Russia’s Shift to Land-Based ‘Robots’ in Ukraine War Draws Skepticism Over Long-Term Success

Russia has shifted its military strategy from using aerial to land-based “robots”. However, a military expert has expressed skepticism about the long-term success of these robots. 

“It’s just a really difficult problem,” said Christopher Alexander, Chief Analytics Officer of Pioneer Development Group and a U.S. Army vet with experience in Strategic Operations Command. 

“To supervise the engagement of targets is a massive difficulty – up in the sky or underwater, open space is easy to maneuver, but you don’t have the tight control and spaces you get on the ground. It’s a mess.”

“Collecting casualties? Yes. Breaching a door … yes, they already have that technology, and it does well, and those are , but it’s a hard problem to solve: The cost per unit is high, [and] it’s the hardest, most difficult challenge from a technology perspective all the way from a manufacturing to planning perspective.” 

The new Russian kamikaze robot Scorpion-M, which resembles an old R.C. race car toy, has been used extensively in recent months, particularly in the Donetsk region. The robot can carry up to 55 pounds of explosives and can reach areas that might otherwise escape aerial bombardment.

In video obtained earlier this month by news agency East2West, a to destroy underground hideouts of Ukrainian forces, according to pro-war Russian accounts. 

“The successful use of the Scorpion-M demonstrated the high reliability and maneuverability of the robotic vehicle, as well as its combat effectiveness in carrying out missions to destroy enemy strongholds and fire weapons,” said one pro-war account. 

The increased use of the drone might derive more from how Ukraine has approached its defense rather than from any truly great advantage land-based drones can pose over other similar weapons: Ukraine has heavily to detect and shoot down air drones, meaning their eyes are on the sky and not the ground. 

That gap in defensive awareness is where Russia seems to have found some success with the Scorpion-M: However, Alexander suggested that part of the issue is that it also avoids issues with jamming and fighting for control over the electromagnetic spectrum for communications. 

“There’s much the spy-vs-spy game of trying to keep people’s drones in the air before they get jammed, and … I read some accounts of Ukrainian infantry that said new guys would turn their phones on, and they had to tell them to stop that because they would turn their phones on and within 30 minutes they would receive artillery fire,” Alexander explained. 

“So I think there’s a ton going on in the electromagnetic spectrum, and it’s probably getting harder and harder to fly drones effectively and to use them,” he continued. “So the advantage of being on the ground is that it’s much more difficult to jam on the ground because no one’s worked on solving that problem yet.” 

“I just can’t see how anyone in the current state of the technology or deploying these things at the company/battalion level and having any significant effect beyond the local, tactical situation,” he added. “The Russians put that other drone of theirs out in Syria and the program just didn’t work.” 

Ukraine has also explored the use of the devices, using them to attack Russian positions in new ways that would catch their opponents unawares, such as the case of a drone used to carry an explosive charge under a Russian bridge before exploding, . 

Nataliia Kushnerska, head of the Ukrainian government organization Bravel, told the outlet that her organization had made the development of ground robots “one of its top priorities to catch up with other unmanned systems.”

Kushnerska revealed that her group has received over 200 unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) designs and have tested around 50 so far, but the most promising design is not designed for combat. Instead, it would serve to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefield. 

“Communication with the military has shown us that the defenders suffer many of their losses during the evacuation of the wounded,” Kushnerska said. “By the end of 2024, we expect this [evacuation] UGV will become a systematic part of our military’s actions.”