Gary Anderson was the chief of staff of the Marine Corps' Warfighting Lab.
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Having failed at a blitzkrieg throughout Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin's army is trying attrition warfare in the east and is having some plodding success.
Russian infantry and tankers have shown a notable reluctance to engage in close combat with the Ukrainians, who have developed considerable skill in sniping, infantry use of sophisticated anti-tank weapons, and killer drones. Consequently, the Russians have reverted to their time-honored approach of using heavy artillery to clear out opposing infantry before occupying terrain with their reluctant troops. At this point, the Russian army has much more artillery and ammunition than its opponent.
The Russians are better prepared to wage an attritional campaign, at least until enough long-range American and British rockets can be introduced; the Ukrainians have received only four to date, and believe they need 10 times as many. However, that does not mean that the Ukrainians cannot adopt innovative tactics to compensate for superior Russian firepower.
Toward the end of World War I, the French and British began to use firepower -- where they had an advantage in supply -- to clear front-line German trenches in attempts to break through. The Germans learned to time these barrages, which were delivered regularly. They would withdraw to secondary positions and counterattack after the barrage stopped and as the allied troops were still trying to occupy the German forward lines. Faced with the cold steel of the German counterattack, as often as not, the Allied troops would withdraw to their original positions. Although it was less costly to the Germans than the allies, this tactic still produced German casualties. That ebb and flow went on until late in the war, when the Germans began running out of reserves. It prolonged the war, but eventually attrition prevailed.
During the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Chinese, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong developed the tactic of trying to negate American firepower and air superiority by infiltrating at night very close to U.S. positions before launching an attack. They called this tactic "grabbing them by the belt." It was designed to force their opponents not to use supporting arms or to call in fire dangerously close to their own positions. Again, it was highly costly to the communist forces, but it often negated a key American force multiplier.
The Ukrainians have been using early counterattacks effectively, but they lack Russian numbers and quantity of ammo so they must hoard their human and material resources carefully. Consequently, a repetition of the German or communist approach is not feasible at the operational level unless a way can be found to substitute some form of combat power other than infantry or scarce manned armored vehicles.
This is where innovation might help. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Marine Corps began experimenting with converting vehicles to operate without a driver for missions too dangerous for human troops. The theory was to use expendable obsolete vehicles in the remote-control mode as Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) during the first stages of an amphibious assault to clear minefields, reduce beach defenses and soften things up for follow-on human forces.
After 9/11, the Marine Corps faced different challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrated on smaller UGVs for clearing booby traps and improvised explosive devices. As a result, the idea of using larger vehicles was put on the shelf. However, the early experiments were promising.
We were somewhat concerned about a potential enemy jamming our radio control signals, so we experimented with fiber optic control; this proved to be quite feasible. It is much more difficult to remotely load a tank main gun, but teleoperation of machine guns is relatively easy. If Russian troops are already reluctant to go eyeball-to-eyeball with human Ukrainian assault troops, they are even less likely to stand up to fearless UGVs.
Artillery fire is lethal to human troops mostly because of shrapnel, less so with direct blasts. Armored vehicles -- manned or unmanned -- are much less vulnerable to shrapnel unless they suffer a direct hit. Even then, if it is a UGV, the strike may not totally disable the vehicle. As defenders, the robots could hold an important position during an artillery barrage. When the barrage is lifted, small infantry teams can join them in the defense. If the Russians resume the barrage, the infantry can withdraw, leaving the UGVs to hold terrain.
This chess game is exactly what the Russians can't afford. On offense, the UGVs can provide the assault troops for an attack. Once a position is taken, the defensive technique can be repeated. The Russian concept of attrition is effectively negated if human Ukrainian casualties are minimized.
Moscow was reportedly experimenting with artificial intelligence-controlled tanks before the war started but has not apparently used such systems -- whether through lack of development or cost. AI still has many bugs and is extremely expensive, whereas remote control has been around for a long time.
Putin's generals lack imagination, but they believe they have found a way -- however ponderous -- of achieving the limited objectives they have now set for themselves. Robotized armored vehicles would be impractical in large tank battles such as Kursk or El Alamein, but they could be very effective in the kind of small-scale chess matches that characterize the Ukrainian operational approach of a "mobile area defense."
There are plenty of obsolete tanks and armored vehicles in the U.S. and Europe. Rigging any vehicle to be a UGV is easy and cheap.
It is worth a try.