How Russia’s ‘Marker’ Combat Robots Could Impact Ukraine War

Russian “Marker” combat robots are unlikely to be sent into the heavy battles taking place in Ukraine, Newsweek was told after Russian state media announced testing in the country.

On Sunday, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the “Tsar Wolves” military advisor group in Russia, said on his Telegram page that the combat robots would be tested out in the eastern Donbas region.

Describing the move as a “baptism of fire” for the weapons, Rogozin said the platform would pinpoint and fire upon enemy targets “in the affected area with its own fire weapons.”

The idea of the AI-enabled combat robot is to “replace a soldier in dangerous missions, and to make missions more effective,” Samuel Bendett of the Center for Naval Analyses told Newsweek.

Above, Russian Uran-9 unmanned ground combat vehicles roll during the general rehearsals of the Victory Day Parade in front of the Kremlin on May 7, 2021. Russian “Marker” combat robots (inset) will be tested out in eastern Ukraine, the head of a Russian military advisor group said on January 15, 2023.

The “Marker” is designed with the aim of analyzing and interpreting a situation, but “the whole point of building such systems is to make them expendable,” Bendett said.

The Russian military has long discussed putting autonomous weapons in the place of human soldiers, according to Bendett, yet Russia—and other countries like the United States and China, which are developing similar technologies—remain “in the very initial stages” of the process.

“Marker” combat robots have been used as a security system for the Vostochny cosmodrome in eastern Russia, Rogozin wrote, “providing control of its security perimeter.”

This security function lines up with test results made available in recent years, with “Markers” performing defensive functions like guarding a military base in the style of a “camera on tracks,” Bendett said.

Although Russian developers claimed the “Marker” had undergone tests in forested terrain to look at its ability to work autonomously in more combat-like environments, “there was always the recognition that the technology isn’t there yet.”

“This type of UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) isn’t ready to navigate on its own in a very complex battle space,” Bendett said. “So, even though ‘Marker’ developers have claimed that these vehicles can go on their own and maybe complete a series of relatively complicated tasks, they aren’t necessarily going to be ready for the very complicated environment of a Ukraine battle space.”

Such an environment will present counter-fire, interference and other factors disrupting communication between the “Marker” and its operator, he explained. Therefore, in these newly-announced tests, there is some ambiguity in precisely what conditions the “Marker” will be tested in.

Bendett said the “Marker” was unlikely to push towards Ukrainian positions due to a few design features making the combat robot “vulnerable.”

“One of the interesting issues with developing vehicles like ‘Marker’ from scratch, as opposed to refitting already existing systems, is that ‘Marker’ is a relatively small and brittle system—it isn’t necessarily very well protected,” he said.

Despite its touted advantages, the “Marker” is poorly equipped to deal with attacks from large-caliber machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, unlike the Russian military’s larger, heavier unmanned vehicles, Bendett suggested.

“And so, I have questions about putting ‘Marker’ in actual combat, as was claimed by Rogozin,” he said.

Although Rogozin said that “several” combat robots will be tested out in eastern Ukraine, Bendett said that because just a handful of “Markers” are believed to exist, the developers and the Russian defense sector would feel the loss of even one quite acutely.

“This is the problem with most of Russian UGV development,” he added. “They have many different projects. They have many different concepts. But they exist as single prototypes, or maybe in the case of ‘Marker,’ there are five of them instead of one.

“It’s not like Russian developers have, say, 20, 30 or 50 of them, and they can maybe use a dozen in one expendable military mission. So I think this test would be relatively controlled in Ukraine,” Bendett said.

However, there may be a certain pressure bearing down on the Russian defense sector for new technologies as the war in Ukraine continues.

“Maybe there’s a certain element of PR, to demonstrate that Russia has military ground robots that can go into combat and perform some kind of duties. But again, it’s an expensive system,” Bendett said. “I think they may start utilizing it in limited missions, but with each mission becoming slightly more sophisticated, up to a certain point, of course.”

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Ellie Cook