On February 2, 2023, Russia’s Dmitry Rogozin—a former Roskosmos (space agency) director who has since reinvented himself as a frontline soldier in eastern Ukraine—announced on his Telegram channel that several Marker UGVs (uncrewed ground vehicles) have arrived in the Donbas. His message included a video of two UGVs offloaded from trucks, with a caption that included a promise to start uploading target images and combat algorithms (to the vehicle’s command-and-control modules), and to install antitank weapons, possibly to confront Western-provided Abrams and Leopard tanks.

Russia’s Marker UGV has made the news rounds since its official unveiling around four years ago, mostly due to Russian state media advertising it as proof of the country’s high-tech research and development of sophisticated military weapons and systems. Developed jointly by the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF, a Russian organization with a similar mission set to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Android Technologies, one of Russia’s main developers of robotics, the Marker is presented as a test bed for autonomous, robotic and artificial intelligence technologies.

By early 2023, there are apparently five total Marker variants in existence, both tracked and wheeled, in four possible configurations—for reconnaissance, combat, guard, and logistics. A reconnaissance version features a tethered drone for improved ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), a feature that can better withstand electronic warfare countermeasures by getting rid of the need for radio and satellite communications between a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and an operator, while also enabling a long operational drone life by getting power directly form the UGV. Rogozin claimed that this version may be tested soon in the Donbas.

The Marker combat version can be equipped with antitank guided missiles, automatic grenade launchers, and machine guns, and can carry UAVs for combat and loitering munitions roles. Rogozin’s plans include testing this version with antitank missiles, although the actual veracity of this claim is difficult to confirm at this time. The Marker guard version is equipped with sensors for visible and infrared ranges. Right before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Marker was tested as a counter-UAV platform as a defense against the type of small drones that have become so prevalent in Ukraine war. This version was created to protect closed facilities that require constant patrolling of an extended area at short intervals. Finally, there is a Marker logistics version for cargo transport and potential evacuation of wounded from combat.

It appears that the Russian defense establishment put high hopes on this platform as an example of how far the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) can go in developing a truly breakthrough combat vehicle. Ultimately designed as a “soldier’s assistant” on the battlefield, The Marker is a test bed for key technologies such as computer vision, communications, navigation, autonomous movement, and group (swarm) control. Built as a modular architecture, one of its key research and development roles is coordinated autonomous action in an uncertain environment. The ultimate goal for this UGV is to perform tasks independently at a great distance from the operator, using deep neural networks to assist in vehicle’s decision-making.

Indeed, what makes this experiment unique is Rogozin’s claim that the Marker’s AI-enabled autonomous capabilities may be tested. In 2021, the Marker’s developers conducted an experiment with several UGVs that traveled across forested terrain on their own to a preselected destination. Apparently, Rogozin intends to build on this to use the Marker to distinguish enemy tanks via data sets that he mentioned on February 2. Not much more is known about this testing phase, especially about the complexity and efficacy of such data sets and targeting information that include adversary weapons and systems. Earlier, Russian defense companies claimed to develop similar mechanisms for military UAVs’ AI-enabled command and control. At this point, it’s also not clear whether the experiment will involve a remote-controlled Marker version to mitigate against Ukraine’s battlefield complexity and uncertainty, a human-in-the-loop approach, with the Marker traveling autonomously but an operator making the final target selection and termination decision, or a human-on-the-loop approach, in which the Marker selects which targets to strike on its own but with final say coming from the operator. The Marker’s possible combat deployment may be a function, at least partly, of Rogozin’s self-promotion, yet his selection of this particular vehicle over other UGV projects demonstrates the need to showcase Russia’s advanced capabilities after Ukraine military’s initiative in utilizing AI elements for combat.

The ARF also tested voice control technology to enable manned-unmanned teaming, envisioning the Marker “learning as a person” to understand the human voice commands. The Marker’s developers indicated that its technical solutions, such as artificial intelligence, technical vision, and swarm control, can be “scaled up to the level of the Armata tank, up to 50 tons,” implying that the platforms that incorporate the Marker’s underlying technologies could eventually extend well beyond the current three-ton vehicle.

Into the Donbas Quagmire

Prior to the Marker delivery to eastern Ukraine, Rogozin highlighted this UGV’s ability to autonomously navigate across terrain, getting to a point indicated by the operator while choosing own route. While this quality may be well suited for a controlled test in a permissive environment, Ukraine’s complex and unpredictable battlefield, with numerous ground-based and aerial assets seeking out and targeting Russian soldiers and vehicles, may not be the safest test range for a UGV that has not yet been tried out in actual combat. By now, Ukraine’s persistent aerial drone coverage is going to make any actual combat Marker test very difficult to conduct safely, unless such tests take place far behind actual battle lines in a very controlled environment. There is in fact an indication that Rogozin intends to conduct exactly this type of an initial test, and assuming the Marker performs as planned, it can be sent to the front.

The ISR test planned by Rogozin makes the most sense for a vehicle like the Marker. The Russian military has long complained about lack of tactical ISR coverage ten to twenty kilometers out. Accordingly, a Marker launching a tethered drone that runs on a power cable to a height of 150 meters, which Rogozin claims will allow it to see in line-of-sight mode out to fifteen to twenty kilometers, is part of the solution to provide key battlefield observation and situational awareness. In this test, the Marker can be positioned behind a wall or other cover to avoid detection. The second test, a combat test with antitank weapons, may work well during controlled trials, but probably not in actual combat against Ukraine’s effective use of its existing tanks, and even less so against some of the most advanced tanks in the world that go into battle with mechanized infantry and aerial coverage. The Marker can be used as a dug-in stationary gun platform, launching its missiles if targets are within range—this tactic was implied as plausible by the Russian MOD review of the Uran-9 UGV failure in Syria. Rogozin also drew attention to the Marker’s rotary gun module, hinting that such a configuration can be useful against incoming small adversary UAVs.

There remain a number of logistical issues that Russia has likely not yet resolved, such as UGV retrieval from combat if it gets damaged. This could mean that Russian soldiers will have to retrieve the vehicle in a worst-case scenario. That, of course, negates the entire purpose behind fielding such robotic systems, which the Russian MOD designed to “safeguard soldiers and make missions more effective.”

A Test of What’s to Come?

Rogozin’s great robot adventure raises the question about the absence of other Russian combat UGVs in Ukraine. Back in 2018, the Russian military tested the Uran-9 UGV in Syria, which led to a very public admission that such technology is essentially not ready for direct combat and is better suited for stationary or guard duties under direct operator supervision. After admitting that the Uran-9 apparently went through necessary changes based on this trial, the Russian MOD proceeded to a acquire a number of them in 2021. At the same time, there was no public admissions that they are actively getting tested, except a brief appearance in the Zapad-2021 military exercise.

What explains this lack of advanced combat robotics at the forefront of Russian military operations? Probably a number of issues—not least that this technology is simply not ready for a very complicated Ukrainian battlespace teeming with countermeasures. At the same time, the Russian defense sector has multiple UGV projects that were tested and even fielded in limited roles over the past six years. They include the Platforma-M UGV, the Nerehta UGV concept, the Soratnik mid-sized UGV that was also tested in Syria in near-combat conditions, and the Kungas family of UGVs for ISR and combat missions. Of special interest for combat environment like that of Ukraine are the Shturm UGV, based on a T-72 tank chassis, and a Vihr/Udar UGV, based on a BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle. These are better both protected as combat vehicles than the rest of the list, and yet there is no news of any of these platforms going through their paces and combat stress tests. At the same time, the Russian military is carefully rolling out remote-controlled Uran-6 and Prokhod demining UGVs across areas of the Donbas under the control of Russian forces, to demonstrate that this advanced capacity is combat-ready, although in very small numbers.

Perhaps their time will come, but the Marker’s appearance in the Donbas ahead of other, much larger and heavier vehicles may be more a reflection of a crafty former bureaucrat with the right connections than an actual MOD combat stress test. If the Marker is even mildly successful—especially in an ISR role with a tethered drone—it may open the possibility for subsequent testing of other vehicles, ostensibly to demonstrate that years of research and development and sunk costs ultimately yielded an actual working UGV. As Russia’s second UGV after the Uran-9 to go into actual combat, much is riding on the Marker’s success as a demonstration of the Russian military’s advanced developments. With the war in Ukraine looking a lot more like the casualty-intensive World Wars of the twentieth century for the Russian military, marching a UGV into combat instead of humans is exactly why such technology exists in the first place. Whether the Russian defense sector will marshal additional resources to enable more UGV combat is unclear. It’s also unclear how much of an impact they would make given Ukraine’s success in hunting, identifying, and destroying Russian military assets. But considering the presumably limited numbers of actual Marker vehicles heading to the Donbas and the obstacles Russia has encountered in developing and fielding UGVs to this point, their contributions in the near term are likely to do little to affect the balance on the battlefield or influence the outcomes of spring offensives.

Samuel Bendett is an analyst with CNA’s Russia Studies Program and an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program. Previously he worked at the National Defense University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Note: This article was edited after publishing to add a brief analysis of the potential test of the Marker’s AI-enabled autonomous capabilities.

Image credit: Kirill Borisenko, via Wikimedia Commons