Soldiers in Ukraine are reportedly using video game controllers to operate remote-controlled machine gun turrets as part of the Ukrainian military’s efforts to repel Russian invaders.
In an April 21 Facebook post, Ukrainian news outlet TPO Media published photos and videos showing Ukrainian soldiers using a Steam Deck — the Linux-based handheld gaming console released by Valve in February of last year — to operate a so-called ‘Sabre’ weapons platform.
The Sabre is a remotely-operated turret designed to fire a 7.62×54 mm PKT or PKM belt-fed heavy machine gun, according to the systems’ funding website. In the TPO Media footage, the Sabre appears to be firing a PKT machine gun that’s typically reserved for armored vehicles.
As Vice points out, the Sabre has been around since 2015, when a crowdfunding campaign launched after Russia first annexed Crimea from Ukraine raised around $12,000 over two years to fund and deploy approximately 10 of the turrets.
“This type of gun turret is urgently needed for special military operations,” a representative for the Sabre said in a 2015 video demonstrating the turret. “This device will save lives because the military will not be as exposed to fire.”
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While this appears to be the first documented appearance of a Steam Deck in active use in a combat zone, the slow infiltration of off-the-shelf and custom-designed video game-style controllers into military weapons development pipelines is nothing new. The U.S. Army has adopted off-the-shelf Xbox 360 controllers to operate small unmanned ground vehicles to carry out explosive ordnance disposal missions for more than 15 years. More recently, the U.S. Navy has explored the potential applications for those same controllers aboard Virginia-class submarines.
More recently, the U.S. military has seen the proliferation of custom video-game style controllers that emulate their commercial cousins for use with advanced weapons systems, namely the Manuever-Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) turret that tops Stryker armored fighting vehicles in Europe and the Navy/Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) ground-based anti-ship missile launchers that are critical to a future fight against China in the Pacific.
As Peter Singer, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media who consulted on the Call of Duty series of video games, previously told Task & Purpose, the proliferation of video game-style controllers among both the U.S. and foreign militaries probably won’t slow down anytime soon.
“The gaming companies spent millions of dollars developing an optimal, intuitive, easy-to-learn user interface, and then they went and spent years training up the user base for the U.S. military on how to use that interface,” Singer previously said. “These designs aren’t happenstance, and the same pool they’re pulling from for their customer base, the military is pulling from … and the training is basically already done.”
While the military’s emulation of video games may be welcome news for U.S. and Ukrainian service members alike, it’s unclear if the Sabre remoted controlled turret comes with Rip Its for energy-drink-fueled combat sessions.
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