IRAQ

Is an Iraqi militia really using high-tech combat robots?

These little machines aren’t NASA's latest Mars rovers built to scour the red planet, but combat robots deployed by none other than an Iraqi militia group. The Shiite militia Saraya Al Salam is currently taking part in an offensive against the Islamic State organisation in Tikrit. In a video, the group brags that it built these sophisticated war machines entirely by itself.

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Screenshot of a video showing the Saraya Al Salam militia demonstrating one of its combat robots.

These little machines aren’t NASA's latest Mars rovers built to scour the red planet, but combat robots deployed by none other than an Iraqi militia group. The Shiite militia Saraya Al Salam is currently taking part in an offensive against the Islamic State organisation in Tikrit. In a video, the group brags that it built these sophisticated war machines entirely by itself.

In this video posted on YouTube on March 22, militiamen fighting for Saraya Al Salam -- a militia group founded by firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- staged a demonstration of two combat robots, otherwise known as UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicle), set against a backdrop of war music. The fighters proclaim that "after Western countries bragged about building military robots, the heroes of Saraya Al Salam have built this machine that they dedicate to Moqtadr al-Sadr [...] We are going to forge ahead with our new military production line, and in the future there'll be even bigger surprises."

Both robots are equipped with machine guns and remotely controlled. One has been fitted with a 'douchka', a kind of machine gun normally used by Syrian rebels and mounted on the back of pick-up trucks. At the three-minute mark, one of the robots fires a burst of gunfire at a small mound. The second robot has been armed with a lighter Russian PKM gun [3:43]. The robot's designers even added an “arm” equipped with a pair of scissors. To flaunt the robot's ability to demine, a militiaman steers it towards a pile of leaves then deploys the scissors to cut a wire hidden under the foliage [6:54].

Yet these videos haven’t convinced experts. Phillip Smith, a specialist on Shiite militias, dismisses the videos as a propaganda ploy. He told FRANCE 24: "I find it hard to believe that militiamen fighting for Saraya Al Salam would be capable of building war robots with such cutting-edge technology. I've never seen such robots deployed in Iraq. I think that they produced this video with propaganda goals in mind."

"Saraya Al Salam's robots are considerably lacking compared to real ground combat robots"

Jassem Al Salami is an analyst and weapons specialist. He's also sceptical as to the effectiveness of the robot weapons. We've reproduced here an extract of his blog.

The US has developed various ground combat robots over the years, and even briefly deployed them to Iraq. (…)

The vehicles are somewhat crude. They appear to use commercial security cameras with LED flashlights  --  instead of military-grade optics that can overcome haze, recognize targets and acquire data for precise engagements. (…)

But they’re still useful. UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) can scout narrow alleyways in cities, enter houses to attack snipers and inspect for booby-traps. (…) Not counting the weapons, the three most important parts of an UGV are its optics, wheels and armour. This makes the difference between whether the robot can resist enemy fire, whether the operator can navigate through obstacles and terrain — and identify enemies on the battlefield.

Saraya Al Salam’s robots are considerably lacking in all three categories. One drone has an elevated TV camera, and the other doesn’t exhibit any sensor turret at all. And they’re both pretty small and have ordinary tracks.

Saraya Al Salam's somewhat artisanal robot warriors calls to mind a drone built by the main backer of Iraq's Shiite militias: Iran. In November 2014, Tehran staged a demonstration of an "ultra-sophisticated" drone. It turned out to be packed with technical glitches.