Estonian soldiers using THeMIS unmanned ground vehicles in Mali


Estonian infantry serving with the United Nations mission in Mali have for the first time used a THeMIS unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) whilst on patrol.

The Estonian defence ministry on 24 September said the THeMIS was used by unit Estpla-32 in a test of its ability to support deployed infantry.

Lieutenant Madis Parnpuu said the UGV increases the combat capability of deployed units by reducing the amount soldiers have to carry, including weapons, water and ammunition that would otherwise have been carried by conventional vehicles.

“We are currently conducting our first attempts to involve UGVs in patrols, identifying and eliminating both technical and procedural bottlenecks, and testing various options for using UGVs and integrating the unit into operations.”

The present patrol tested in particular procedures involving UGV involvement and monitored the reactions of local residents in the vicinity of the device. In the past, THeMIS has been used to transport the equipment needed by members of the Defence Forces both in and near the base where the Estonians are serving.

Mali is one of the toughest areas in the world due to lava rock, loose sand and high temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius. Such conditions will test Milrem Robotics’ THeMIS capability as well as the resources available to the rest of the unit. Regardless of the difficult circumstances, Milrem Robotics’ THeMIS UGV has proven to be reliable, the Estonian ministry of defence said.

“Mali is an ideal place to test new technology. Along with supporting the Barkhane Defence Forces, we have received a lot of valuable feedback on the reliability, ease of use and tactical use of the vehicle,”said Juri Pajuste, a reserve captain in Milrem Robotics’ Defence Programme Division who has participated in the mission in Afghanistan.

“Based on my experience in the previous foreign operation in Afghanistan, where I served as a team commander in 2008 and 2012, I can say that an unmanned ground vehicle would have greatly simplified operations because we were operating in areas where armoured vehicles were often not available. This severely limited the team’s range and operation time, as the amount of equipment and armaments that could be deployed on the patrol was limited,” said Pajuste.

Milrem Robotics says its THeMIS is currently the only UGV in its size class deployed in the field.

The THeMIS UGV in Mali can be used as both a support and observation platform and is equipped with cameras that raise situational awareness.

The information gathered from Mali will be used by the company in further development work to improve the UGV. The Milrem Robotics UGVs will also support the Mali mission in 2020, which will include consideration of additional vehicle combat systems.

Estonian soldiers rotated to Mali in mid-April and were later joined by the THeMIS vehicles, which are deployed for five months.

The Mali deployment marks the first THeMIS operational deployment, as the UGV has only previously been used in local and international exercises, including Autonomous Warrior. Experience gained from the Mali deployment will be used to further development.

The THeMIS is a fully modular diesel-electric unmanned ground vehicle that can operate up to 10 hours with a full tank of fuel, including up to 1.5 hours in silent mode. It has a top speed of 22 km/h and can carry a payload of 750 kg. It can be operated line of sight, via cameras or equipped with an autonomy kit for fully autonomous operation.

Milrem Robotics is an Estonian defence solutions provider whose primary focus is the manufacture of unmanned ground vehicles, development of robotic warfare solutions and performing concept of operations and doctrine level warfare analysis.

The company recently partnered with MBDA to unveil in February what they called the world’s first anti-tank unmanned ground vehicle. This incorporates MBDA’s IMPACT (Integrated MMP Precision Attack Combat Turret) system fitted with two MMP 5th generation battlefield engagement missiles and a self-defence machine gun.

Estonian soldiers first arrived in Mali in August 2018, joining French and British forces in Gao. They rotate every four months. In March last year, the Estonian government requested parliament approve the deployment of 50 soldiers to Mali for one year as part of the French-led Operation Barkhane. Estonia also contributes to the EU Training Mission in Mali and the United Nation’s Minusma peacekeeping mission.

The task of Estonian soldiers in Mali is to ensure the security of the French outdoor base in Gao and the surrounding area. Operation Barkhane is a French-led insurgency operation in the Sahel. Its purpose is to support the fight against Islamic extremists in five countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) and thus to prevent illegal immigration and trafficking in human beings towards Europe.