Ukraine Seeks an Unmanned Edge on the Battlefield

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As the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian rebels enters its second year, Kiev is trying to gain technical leverage by investing in advanced battlefield technologies.

 In August, the Ukrainian defense industrial conglomerate Ukroboronprom showcased two unmanned platforms -- the Gorlitsa unmanned aerial vehicle and the Phantom unmanned wheeled platform. The high-profile unveiling was attended by the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Alexander Turchinov, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, and Commander of the National Guard of Ukraine Yuriy Aller, along with the directors of more than 100 industrial members of Ukroboronprom.

The domestically produced Gorlitsa  is expected to have a range of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and to carry various munitions. Meanwhile, the United States is assisting Ukrainian capabilities with the delivery of 24 short-range Raven mini-UAVs as part of an aid package -- the Raven is widely used by American and other forces across the world.

While unmanned aerial systems are broadening their spread across the world's conflict zones, land-based unmanned vehicles are covering new terrain on the battlefield. According to respected military blog BMPD, the unmanned multipurpose tactical vehicle Phantom was presented as a remote-controlled 6x6 vehicle. The prototype features a turret equipped with a 12.7-mm machine gun and is supposedly equipped with a day-and-night sighting system that allows for firing at any time to a distance of more than 1 kilometer. Phantom is equipped with a hybrid engine -- pairing a gasoline generator and electric motors -- as well as a power reserve of up to 20 kilometers. The vehicle is controlled over a secure radio range of up to 2.5 kilometers or via an optical fiber cable with a length of 5 kilometers. The prototype is designed for transporting ammunition and evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, and to perform a variety of combat missions. Earlier this year, Russia also unveiled an unmanned ground vehicle prototype designed for battle -- the tracked, tank-like Uran-9 platform is expected to be fielded with the Russian military and even exported abroad.

New technologies like unmanned systems are attracting attention and investment, and nations eager to use them in battle are sometimes rushing to embrace the designers and concepts without properly vetting both. According to Russian daily Lenta.ru, quoting Ukraine’s Zaxid.net publication, in May the creator of a Ukrainian remote-controlled scout vehicle disappeared with the money collected for its development. According to the story, Lviv-based businessman Rostislav Pasechnik had promised to build 300 mini-tanks per month, and received initial funding -- about 180,000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($6700) -- for their development. The first prototype was delayed by a few months and turned out to be faulty when finally unveiled. "Only one scout vehicle was shown - it drove a few meters, started to emit smoke, and then caught fire," a witness said. Pasechnik stopped responding to concerned calls from the backers of his invention. An official statement was filed with the police, but law enforcement agencies did not want to investigate the case. Pasechnik's company also declined to comment on the situation.

Meanwhile, Russia is rapidly changing the way it educates its officers for current and future combat. According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defense Ministry has adjusted the training program in military educational institutions based on the warfighting experience in Syria.

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