Video footage posted on a Russian Telegram social media account back in June shows a kamikaze attack by an old, uncrewed tank converted to into a scary bomb on tracks. But the fiery results don’t quite go the way it’s creators intended.
A Russian ‘Kamikaze’ Tank
For over nine years—long before Putin’s full-scale invasion in 2022—Russian troops have tried and failed to pry Ukrainian forces from fortified positions at Marinka. This ex-town, having gone from a civilian population of around 10,000 to something approaching zero—lies astride the N15 highway just outside Donetsk, the self-proclaimed capital of Russian separatists in this region of Eastern Ukraine.
As long as Ukraine’s armed forces retain their foothold in Marinka’s ruins, they remained in range to shell Russian bases and headquarters in the rebel ‘capital’ and prevent Russian forces staging there from advancing west towards the metropolis of Zaporizhzhia. Similar Ukrainian redoubts at Pervomaiske and Avdiivka bottle up highways heading northwest and north from Donetsk city.
Apparently frustrated by repeated, costly failures to capture Marinka, Russian forces got creative and took what the account claims to be a captured Ukrainian tank and packed it full of explosives.
A trophy tank would imply a T-64—the most common type used both by Ukraine’s military and Russian separatist forces.
The Russian account notes this “most powerful kamikaze drone” was “stuffed with 6 tons of TNT and other bada booms and sent to the Ukrainian position on autopilot.” For context, the heaviest aerial bomb routinely used by the U.S. Air Force (the Mark 84 and its guided configuration, the GBU-31 JDAM) weighs nearly one ton, though larger types do also exist.
How the converted tank was controlled remains unclear. The description, “set to autopilot” makes it sound like it crew onboard simply pointed it at the targeted position of the Ukrainian line and bailed out with the engine throttled up. But it’s also possible a crude remote-control system could have been jury-rigged, which would offer more precise control and exposed personnel to less risk.
Likely the explosives would likely have been fused to trigger upon reception of a radio signal once the uncrewed tank made it into position.
Earlier on February 18th, a Russia’s 35th Motor-Rifle Brigade packed an MT-LB armored personnel carrier full with explosive-stuffed cabling of mine-clearing line charge as well as three OFAB-100-120 271-pound aerial bombs (pictured here) to attack Ukrainian positions near Svatove in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
A Russian article with an interview of Russian engineering platoon commander claims they didn’t us any remote-control system except for the detonator:
“About 300 meters from the enemy, the driver fixed the throttle, pointed the vehicle towards the Ukrainians, and jumped out to the rear. I remained to observe, and after the machine approached directly to the enemy’s positions, I detonated it with the help of radio control.”
The posted footage from June is from the vantage of overwatching Russian drone as the tank crawls across a heavily cratered field towards Ukrainian trenches in the treeline. The tank almost makes it—until it hits a mine causing it to slew to the left, immobilized short of its target by up to 100 meters (nearly the length of a football field) though a bit closer than that seems plausible from what can be seen. As Ukrainian troops can be faintly seen moving in the trenches, a cloud of white smokes forms around the tank.
Then, one minute into the video Ukrainian troops in the tree line fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the tank, hitting it squarely. The projectile’s shaped charge warhead pierces the armor and detonates the tank’s explosive payload. The massive blast causes both a fireball and a huge overpressure wave to sweep out in a large radius around the tank.
It is likely the overpressure wave injured Ukrainian soldiers in the tree line, particularly risking harm to their ears or lungs. However, the trench likely spared some or all of the defenders from fatal injury. Hugo Kaaman, an expert on vehicle-based explosive devices, noted in a social media post “…while visible shockwaves make the detonations appear more powerful—they are simply visible ‘shock collars’ that are accentuated by foggy/humid weather.”
It undoubtedly would have been a very different story had the tank made it all the way to the tree line. Ukraine’s defenses around Marinka were at most disrupted, but ultimately left unbreeched by the attack.
Early history of tracked kamikaze robots
The offensive use of a vehicle-based improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, evokes the tactics extensively used by ISIS during its blood-soaked heyday in Iraq and Syria. Also, ISIS appreciated that armored vehicles were more likely to survive defensive fire to reach their targets. However, even the most heavily armored tanks are susceptible to immobilization by mines.
Despite the parallel, the Russian kamikaze tank was crewless—a notable distinction from ISIS’s fanatical methods. The operational use of ground-based kamikaze drones dates back to World War I, starting with the French Schneider Crocodile land torpedo, guided by cable while lugging 84 pounds of explosives. There was also the non-steering Aubriot-Gabet electric torpedo, which used a cable instead for electrical propulsion.
Both were supposed to roll up to enemy fortifications and barbed wire barrages and blow themselves up. Combat tested in 1915-1916 with mixed results, they were ultimately passed over in favor of manned tanks.
In World War II, Germany employed the SdKfz. 303 Goliath tracked mines. These ‘beetle tanks’ lugged either 130 or 220-pounds of explosives and could be manually steered by joystick and detonated by the operators via a 650-meter-long cable. The 7,564 Goliaths were used by German combat engineering units in battles including those at Kursk, Anzio, Normandy, and the Warsaw uprising. Most failed to reach their target, as they had only 5 millimeters of armor and were slow at 3-4 miles per hour. Late in the war, Germany also deployed 50 heavier SdKfz. 304 ‘Springers’, a kamikaze variant of the Kettenkrad half-track lugging 730 pounds of explosives.
In the same conflict, the Soviet Union started the war using radio-controlled ‘teletanks’ based on the T-26 tank and T-27 tankettes. In addition to the standard T-26 flamethrower-armed teletank which saw combat use against Finnish bunkers, there was a Podryvnik (‘blaster’) teletank intended to deposit up to 1,500 pounds of explosives next to enemy positions before rolling safely away. Later during the Battle of Sevastopol in Crimea, Soviet engineer Aleksandr Kantsev launched six explosive-laden TT-27 teletanks toward German positions trailing control wires three miles long. Two of them made it to target.
#Ukraine The Russian Army sent a T-54/55 VBIED filled with 6 tonnes of TNT at AFU lines near Marinka, Donetsk Oblast.
The attempt failed as the remotely-controlled bomb ran into a mine 100m from the front line, and was then hit by a Ukrainian RPG shot, causing a huge explosion. pic.twitter.com/sXXI57wV7v
— Cᴀʟɪʙʀᴇ Oʙsᴄᴜʀᴀ (@CalibreObscura) June 18, 2023
Thus the Marinka attack is not the first time Moscow’s forces have employed robotic kamikaze tank—nor the first time they’ve come a bit short. The Russian social media post concludes “Experiments with the creation of kamikaze drones continue.”
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, MSNBC, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
This piece has been updated since publication.