Russia's T-14 Armata main battle tank. Source: YouTube still shot.

Russia is building a supertank.

Last month, we told you about Russia's new Armata main battle tank -- the tank with which it will roll into the 21st century. But did you know that the Armata is more than just a "tank"?

Did you know, for instance, that the Armata tank's maker, UralVagonZavod, intends to make Armata the basis for an entire family of armored vehicles  -- armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft missile launchers, armored self-propelled artillery, flame throwers, bridge-layers, minesweepers, and tank salvage units?

And did you know it's going to be operated by... robots?

A tank for the 21st century and beyond
The more we learn about Russia's Armata, the more impressive it sounds, boasting multilayered armor, multiple guns, and the ability to fire missiles from its main gun. Under development since the end of the Cold War, the Armata is expected to be complete and ready for production this year. (Indeed, it's scheduled to make its debut at the Victory Day Parade in Red Square May 9.) Full-scale, mass production of an estimated 2,300 Armatas (through 2020) is slated to begin next year (although some experts are skeptical that that timeline can be met).

Perhaps the most surprising revelation about Russia's Armata tank, though, is that it's evolving into an "optionally piloted" design. Initial versions of the tank will feature remotely operated loading and firing of the tank's 125 mm cannon from an internal, separate crew compartment. Military experts, however, believe this is only a first step toward remotely operating the entire tank as a robot.

This would permit the Armata tank to be deployed as the spearhead of an armored offensive, breaching enemy defenses without risking the lives of Russian soldiers. Subsequent tank waves crewed by three humans each -- a driver, gunner, and tank commander -- could then follow the robotic shock troops.

Building a Russian robot -- with baby steps
Russia's already taking steps to prove the concept of robotic tanks. Last year, Popular Mechanics reported that Russian unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, have already moved beyond what U.S. robots are capable of -- "firing a machine gun" in combat. (The U.S. has tested robots armed with various weapons systems, including Tasers. It has not, however, used them in combat.)

Russia's MRK-002-BG-57. Photo: OAO Izhevsky Radiozavod.

According to PM, OAO Izhevsky Radiozavod's mobile robot system MRK-002-BG-57 is a small, tank-like ground vehicle weighing in at 1.1 tons. MRK can travel at speeds of up to 35 km/hr, fire everything from an AK-47 assault rifle to a 12.7 mm machine gun or 30 mm grenade launcher -- and be remotely controlled at distances of up to three miles. What's more, the MRK can be preprogrammed to seek out and destroy up to 10 targets independently.

PM notes that Russia has at least three other MRK-like robot tanks under development, ranging in size from the Packbot-size, Kalashnikov-packing Strelok to the Jeep-size amphibious armed vehicle Argo to the larger Nerekhta light tank. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo source:, via Wikimedia Commons.

All of these projects have the backing of Russian leadership at the highest levels. As PM reports, Defense minister Sergei Shoigu has publicly endorsed plans to expand the Russian army's use of robots. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin promised to open a new production facility for military robots. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed, according to PM, that "these are serious combat systems" and that "it is absolutely clear that they have good prospects."

What it means to investors
Fascinating stuff. And here at The Motley Fool, we're fascinated by the Armata -- and how its invention might affect investor portfolios back here in the U.S. For example, General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) builds tanks for the U.S. military, while iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) builds smaller military robots. Might a perceived threat from Russian "robo-tanks" like the Armata tank prompt a merger -- or at least a collaboration -- between these two U.S. defense contractors?

Unless the Pentagon is willing to permit a "robot gap" to open between U.S. and Russian military capabilities, such a team-up might be necessary. Disturbing as the prospect of a new arms race between the U.S. and Russia might be, such a development would certainly benefit U.S. defense contractors. 

At General Dynamics, for instance, slack sales of battle tanks recently forced the company to lay off hundreds of workers at its Lima, Ohio, Abrams tank plant. iRobot has been hurt nearly as hard by the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Revenues at the company's Defense and Security business, responsible for PackBot sales to the military, fell from a 2011 high of $175 million in sales to just $50 million in the most recent fiscal year, according to S&P Capital IQ data -- about where the company was a decade ago. Working off such a small revenue base, it wouldn't take much of an investment in robo-technology by the Pentagon to move the needle at iRobot.

iRobot's PackBot. Will the Pentagon supersize it? Photo source: iRobot.