On January 26, Russian politician Dmitry Rogozin claimed in an interview that the country’s robotic Marker Uncrewed Ground Vehicles will be deployed in Ukraine as a tool to counter tanks. The Marker is a long-in-development and high-tech concept, designed to explore how robots could work together with humans on the battlefield. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, and as Ukraine prepares to receive armored vehicles, including tanks, from other countries, Marker appears to have been moved from conceptual promise to being touted as a wonder weapon.
The Marker UGV dates back to at least 2019, when it was promoted as a symbol of the modern technological prowess of the Russian military. While Russia had already developed armed drones, ground robots typically took the form of mine clearing machines like the Uran-6. With treads and with a turret, the Marker featured in glossy produced videos with a rock beat and a machine gun swivel that seemed to follow the commands of a remote human spotter.
Marker was developed by Russia’s Advanced Research Foundation, which is a rough analog to DARPA in the US. Early work on Marker made it a tool for exploring concepts in robots, remote control, and autonomy, with the assumption that later, other companies would develop new tools and weapons based on the research done with Marker.
As recently as January 2022, Russian state-owned media described Marker as being used to patrol a spaceport and work alongside quadcopter drones. Marker was one of several robots promoted as major technological advances, all against the backdrop of Russia mobilizing tanks and soldiers for the invasion of Ukraine that came February 24. In the eleven months since the invasion, Russia’s major advances have been halted, and on multiple fronts turned back. Now, with news that Ukraine stands ready to receive armored transports and tanks, Marker is back to being a darling of Russian media.
Meeting its Marker
On January 15, Rogozin claimed to news service TASS that Marker robots would be tested in Ukraine soon. While Rogozin has no official capacity in the Russian government, he has held multiple high-level positions within the Russian government. In July 2022, he was dismissed as the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, and has since rebranded himself as a leader of a volunteer group called the “Tsar’s Wolves” whose aim is improving the technology of Russian forces. Testing Marker in Ukraine would mark a debut for the device, and a task it was never quite designed for.
“This would be a first combat deployment for the Marker UGV, and yes, it wasn’t really tested in combat conditions before,” says Samuel Bendett, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “It was tested in a rather controlled environment, even when it had to navigate autonomously through a forested environment in late 2021. There is of course a possibility of a classified series of tests that could have taken place, but as far as all info about this UGV, there was no real combat stress test.”
Deploying an untested robot into combat, should it happen, reads as more of a stunt than battle-changing tool. In earlier tests and demonstrations, what set Marker apart was its ability to carry machine guns and anti-tank weapons, then use them at the discretion of protected or hidden soldiers. Powerful cameras and sensors could make it a useful spotter and shooter, though the role necessarily entails exposing the robot to return fire, risking the integrity of the machine. At a production level, that is a loss that a military can absorb. But with just a handful of test platforms, it is a big gamble for a flashy demonstration.
“Marker has limited autonomy capability for movement and target selection, although testing that in a complex battlefield space is probably different than trying to recreate such a test in pre-2022 trials. This is the crux of the problem in using such UGVs – real combat presents many unpredictable situations that cannot be all tested out beforehand, so it’s also likely that Markers will be remote-controlled to avoid losses,” says Bendett. “And there is also a significant PR element here.”
The possible fronts where Marker could be deployed in Ukraine are many, from old trenches in the Donbas region that Russia has contested since 2014, to fierce fighting around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the east, or even along Russian-held front lines northeast of Crimea. Regardless of where it is deployed, it is unlikely to be effective against heavy armor.
Rogozin highlighted that Marker exists in two forms. The sensor-and-drone equipped scout is designed as a useful spotter. Rogozin pitched the armed version, complete with anti-tank missiles, as an answer to Abrams and Leopard tanks. Says Bendett: “The recon version seems more plausible [for use] than a straight up contest against two of the most powerful tanks in the world.”