Recently, TankHistoria witnessed trial runs of Milrem Robotics’ new Type-X, a completely unmanned tracked robot that can operate either by a human remotely, or autonomously with the help of artificial intelligence. Watching a tank-sized vehicle thunder by at high speed without anyone inside is rather spooky, but this is will likely be a standard view on the battlefields of the not-too-distant future.
Compared to conventional ground robotic vehicles, the Type-X remote combat vehicle (RCV) is a large machine, with about the same length as a typical infantry fighting vehicle. This added size brings massive potential; it can transport large quantities of cargo, possesses great range and carry powerful weapons that rival larger manned machines.
Add in its extremely quiet hybrid power pack, rubber tracks, vast array of sensors, low height and good mobility, the Type-X, and vehicles like it, are shaping up to be the war machines of the future.
And it appears others agree, as this new offering from Milrem Robotics in Estonia is provoking much interest from major military powers, including the US, France and the UK.
So lets dive in to what we know about the Type-X so far.
Concept and Development
Robotic systems have been in use for some time now, and sometimes the basic design is modified in field use by the operators, based on operational experience and local conditions. US Army soldiers strapped Claymore mines onto small robotic vehicles in Iraq, and remotely piloted these ad-hoc armed drones down alleyways and other constricted urban areas to locate and engage insurgent personnel lying in ambush.
Armed aerial drones have taken many lives in the War on Terror, and allow nations to provide an armed response with a long loiter time to support operations on the ground, without exposing aircrew to any danger.
One basic principle of ground vehicular transport is that increased complexity can be the bane of efficient and economical operation, and like many things in life, simpler is often better. While companies like Boston Dynamics have showcased some innovative robots with articulated legs and appendages, the level of complexity required for a quadruped robot, let alone a bipedal concept means that much development work must still take place before a viable system can be introduced into general service.
Whereas a wheeled or tracked system is far less complex, is less prone to mechanical breakdown and can be more resistant to battle damage.
Milrem Robotics’ Type-X RCV is one of the newest offerings in this specialised field, and is a scaled-down armoured fighting vehicle which resembles a small tank or IFV of modest proportions, that nevertheless offers comparable or superior firepower to any Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle (MICV) in existence today. It is a modular design with a weight of 12,000 kg, and has a removable mission module which can be equipped with up to 4,100 kg of mission specific armaments or systems.
The Type-X is designed to be a forward-deployable weapon system, able to be parachuted into an area of operations, or be slung under a heavy-lift helicopter such as the CH-53K King Stallion. Its low weight and modest dimensions means that it can easily be carried by most military cargo aircraft, and up to five examples may be loaded onto a large airlifter like the C-17 Globemaster.
The RCV can be utilised by light quick-reaction troops for firepower support and force protection, or the platform can supplement mechanised formations in the field, operating alongside main battle tanks and other armoured vehicles. With a quiet hybrid power plant and fitted with continuous rubber tracks, the RCV has a low thermal and noise signature profiles, and has reduced maintenance requirements in the field.
The mission modules come in a variety of versions, and can support many different weapon systems, sensor packages or even communication relay systems. Such weapon systems include several different options for medium and heavy autocannons in 20mm, 25mm and 30mm calibre, and can also include anti-tank-guided-munitions (ATGM) like Javelin or Spike LR.
One design concept offered to the US Army showcased a multi-role Cockerill Protected Weapons Station Generation II (CPWS II), which offers a 50mm cannon providing more firepower than most current armoured vehicles with the exception of MBTs.
Since the Type-X RCV is remotely operated and lacks a crew, the vehicle has no need for personnel support systems and crew positions in the chassis and turret, and consequently much space is saved which can be utilised in the design for other capabilities. These savings in weight and space do not detract from operating efficiency, and the platform is capable of a high speed and long range, as well as high firepower and levels of protection.
The Type-X is small for its firepower, but considerably larger than many contemporary RCVs, with a length of 6 metres (240 inches), a width of 2.9 metres (110 inches) and a height of 2.2 metres (87 inches). The base weight of the RCV is 12,000 kg (26,000 lbs), and the modular payload system can accommodate systems to a total of 4,100 kg in weight.
The Type-X is powered by a hybrid diesel-electric drive system, with a lightweight JP-8 diesel engine powering a generator, which recharges high-capacity batteries used to power electric drive motors at the sprockets. This powertrain system gives the RCV a top road speed of 50 mph (80 km/h), and in cross-country terrain the vehicle can attain 31 mph (50km/h) in rough conditions.
Type-X has a combat range of 370 miles (600 km), but it can also run on batteries only, reportedly for a distance of about 18 miles (30 km) . The ground clearance of the RCV is 50 cm (20 inches).
Thanks to its rubber tracks and hybrid power pack, the Type-X is extremely quiet in operation. We spectated the Type-X first hand, and were extremely impressed with how little noise it produced, even when running at high speed.
The RCV is designed to be operated by a remote crew member via a sophisticated data-link from an operating station, but also employ AI systems for some or all of a particular mission profile. All information picked up by the vehicle’s sensor systems is transmitted to the operator in real time, and from there through to the formation commanders.
Besides various weapon systems, the payload module can operate sensor systems for battlefield reconnaissance, or jamming equipment to interrupt radio communications between enemy units.
Advantages and Drawbacks
As the ancient military saw puts it, for every trick there is a counter-trick, and the ever-increasing use of drones and robotic systems in war has sparked an intensive effort to develop ways and methods for countering drone warfare. As tools, drones, on the ground, in the sea and in the air, open up an entirely new aspect of warfare that has yet to be fully explored.
They are game changing, yet still not mature enough to eliminate all risks associated with their use. One of the major counters to drones is jamming, which essentially disconnects the pilot from the drone they are controlling.
As such, some drones have a mode where they become fully autonomous, often with the use of AI. This means they can continue their mission even after communications with its remote control station have been intercepted/jammed.
Milrem’s Type-X has such a system, with three main modes of operation; ‘follow me’, ‘swarming’, or teleoperation.
Teleoperation is the human control of the vehicle. ‘Follow me’ allows the RCV to accompany a convoy or other vehicle movement by trailing a designated companion vehicle, or by following a series of navigational waypoints. Swarming designates a mode where several/multiple RCVs assault a particular point. Both these modes employ AI to complete mission objectives.
While theoretically capable of providing total success, many potential problems remain unaddressed at this current level of technological achievement. Quite simply, while Artificial Intelligence has advanced in capability by leaps and bounds, any system currently in operation still cannot even begin to compare to the human brain for instant analysis and rapid decision-making capabilities, especially in the extremely complex and evolving environments common to ground warfare.
It is theorised that friendly ground forces can be located and identified by allied drones by either the use of transponders, or visual recognition systems, but how reliable and advanced are these systems?
The use of transponders is potentially troubling, as some signal radiation is necessary for such systems to work properly – but what protects troops from blue-on-blue fire may betray unit locations to the enemy. Visual identification systems have some potential drawbacks as well: a soldier accidently falling into a mud-puddle may have his appearance altered enough that a ground drone like the RCV may not register such an individual as a friendly, and might engage him with disastrous consequences.
On the other hand, vehicles like the Type-X can carry immense firepower into situations no human could safely venture. They could carry cargo to encircled forces, or provide sacrificial covering fire for retreating troops. The possibilities are immense when the human is removed from the equation.
Unlike some earlier systems, armoured ground drone vehicles may find themselves of great utility in the future, if some predictions of major state-to-state conflict in the future are proven correct. Only time will tell if further advances in AI and battlefield communication will ensure vehicles like the RCV are able to compete successfully on the modern digital battlefield.
The current Russo-Ukrainian War has seen widespread employment of aerial drones for reconnaissance and attack, and even the use of maritime drones for semi-stealthy attacks on Russian naval vessels. The world is keenly looking on as drone warfare is taken to new limits.
Whether the Type-X will be part of this is yet to be seen, but even at this point in its development it is an impressive machine, a least on paper.
As the world moves away from anti-terror operations towards the possibility of high-intensity global warfare, drone warfare will transform to meet future requirements. This will include an increased emphasis on ground robotic combat systems as to reduce casualties, and high-intensity warfare means any robot drone would be in need of armoured protection.
A mid-sized, protected ground drone like the Type-X RCV may be the harbinger of similar anticipated weapon systems, and with a large US Army order in the offing, the platform is perfectly placed to attract further orders in the future.