Germany is buying robots that look like Russian tanks to practice fighting the real thing

·5 min read
Moscow Russia T-90 tank Red Square
A Russian T-90 tank in Moscow's Red Square on May 6, 2010.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
  • The German military recently received robotic vehicles designed to resemble Russian tanks.

  • The delivery comes as Germany revitalizes its military amid heightened tensions with Russia.

  • "They are designed to be consumable robots," the founding director of the firm that built them said.

If you see Russian tanks on the streets of Germany, they are not Putin's army driving on Berlin. The German military has bought life-size robotic replicas of Russian armored vehicles to use for training and target practice.

The Bundeswehr just received the first of the vehicles under a $385,000 contract with Australian defense firm Gaardtech.

The order comes as Germany is belatedly revitalizing its military after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and realizing that for the first time since the end of the Cold War there is a realistic possibility that German and Russian troops may engage in battle.

Gaardtech makes what the company calls Robotic Enemy Vehicles (REV) for more than 20 Russian and Chinese designs.

The list includes the most common Russian armored vehicles, including T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks; BMP-3 and BMD-4 infantry fighting vehicles; BTR-70, BTR-80 and BTR-90 troop carriers; and BRDM anti-tank missile platforms.

Replicas of Chinese Type 59, 85, and 99 tanks are also available, and the company has modeled Russian SA-6 and ZSU-23-4 air defense vehicles.

Interestingly, Gaardtech also offers a target vehicle for Russia's next-generation T-14 Armata tank, for which not much information is publicly available.

The robots "are based on open-source data, and data provided by customers if required," Steen Bisgaard, GaardTech's founding director, told Insider.

Mock enemy vehicles aren't a new idea. The Allies used inflatable rubber tanks in World War II to fool Nazi spies, Ukraine has built wooden decoy HIMARS mobile rocket launchers, and movies have long used fake tanks, which sometimes look ridiculous. But those tend to be immobile and wouldn't pass close-in inspection.

Gaardtech robot T-90 tank
Gaardtech's model of Russia's T-90 tank.Gaardtech

The Gaardtech vehicles appear much more realistic.

The robots maneuver like real tanks and can be customized with features such as turrets that actually rotate. The vehicles are made of steel, with each weighing a little over 1,300 pounds. They come in flat-pack kits that can be assembled by four people in an hour.

The robots are equipped with thermal cells that simulate the signature of real vehicles, which allows pilots, gunners and sensor operators to get a feel for how a real Russian or Chinese tank appears in a thermal sight.

"The active thermal cells provide a high-fidelity engine bay and track thermal signature for IR detection that works in all weather conditions including heavy rain and wind," said Bisgaard.

The robot vehicles can be operated by remote control or function autonomously. Indeed, they can move in formation to simulate enemy tactics.

Russia T-14 Armata tank
A Russia T-14 Armata tank.Getty

"Twenty-plus 'enemy' vehicles can be programmed and controlled from a single commander device," Bisgaard said. "Once the formation is told what to do, it is controlled by the GaardTech software and is autonomous."

The Gaardtech vehicles can be used for live target practice. "They are designed to be consumable robots," said Bisgaard. "They can be engaged by anything. We have seen them fired on by HIMARS, F-18s, Javelins, NLAWs, 120-mm tank rounds, 155-mm smart and high-explosive shells, and 40- and 84-mm rounds."

But the robots can take a pounding and be reused. "The robotic kits attach to the vehicle hull, enabling rapid replacement of parts if a system is damaged during live-fire," Bisgaard said.

While Bisgaard did not cite an actual price, he did say that a robot costs 1/160th of a real tank. An M-1A2 Abrams costs an estimated $9 million in 2016 —$11.1 million in 2022 dollars — while Poland just opted to buy 250 of the latest M1A2 SEPv3 versions for $4.8 billion.

Gaardtech robot T-14 tank
Gaardtech's model of Russia's T-14 tank.Gaardtech

GaardTech training systems have been used by the Australian Army, the Royal Australian Air Force, the US Marine Corps, and the British Army.

Bisgaard, a former Australian Army officer who commanded a troop of M1 Abrams tanks and served two tours in Afghanistan, said his military experiences inspired him to create the robot vehicles.

"I realized there is a huge problem with how a joint force trains and exercises all of its assets, how the soldier spots the target correctly, and the targeting cycle being executed efficiently by a multinational joint force HQ, or a fighter jet seeing targets under FLIR [forward-looking infrared], and drones and artillery adjusting correctly on moving enemy forces," Bisgaard told Insider.

Given the prevalence of Russian and Chinese weapons among nations opposing NATO and other Western allies, it's natural for GaardTech to concentrate on those designs. However, Bisgaard said the company can simulate weapons from other nations.

"GaardTech can make any vehicle or aircraft as a target or high-fidelity robotic decoy for combat use," Bisgaard said. "Our in-house design team conducts a lot of bespoke work."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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