What you should know about Russia’s experimental tanklet

On January 26, the Russian politician Dmitry Rogozin claims in an interview that the country’s robotic Marker Uncrewed Ground Vehicles are being used in Ukraine as an anti-tank tool. The Marker is a high-tech concept that has been in development for a long time, designed to explore how robots could work in tandem with humans on the battlefield. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues and Ukraine prepares to receive armored vehicles, including tanks, from other countries, Marker appears to have transitioned from a conceptual promise to a touted silver bullet.

The Marker UGV dates back to at least 2019, when it was advertised as a symbol of the Russian military’s modern technological prowess. While Russia had already developed armed drones, ground robots typically took the form of demining machines like the Uranium-6. With treads and a turret, the marker was seen in glossy produced videos with a rock beat and a machine gun whirl that appeared to be following orders from a distant human observer.

Marker was developed by the Russian Advanced Research Foundation, which is a rough analog of DARPA in the US. Early work on Marker made it a tool for exploring concepts in robotics, remote control, and autonomy, with the assumption that other companies would later develop new tools and weapons based on research done with Marker.

As recently as January 2022, Russian state media described Marker being used to patrol a spaceport and work alongside quadcopter drones. Marker was one of several robots touted as a major technological advance, all in light of Russia mobilizing tanks and soldiers for the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. In the 11 months since the invasion, Russia’s great advances have been halted, and fronts have returned on several occasions. Now, with the news that Ukraine is ready to receive armored vehicles and tanks, Marker is once again a darling of the Russian media.

encounter with his marker

On January 15, Rogozin claimed this Intelligence service TASS that marker robots would soon be tested in Ukraine. While Rogozin holds no official position in the Russian government, he has held several high-level positions within the Russian government. In July 2022, he was sacked as head of Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, and has since rebranded himself as the leader of a volunteer group called “Tsar’s Wolves,” whose goal is to improve the technology of the Russian armed forces. Testing Marker in Ukraine would be a debut for the device and a task it was never quite designed for.

“This would be a first combat deployment for the Marker UGV, and yes, it hasn’t really been tested in combat conditions before,” said Samuel Bendett, analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “It was tested in a fairly controlled environment, including when it had to navigate autonomously through a wooded environment in late 2021. There is of course the possibility of a classified series of tests that could have taken place, but as far as all the information is concerned there was no real combat stress test with this UGV.”

Using an untested robot in combat, should it happen, reads more like a stunt than a battle-changing tool. What distinguished Marker in previous tests and demonstrations was its ability to carry machine guns and anti-tank weapons and then use them at the discretion of protected or concealed soldiers. Powerful cameras and sensors could make him a useful scout and marksman, although the role necessarily involves exposing the robot to return fire, thereby jeopardizing the machine’s integrity. At a production level, that’s a loss a military can take. But with only a handful of test platforms, it’s a big gamble for a flashy demonstration.

“Marker has limited autonomy capability for movement and target selection, although testing this in a complex battlefield is likely different than trying to replicate such a test in pre-2022 trials. That’s the core of the problem with using such UGVs – real combat presents many unpredictable situations, not all of which can be tested beforehand, so it’s also likely that markers will be remotely controlled to avoid casualties,” says Bendett. “And there’s a significant PR element here, too.”

The possible fronts where Marker could be deployed in Ukraine are varied, from old trenches in the Donbass region, which Russia has been fighting since 2014, to fierce fighting around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut to the east, or even along that of Russia held front lines north-east of Crimea. Regardless of where it is deployed, it is unlikely to be effective against heavy armor.

Rogozin emphasized that Marker exists in two forms. Equipped with sensors and drones, the Scout is designed to be a useful scout. Rogozin fielded the armed version, complete with anti-tank missiles, in response to Abrams and Leopard tanks. Bendett says, “The Recon version seems more plausible [for use] as a head-to-head match against two of the strongest tanks in the world.”

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