The Netherlands has deployed four armed ground robots or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), making it the first NATO country to do so. The robots are Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry Systems (THeMIS) UGVs built by the Estonian defense company Milrem Robotics. It has treads like a tank and can use a variety of weapons. Photos provided by the Dutch military show their UGVs outfitted with machine guns.
Janes, a military and intelligence trade journal, first reported the story. The UGVs were first deployed on September 12 and, according to the Dutch Ministry of Defense (MOD), are an experiment.
“We have deployed four weaponised [unmanned] machines within an operational experiment”, Lieutenant Colonel Sjoerd Mevissen, commander of the Royal Netherlands Army's Robotics and Autonomous System, told Janes. “To my knowledge, we have not seen this before in the West…the machines have been handed over for experimental use in an operational unit in a military-relevant environment. These are not simply tests on a training ground. We are under the direct eyes and ears of the Russians, and as such in a semi-operational environment.”
The machine-gun-toting robots aren’t the first the world has ever seen. Estonia first deployed an unarmed version of THeMIS in Mali in 2019. This Russian MoD confirmed it deployed armed UGVs in Syria in 2018. Iran has also been developing its own UGVs and showed off its Heidair-1 on social media in 2019. Iran’s small beetle-like drone seems designed to roll under tanks and APCs and explode.
Both Russia’s Uran-9 and Estonia’s THeMIS are bigger and can carry more deadly equipment. The Uran-9 is capable of carrying a 30mm 2A72 automatic cannon and four 9M120-1 Ataka anti-tank guided missiles, which makes it look like a frightening and deadly killer robot. However, early reports indicate that Russia's UGV didn’t work well in Syria and repeatedly lost connection to its controller.
During the summer, a video of a robot dog with an assault rifle strapped to its back went viral on the internet. Earlier this month, Boston Dynamics promised it wouldn’t weaponize its brand of robot dogs. The video was creepy and Boston Dynamics’ sentiment was aimed at calming down the public, but the truth is that killer ground robots are already here and that the world’s militaries aren’t interested in strapping a gun to the back of a quadruped even if they might have other uses on a near-future battlefield.
Gun-toting killer ground robots were always going to look like what the Dutch have deployed and what the Russian’s tested in Syria—little tanks bristling with guns and absent humans.