manned and unmanned ground systems.


Navigation: Ground offers greater challenges to UGV in navigation and manoeuvring than the air offers a UAS. Obstacles, unknown and unpredictable terrain features or even changes brought in any feature or object make it more difficult to recognise and classify objects as friendly or hostile. There are still often measures of uncertainty regarding just how accurately an AI system can recognize something it has not encountered before. Developers refer to it as reliability or ‘trusting’ the algorithms.

AI is progressing so quickly that variable levels of reliability are fast improving to a point wherein AI-generated automated systems will integrate more broadly into crucial military technologies and weapons systems. Acknowledging this, DRDO has also identified route planning over long distances (far beyond the perceptual ranges of the on-board sensors) and the provision of a user- interface for the unmanned vehicle at a remotely placed control station, to provide contextual information to the operator in its UGV programmes.


Targeting: The loitering munitions search and destroy targets in a given area. The Switchblade does so against any tank not a specific make or model. How to differentiate between friendly or hostile objects (target) is a presently a challenge for armed UGVs.


Employment: Defensive employment of UGV is more predictable than use in offensive role. Real test is using UGV for attack, not merely supporting an attacking column. Recently Estonian Defence Forces Artillery Battalion used Milrem Robotics’ THeMIS unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) in a live-fire exercise to provide advanced situational awareness, conduct casualty evacuation (CASEVAC), and support unit manoeuvres while providing direct fire support from various positions but no offensive support tasks were carried out by the UGV.

The tasks performed are relatively simple and not what an autonomous tank would be expected to carry out as part of a combat team. The UGV thus remained a support platform. The real challenge will be using them in an offensive role e.g., in an attack on a defended locality. The employment concepts need to be thought of and defined lest it so happens that they are developed after the induction of a UGV. Unless this aspect is given due import the UGVs will not be exploited optimally and MUMT will remain limited to radio controlling movement of unmanned platforms.


Interoperability: The unmanned platforms are proliferating and while employing UGV, the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will also be used for ISR tasks. The number of these systems will only increase in the future. In this complex and continuously evolving technological scenario, the assurance of interoperability between different manned/ unmanned systems represents a growing problem especially given the different source(s) of procurement.


MUMT Networks: The Russian ‘Skynet’ Unified Tactical Management system allows up to four Uran-9s to network together, either spread out up to four miles apart or strung together in a column formation. The robo-tanks do have some limited autonomous capabilities if they lose their signal—particularly for manoeuvring around obstacles when moving along pre-programmed paths. Some sources claim the Uran-9 may also be able to detect, identify and engage enemy forces without manual human direction.

The United States has its Network Coverage Overlay (NCO), a software application, to support integration of manned and unmanned teaming capability via robotic enablers in current and future army combat vehicles. The existing communication links for UGV suffer from a serious handicap of limited range that restrict their capability to operate independently from a base, depending on terrain and the signal’s fidelity in an operating space. The existing line-of-sight communications link between the vehicles limits how far apart they can operate from one another. This distance may be extended by use of advanced waveforms or tethered unmanned aerial vehicles acting as communications relays.

The technology available with some commercial companies allow to get to the megabytes per second required to extend that range in dense, forested lands. But in undulating terrain with number of obstacles, it is difficult to extend the range. This limitation is compounded by loss of positional awareness of unmanned platforms due to jamming or spoofing of satellite navigation (sat nav) signals, which are essential for onboard or remotely guided navigation. The challenge is to have a network with inbuilt redundancy and protection against jamming and spoofing.


Situational Awareness: While carrying out trials at the United States Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Centre, a major issue flagged by UGV pilots was the lack of situational awareness. While the peripheral information is important for successful tactical negotiation of obstacles in a hostile area, ability to see downward as uneven features are approached is equally important. This is because a soldier driving a vehicle knows when it is getting bogged down in sand or traversing a steep incline that might result in a roll-over, but that is not true of soldiers controlling a remote vehicle. The situational awareness also includes the ability to know what’s going on around the remote vehicle. For example, if the UGV is sitting at an observation post, the soldiers in the control vehicle need to hear noises the vehicle itself might be making that enemy forces could detect.


The Man in the MUMT: Developing and harvesting technology is not the only challenge. For MUMT to deliver, much depends on the man in the driving seat. As a first step, the Indian Army should invest more in professional training and development of all ranks, not only the officers. It needs to be understood that all officers should be able to handle hi-tech weapons and support systems, not only the so-called techies of Signals and the like. The fallacy that newer hi-tech systems are user friendly and easy to operate is a fallacy. They may be easy to operate but to fully exploit the system(s)’s knowledge beyond mere basics is essential.


Degree of autonomy: Presently, the UAS and other unmanned systems are used at targets that have already been selected. Taking the example of a drone strike, a human has already selected the target prior to the drone attacking it, and the drone is only autonomously maintaining target lock and navigating to the target, not autonomously selecting and deciding to engage targets. Autonomy over decisions to ‘select and engage targets’ is the specific standard in US department of defence policy as to what qualifies as an ‘autonomous weapon system.’ This needs to be defined for us and the UGVs being developed should be able to execute the assigned task(s) accordingly.


Organisational Changes: In 2019, the Israel ministry of defence R&D Directorate assessed the effectiveness of automation and mission autonomy on the capabilities’ enhancement of manned crews. IAI’s Carmel Demonstrator, fielded for the trials enabled two crew members to perform complex combat missions that would have normally required several vehicles and three or four crew members to complete. The Carmel Demonstrator leveraged automation and autonomy to reduce workload and enable a two-man crew to perform a complex combat mission. It was apparent that enhancing manned combat systems with autonomous capabilities empowered a smaller force to achieve much more with available resources.

It was similar experience to what the robot-reinforced platoon achieved during the United States Army war-game the same year. With enhanced capabilities, changes need to be made to existing organisations at unit and sub-unit level, and the manning of the control systems. Given the enhanced capabilities of each platform, and thereby of sub-units, there will be a need to reform and reorganise existing organisations including command of these robot-reinforced sub-units and units. Related to this is the need to change the recruitment standards, training parameters and retention policies as questions about Agniveers’ capabilities and desirability of handling these advanced systems also need to be addressed.

The DRDO has proposed the design and development of an UGCV, based on the MBT Arjun MK 1A tracked combat platform. This is symptomatic of the challenge that persists. A combat UGV, nay an autonomous tank, is proposed to be built but how this fits into the operational and tactical plans at the formation and unit level is yet to be decided. It is a classic case of tail wagging the dog—first a demonstrator will be developed and then the employment worked out. It would have been better if the tactical needs of UGV including tactical concepts for its employment worked out and then the QR for the combat UGV laid down for DRDO. A lot of effort, and money, will be poured into the project and yet no one will be wiser as to how it will fit in the army’s employment philosophy. Maybe AI will be used to determine that.


The Way Ahead

To better harness the emerging technologies in achieving the army’s operational goals, it would be better if the needs are first defined, related with the capabilities, the required technologies developed or acquired, and the desired systems developed in spirit of Aatmanirbhar Bharat. An effort was made with Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap brought out in 2013 and then in 2018 but with fast paced developments in technology it would be wiser to revisit the roadmap and update it.

In this, it is important that the overall vision of tactical and operational use of unmanned systems from a section upwards to the field army is first defined, the broad picture so to say, and then the requirement of the unmanned systems spelt out and shared with the DRDO, Defence PSUs and civil agencies. There may be some systems already available, or under development, that may fit into the overall concept and needs but care should be taken to ensure that the concept is not moulded as per available systems, rather the systems be developed as per the military needs so that they are integrated ‘as desired’ and not ‘as they come’.

Having defined the requirements, a road map for their development and integration must be spelt out and the progress of the same be monitored by an apex body that should be an inter-agency and intra-government task force headed by an appropriate person who can provide the required gravitas and push for implementation of the various programmes.

The different programmes for developing the unmanned systems should have embedded army liaison officers to provide the necessary pull to ensure timely progress of the programme(s). Prioritisation of development of these systems must be done in a holistic manner, considering the requirements of the army and not have standalone (and presently available) systems inducted in a piecemeal manner.

As the systems progress and develop, the tactical concepts including re-forming tactical teams and organisations must be done and training provided in handling and operating these systems. As systems mature, the integration of various teams, equipped with and controlling different unmanned systems, must be carried out in a phased manner. Here it is important to note that rather than replacing existing organisations, it would be wiser to augment them with new systems and teams to ensure smoother transition.

The communications and networking requirement to integrate these systems and teams must be identified and the same developed or acquired. Care should be taken to ensure interoperability of systems, inbuilt redundancy and jam-resistance. As jamming and disruption in communication-links cannot be ruled out, the systems should have autonomous operations capabilities.



There is a belief, especially in the wise men at the top, that emerging technologies will enable a force to know everything on the battlefield and beyond, it will ensure information dominance allowing it to ‘see first, understand first and act first.’ It needs to be understood that infusion of technology will not make warfare easier or less brutal. It may even make it harder and more brutal. It will place increased demands on the soldier, will tax him more. And whatever be the level of technological advancements, the foot soldier will remain the primary and most important way to impose the national will on the adversary.

Unless this is understood and all the concepts and plans made accordingly, whatever be the weapons and systems making the MUMT, we may be floundering ahead like a blind man in a dark night.



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