The Netherlands Has Deployed Armed Ground Robots – The First NATO Country To Do So

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Hot on the heels of many ground combat robots by so-called “strategic competitors” in recent years, it appears that at least one NATO country is leading the charge when it comes to testing its own family of robot weapons.

The Royal Netherlands Army announced on Friday that it had deployed four armed Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry Systems (or THeMIS) unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), making it the first NATO country to do so.

The THeMIS are deployed to Lithuania with the 13th Light Brigade’s Robot and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Unit for the first known Western operational experiment involving armed UGVs.

According to the Ministry of Defence, the goal is to perform more with fewer personnel, citing the deployment of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS).

An Estonian defence company built the armed ground robots under Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry Systems (THeMIS). The UGVs move like tanks and can be armed with light or heavy machine guns, 40mm grenade launchers, 30mm autocannons, and anti-tank missiles, making them excellent for direct fire support for manoeuvre troops, according to Milrem.

“We have deployed four weaponized [unmanned] machines within an operational experiment. To my knowledge, we have not seen this before in the West,” said RNA Lt. Col. Sjoerd Mevissen, noting that “we are under the direct eyes and ears of the Russians, and as such, in a semi-operational environment.”

The news of the operational experiment follows years of testing the THeMIS UGVs by both the RNA and the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF). They inked a joint procurement agreement with Milrem for seven systems in September 2020. Milrem previously provided two THeMIS vehicles to the RAS Unit of the 13th Light Brigade in 2019.

While the RAS has been steadily testing the boundaries of the THeMIS system, the EDF has already deployed unarmed models of the UGV in Mali alongside Estonian soldiers from the Estpla-32 infantry unit as part of the current French-led counterinsurgency operation Operation Barkhane.

While the Netherlands and Estonia are leading the way in NATO armed robot vehicle testing, the United States isn’t far behind. The US Army has been testing light, medium, and large varieties of Robotic Combat Vehicles outfitted with remote weapons stations for several years.

It is no surprise that NATO nations are involved in a combat UGV arms race, given the rapid spread of combat robots on both sides of the battlefield in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And suppose the US Army is serious about modernizing its force in the face of fierce competition. In that case, the odds are good that they’ll take the Netherlands’ example and start moving quickly to develop combat-ready robots.

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