Release the Robot Hounds: Providing Unmanned Ground Vehicles to Ukraine


Drones do a lot more than fly. In the Russia-Ukraine war, both sides are using unmanned systems in multiple domains. Ukraine forces made use of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) to attack the Russian black sea fleet last October. Recently, Russia deployed four Marker Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) to support its war efforts in Ukraine. The three-ton, five-wheel Marker is a modular system, which can mount anti-tank missiles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launch modules, jammers, or other weapons. Although four UGVs are unlikely to turn the war in Russia’s favor, the United States and allied countries should respond in kind, supporting Ukraine’s military and civil authorities with UGVs.

Some UGVs already made their way to Ukraine, but not nearly enough. Estonia sent 14 THeMIS UGVs configured for casualty evacuation to Ukraine and defense firm QinetiQ US announced it would be sending a small batch of UGVs mid-2022. These transfers, however, fall significantly short of the full potential demonstrated by UGVs currently on the market or prototyped. Modern UGVs can accomplish a much wider variety of missions, from direct fire support to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). In sufficient numbers, UGVs could create meaningful effects and provide useful lessons learned to inform future U.S. and allied efforts beyond just casualty evacuation and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD).

The benefits of provisioning UGVs outweigh the risks. Unlike the escalation concerns surrounding long-range missiles, jets, and main battle tanks, the United States and Ukraine’s other partners have little reason to be so skittish about providing UGVs. UGVs are a quickly maturing, but still novel technology, and it is unclear how significant the impacts will be. The relative immaturity, especially for direct fire support or offensive missions, means Ukraine accepts some risk of the UGVs underperforming or becoming a burden; however, Ukraine’s decentralized approach to UAV adoption suggests the main risk is sending a technology that will be quickly discarded. But that decentralized approach also enables Ukraine to experiment with UGV applications, and evidence suggests simple applications like de-mining and intelligence collection are viable and effective use-cases that would contribute to Ukrainian security and overall likely success of prevailing in the conflict.

This article will focus on three UGV applications: lethal applications, support activities, and civil applications. The article concludes with some suggested ways forward for the United States and its allies.

State of Allied UGVs

The authors inventoried and characterized 32 UGVs prototyped or produced by the United States or its allies. Although this does not represent every UGV available, these systems provide a good snapshot of options available to Ukraine. The UGVs came in a broad range of sizes from MacroUSA’s Beetle N-UGV weighing in at 1 kg to Milrem and EDGE Group’s Type X at a whopping 12,000 kg. Of the identified UGVs, two were classified as micro using the U.S. Army’s classification (less than 4.5 kg), 11 as small (4.5 to 91 kg), 11 as medium (91 to 1,361 kg), and eight as large (above 1,361 kg). Likely the most recognizable UGV is the QinetiQ TALON, which the U.S. military used for EOD missions for decades.

In addition to bespoke UGV systems, manned systems can be converted to unmanned systems. For example, the Spanish Ministry of Defense developed an automation kit—mechanical, electrical, electronic, and computer equipment meant to easily and quickly convert regular military vehicles into remotely operated ground vehicles for reconnaissance, perimeter surveillance, and leading military convoys. Similarly, Ukraine could convert seized Russian war equipment and redeploy them as undead vehicles. This would allow Ukraine to use Russian equipment without requiring a substantial cadre trained in the intricacies of its use. Of course, there may be challenges in integrating electrical equipment, and sensors, and better uses might exist for that equipment, such as manned covert operations.

Virtually all the UGVs available are modular and designed for multiple missions. For example, Milrem/QinetiQ’s Titan medium-sized UGV can be equipped with an earth-moving blade, remote weapon systems, logistics support baskets and interrogation arms. UGV manufacturers state the vast majority (24 of 32) of their systems can conduct some form of ISR. The operator of a remotely operated UGV would require some means of perceiving the UGV’s surroundings. About half (15) of the UGVs can serve attack roles and five are useful for route clearance, which is to be expected as route clearance requires larger vehicles. This broad range and flexibility mean Ukraine and its allies need to consider what mixture of capabilities best meets Ukrainian military needs.

Lethal Applications

Ukrainian forces are protecting a wide front and are currently engaged in vicious trench warfare with Russian forces and private military corporations like the Wagner Group. Armed UGVs would help Ukrainian forces engage and suppress Russian infantry while reducing casualties on the Ukrainian side. UGVs could be effective at freeing up Ukrainian personnel by supporting the defense of low-intensity areas or bases. For any UGV on the front line, Ukrainians should ensure they are not vulnerable to electronic warfare (EW). Although the utility of Russian EW is unclear when used against UGVs, Ukraine has explicitly requested more systems hardened against EW.

UGVs could be effective at supporting the defense of low-intensity areas or bases. Fixed sites have fixed geographic coordinates, which means UGVs with waypoint navigation can readily follow predefined patrol routes, assuming the territory is permissible for their movement. Likewise, the physical environment can be well-characterized before enemy engagement to ensure the UGV is operating under optimum conditions. A September 2021 U.S. Army Joint Readiness Training Center exercise demonstrated this point well. The opposing force used two General Dynamics Multi-Utility Tactical Transports (MUTT) configured with 7.62 mm M240 machine guns and a Javelin anti-tank missile to prevent the army’s 101st Airborne Division’s helicopters from finding a safe landing and blocked the roads to deny movement. Although manned platforms can no doubt do the same, the value of using UGVs is reducing the risk to individual soldiers, while potentially reducing manpower requirements.

A particularly innovative approach could be to modify or build UGVs as mobile landmines. Strap an explosive onto a UGV, navigate to an enemy target, then explode. Like a suicide bomber, a suicide UGV may be more aggressive, and assertive, because it does not have to protect the life of a human inside. Videos on social media demonstrate Ukraine is already experimenting with UGVs as mobile landmines at limited scale. Packs of suicide robot hounds could swarm hardened defensive positions, exploding next to Russian tanks, crashing into or through fortifications, depleting adversary magazines, and generally wreaking mayhem before a larger, manned assault. Alternatively, small UGVs could slip under a Russian tank, then detonate an explosive beneath the softer underbelly. The Iranian army reportedly designed the Heidair-1 for this purpose. Of course, the challenge is getting the size right: big enough to carry the 10 to 30 pounds of explosives needed, while small enough to slip under a Russian tank with about 16 inches of ground clearance. The challenge then is in ensuring the suicide UGVs are cost-effective. Likewise, cost-effective UGVs may not be able to operate effectively in cluttered terrain, where random debris or deliberate fortifications may inhibit UGV movement.

The larger value in attack UGVs for the broader war effort is in backfilling the munition and platform depletion that comes with a larger war of attrition. For example, the United States has supplied Ukraine with thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles, but since April 2022 defense officials have sounded the alarm that stockpiles are running low and will be slow to replenish. Although a UGV mobile landmine is likely to be slower and probably less effective than a Javelin, it may be a useful alternative to defeating tanks.

Support Activities

UGVs could be used to scout ahead of Ukrainian forces. Both sides are in desperate need of more ISR to conduct trench warfare and spot for artillery. A UGV, particularly one with advanced optics and a mast to see over terrain, could supplement units short of ISR drones. A scout UGV might be easier to spot depending on the circumstances, but the loss is trivial compared to that of a human scout. A robot can easily be replaced. For example, the French army experimented with Spot, the Boston Dynamics robotic dog, finding that although Spot slowed down operations (particularly due to limited battery life), it helped save lives. In a report from the Verge, one soldier said that “during the urban combat phase where we weren’t using robots, I died. But I didn’t die when we had the robot do a recce first.” Of course, there is an important question to unpack: What is the cause of this reduced risk? Did the dog reduce soldier risk, or did the unit operate more cautiously because they were working with an unfamiliar technology? Either way, ISR UGVs could help Ukrainian survivability, while also providing a laboratory for the United States and allied countries to better understand the impact of UGVs on combat operations.

Among the more mature missions for UGVs is carrying supplies. A logistics UGV does not need much, just the ability to move reliability and carry a decent amount of weight. For example, the Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport can carry up to 1,133 kg of water, food, ammunition, and other supplies over 116 km. The system can be physically wired to the soldier, operated remotely, or tethered to maintain a fixed distance from the soldier (of course, if the soldier is not mindful of their surroundings, that could be a problem.) As the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, the value of logistics UGVs is likely to grow, as soldiers grow wearier and less motivated over time. 

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) detection may be a useful UGV mission too, but probably more for troop comfort and morale. Russia’s frequent references to Ukraine using chemical and biological weapons have raised some fears of Russian use. Although widespread use of CBRN agents remains difficult and unlikely, a UGV with CBRN detection modules like the Teledyne FLIR Packbot 525 may have some minor benefit in allaying soldier fears. If Russia does use CBRN agents, the UGV would help detect it without requiring soldiers to handle the potentially hazardous material. There is also a wide range of nonmilitary applications for UGVs.

Civil Applications

By some estimates, up to 30 percent of Ukraine’s land is contaminated with landmines or other forms of explosives. Civil authorities could employ UGVs of all sizes to assist with demining, explosive ordnance detection, and investigating areas with high unexploded ordnance concentration. UGV chassis already in Ukraine, like the THEMIS, are also capable of tasks like firefighting. From a practical standpoint, many of Ukraine’s partners may be more willing to provide UGVs for humanitarian purposes, and away from the front where their technology risks being captured. Given the huge volume of landmines in Ukraine, the de-mining mission may take decades and require large numbers of UGVs.

Of course, de-mining is relevant to warfighting too. Russian minefields may inhibit Ukrainian operations by limiting access to desirable areas or forcing Ukraine to place assets in areas of Russian advantage. Clearing minefields is often a slow, and dangerous task. Soldiers must proceed slowly, and carefully, putting them at risk of enemy fire. UGVs operating autonomously would remove soldiers from risk while enabling them to focus their attention on more valuable activities.

The Way Forward

U.S. policymakers should expand UGV support to Ukraine because of the broad potential value UGVs offer Ukraine and because the lessons learned and generated data could support U.S. security. To be effective, U.S. officials should work with Ukrainian military to determine what UGV capabilities they need and are interested in. Given that UGVs are highly modular, the United States should work with Ukraine to develop scorecards and evaluate prospective UGVs based on the relative value of different missions. UGVs for de-mining, ISR, and logistics seem likely to provide the most value, given the relative maturity of these applications. U.S. and allied UGV manufacturers should also consider partnering with Ukraine’s defense companies and consortiums for joint development. Given the tendency of UGVs for modularity, designers would likely want to start with one large UGV chassis for tasks with heavier payloads, and one small UGV chassis for simpler or more limited tasks.

Providing UGVs to Ukraine is also an opportunity for the United States and its allies by providing UGV performance data. As an emerging technology, little concrete data is available about how effectively UGVs operate on the battlefield, how best to integrate UGVs into existing force structures, what missions they are most effective at, and what strategic effects they may (or may not) have. Ukraine could be a particularly good opportunity because Ukraine tends to democratize drones with decentralized command and control (an “island” of forces). Such an approach applied to UGVs would allow Ukrainian soldiers to experiment with different uses, then scale capabilities that prove particularly valuable. The United States should take some risk in providing Ukraine with higher-end capabilities with conditions on close information sharing regarding system performance and operations, along with post-conflict debriefing on any lessons learned.

Drones do not just fly—they also drive. Although UGVs have not achieved the maturity or battlefield significance as UAVs, the technology can still be of use to Ukraine. The experience and lessons learned can help inform future U.S. and allied efforts. Let loose the robot dogs of war.

Zachary Kallenborn is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Marcel Plichta is a former U.S. Defense Department analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews.

The authors would like to thank James A. Lewis and Josh Wise for their helpful comments on the draft.

Marcel Plichta

former U.S. Defense Department analyst and doctoral candidate, University of St. Andrews