By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2024

“You want a robot with a weapon?…or

(for) observation? Sure, we can do that!”

— Philippe Gosset, for Nexter Robotics, June 2022

The Nexter Systems (French company) OPTIO-X20 unmanned, ground vehicle (UGV) was introduced to the world market at the Eurosatory 2018 international defense and security exhibition in Paris, France, on June 11, 2018, but not here in the United States until July 27, 2023, via a Twitter account announcement. It utilizes an Estonian-manufactured, Milrem Robotics THeMIS (Tracked, Hybrid, Modular Infantry System) UGV chassis, already acquired by 16 nations, including the U.S. and seven more NATO members, with a Nexter ARX-20 remote-control weapon system (RCWS) turret. In Latin, an optio (meaning, “chosen one”) was the executive officer, or second-in-command, of Roman centurion’s fighting force of 100 men, loyally backing up the centurion himself.

Milrem Robotics THeMIS UGV. Photo by Milrem Robotics

What’s interesting about the French armed forces and arms industry is that when everyone else is using light or heavy machine guns as helicopter door guns, for vehicle protection, or from robotic drones, the French use their own 20mm cannon, for maximum range and firepower. Nexter Systems produces three 20mm weapons: the old, German, MG 151/20 design from World War Two in 20x82mm Mauser, mostly used as a German aircraft gun in the past, the M621 in 20x102mm NATO, and the more-powerful M693 in 20x139mm, primarily for armored vehicles, naval vessels, and the South African-made, Mi-35 SuperHind Mk. IV helicopter gunship, now flown only by Algeria and Azerbaijan.

Nexter MG 151/20 cannon. Photo by Nexter Systems

Nexter M621 (P20 application) gun. Photo by Nexter Systems

On January 15, 2021, Gunpowder Magazine published my previous article on “Surprise Package: The M621 Cannon,” detailing this amazing weapon and its SH 20 helicopter variant and P20 ground-based variant in great detail. Now, Nexter has mounted this same cannon in its ARX-20 remote-controlled turret, atop a THeMIS chassis, as the roving, OPTIO-X20 unmanned weapon system.

Nexter Robotics OPTIO-X20 vehicle. Photo credit: Nexter Robotics

It’s 7.88 feet long, 7.05 feet wide, approximately 6.2 feet tall, and weighs 3,740 pounds, about as much as a mid-sized SUV. The ARX-20 turret features a gyro-stabilized, 20x102mm M621 cannon firing at 12.5 rounds per second, with 100 rounds loaded, and an effective range of 1,750 yards, complemented by an FN MAG 58 (M240B in U.S. terminology) medium machine gun in 7.62x51mm NATO, firing at 13.3 rounds per second, with 300 rounds loaded, and an effective range of 875 yards.

Nexter OPTIO-X20 UGV with 20mm cannon. Photo by Nexter Systems

The OPTIO-X20 is specifically designed for perimeter observation and security, armed reconnaissance, combat group protection, and target-engagement tasks. Featuring a hybrid configuration of a diesel engine and electric generator, it can operate autonomously for eight to 10 hours in diesel mode, or 30 to 90 minutes in silent, electric mode. The vehicle has a top speed of 14 miles per hour, and can handle 60-percent slopes, with ground clearance of 16 to 24 inches for superior traction and maneuverability.

The ARX-20 turret uses a dual-field, full-color, panoramic, daylight camera, an infrared, dual-lens, uncooled, night camera, and a laser rangefinder for precise targeting, with an open-architecture, remote interface where the operator can view multiple cameras at once, control the turret, and fire the weapons.

The French Army thoroughly tested the OPTIO-X20 in 2021, within the framework of numerous defense and attack scenarios.

French Army testing of the OPTIO-X20 by day in 2021. Photo credits: Nexter Group

French Army testing of the OPTIO-X20 by night in 2021.
Photo credits: Nexter Group

While many nations utilize robotic ground vehicles in their military forces, most of the armed variants are equipped with light or medium machine guns, and/or short-range grenade launchers. What truly sets the OPTIO-X20 apart from most of the others is its long-range, hard-hitting, combat-proven, 20mm M621 cannon, making a real beast of a killer robot in battle.

On a related note, Milrem Robotics of Estonia has just revealed its own combat UGV, with AI (artificial intelligence)-assisted weaponry, matching the same THeMIS vehicle platform with Leonardo’s (originally Finmeccanica, an Italian defense company) HITROLE remote weapon station (RWS). Here in the U.S., the combined system is assembled and marketed by Loc Performance of Plymouth, Michigan.

This new weapon system is known as the “WarLoc,” and it can be armed with either a  Browning M2HB or FN M3M .50-caliber heavy machine gun, a German 7.62mm MG 3 or similar, Italian MG 42/59 medium machine gun, or a 40mm grenade launcher, supported by AI functions for target acquisition, recognition, prioritization, and target tracking. Yet it still lacks the longer-range, harder-hitting, Nexter 20mm cannon of the fearsome, French OPTIO-X20 system.

The WarLoc is currently being tested for the U.S. Army’s new Light, Robotic, Combat Vehicle (RCV-L) requirement. The prototyping phase will run from 2023 to 2027, after which a selection will be made from among various competitors.

Milrem Robotics WarLoc combat UGV. Photo credit: Milrem Robotics

*                    *                    *

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (where he traveled several times to France) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian.