July 24, 2015      

At May’s annual Victory Day parade in Moscow, the Russian military unveiled a new tank equipped with an unmanned turret. It said it may soon be in a position to develop a fully autonomous version, which would make it the worlds’ first robotic tank. Experts noted, however, that Russian requirements and capabilities are different from those of other nations.

The Armata T-14 model, which is made by Uralvagonzavod, features a remotely operated turret that is operated from within the vehicles’ hull, allowing the crew to be positioned lower in the tanks’ profile. This provides a smaller target and enables the crew to be separated from the tank’s ammunition-handling system, which can be vulnerable if hit.

The tank also has an advanced “active protection system,” which will autonomously scan its surroundings for threats, such as incoming anti-tank missiles or rounds, and automatically fire munitions to counter the threat. Because of the very short time spans involved in such an engagement, this process will take place without a human in the loop.

Components of the new Russian Armata T-14 tank

The T-14 will become the Russian military’s first truly new tank since the 1970s, according to Nick de Larrinaga, European editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. The battle tank has been designed to replace legacy Soviet-era tanks such as the T-72 or the T-90 (which is based on the T-72).

Autonomy doubts

“The Russians have claimed that in the future, the tank could be made fully unmanned, although there is little information available at present on whether this is any more than a concept,” said de Larrinaga. Russia is rolling out new armored vehicles as part of a $388 billion modernization program.

While it may be possible to make a tank completely autonomous, he added, there a number of practical limitations relating to data-link capacity, security, line-of-sight issues, and legal and ethical considerations. This idea is “more science fiction than any reasonable prospect in the real world,” de Larrinaga said.

Other observers have noted that even if automation reduces the required tank crew from three people to two, development of the weapons system has been expensive, costing an estimated $239 million so far. Russian officials said they expect the final model to cost $4 million to $5 million per tank.

Although the Armata’s modular design and weight should make it more maneuverable than its predecessors, one of the new tanks broke down during a rehearsal for the parade in Moscow.

Western tank tech is different

In terms of the likely impact on Western markets, de Larrinaga also believes it is “fair to say” that U.S. and European robotics and autonomous technologies are already more advanced that those that Russia possesses, despite Russian claims.

“The two autonomous centerpieces of the T-14 Armata — the unmanned turret and active-protection system — are unlikely to teach the West much,” he said. “The Americans, the British, and others have all toyed with the idea of using 120mm unmanned turrets on main battle tanks, but they have never taken such an idea beyond the prototype stage, and they are unlikely to do so, either.”

Russia can use an unmanned turret in its tanks because the country has long used autoloaders and single-piece ammunition for its tank guns, whereas Western militaries mainly use manually loaded guns with two-piece ammunition because it offer many advantages, particularly in terms of flexibility, safety, and in the total length of the rounds themselves, de Larrinaga said.

For these reasons, the U.S. and others have chosen to keep manually loaded tank guns, said de Larrinaga, who added that he believes it’s unlikely we’ll see a Western tank with an unmanned turret “anytime soon.”

“We’ve already seen strong market demand for unmanned turrets for all kinds of Western military vehicles, and many are now fitted with one form or another,” he said. “They are pretty common already in the West on anything up to a main battle tank, but this ammunition issue has prevented them being used on anything larger than a 105mm gun.”

“Meanwhile, because active-protection systems normally operate by using an explosive charge to defeat incoming rounds, they can be dangerous for any friendly soldiers or civilians in the vicinity,” de Larrinaga noted. “For this reason, most Western militaries haven’t pursued active-protection systems with much interest, and again are unlikely to do so unless the collateral damage of using them can be significantly reduced.”

Market partners

Russia plans to market the tank to trading partners India and China, although China North Industries Group Corp. said that its VT-4 tank is superior in terms of automated countermeasures, mobility, and cost.

The U.S. is still the leading exporter of tanks, with its M1A2 Abrams the main competition for the Armata. After withdrawing armored units after the Cold War, the U.S. is also planning on sending about 150 Abrams tanks to Europe, partly in response to escalating tensions around Ukraine.