According to a briefing by the Russian Ministry of Defense, as of June 13 the number of Ukrainian drones shot down since the start of the so-called Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine had reached 1,188.
The ministry reported that Russia had shot down eight drones on June 12th, one of which was a Turkish Bayraktar TB2.
The Russian briefing may or may not have accurately depicted the tactical situation in Ukraine. But it does seem, according to other field reports, that in the Donbas fighting the Russians have started to have some success against both home-grown and imported drones operated by the Ukrainians.
Even so, in the Ukraine war the drone wars continue and, despite the Russians’ improvement, their counter-drone operations are not decisive.
Russia has tried to counter Ukrainian drones in different ways. In general, drones can be interfered with electronically or kinetically destroyed.
Drones are effective as weapons and for targeting and surveillance:
In all cases, the presence of the drone needs to be picked up by operators in order for jamming to be effective. Continuous wide-area jamming over locations carries with it the problem of self-jamming of one’s own equipment, preventing the operation of drones and other high tech gear that use GPS, require data links or perform other combat functions.
Narrow-beam jamming is better suited for high-intensity combat operations, but it only works effectively if the threat is identified and tracked either electronically or optically.
The Russians have fielded a number of different jamming systems.
Some large units on tracked vehicles such as the Borisoglebsk-2 and Krasukha-4 seem to work effectively. At least one of each has been captured by the Ukrainians. Others may have been destroyed. The Ukrainians have put out photos of both units they captured.
- The Ukrainian home-built Spectator M1 drone can provide accurate targeting information for long range artillery and stay overhead to record whether the target was hit.
- The Ukrainians have also received small electric-power “Switchblade” drones, suicide drone made in the US by AeroVironment that, like the Spectators, use battery-powered electric motors. Both are difficult to detect because they have no infrared heat signature and they are hard to spot with radar.
- The Turkish-made Bayraktar drone uses a Wescam CMX-15D imaging system (Wescam from L-3 Harris is a Canadian subsidiary of the US L-3 Corporation). It features a laser rangefinder and designator that guides the Bayraktar’s rockets to the target.
A Borisgoblesk-2 photo shows a unit that appears to have been deserted by its operators.
Russia also is operating a drone jamming system based on the Orlan-10. The Orlan-10 is a multipurpose drone built by the Special Technology Center in St Petersburg. As Air Force Technology reports:
The Orlan-10 is fitted with electronic warfare capability and can differentiate between friendly and enemy means of transmitting of information. It can mount interference transmitters and set up zones for cellular jamming.
The drone also serves to identify enemy artillery and command posts and can direct Russian artillery and rocket strikes against such targets. In jamming operations, at least three drones operate to cover a specific area. Russia has lost at least 50 Orlan-10 drones in combat, but it is operating hundreds more and has thousand in reserve.
The Orlan-10, in different configurations, has technology acquired from various sources including the United States, China, Taiwan, Japan, France and Israel .
Modern drones use American and other global positioning systems to guide drones to target. Drones use cameras to identify specific targets and then either send back the information via data link for targeting purposes or release their own weapons.
Russia has used different systems other than jamming to destroy Ukrainian drones. Most shootdowns happen when drones are at close range to their targets.
Russia increasingly relies on its TOR M1 and TOR M2 short-range air defense system (in NATO known as the SA-15 Gauntlet). TOR platforms have been improved, with better radars and better interceptor missiles. The Ukrainians also recognize the viability of the TOR system and have tried to target them. Some have been knocked out.
Today there are a number of different GPS systems including the US Navstar GPS, the Russian Glonass, China’s Bei Dou, and the Eu’s Galileo. Receivers for global positioning increasingly are capable of handling signals from the US, Chinese and Russian systems. Many cellphones on the market can pick up satellites from any of these.
The US GPS has been around the longest (started in 1973), and while it has been improved and updated, at present it is not quite as accurate as the Chinese Bei Dou.
But this is less important than signal strength and what might be termed “jamability.” Most GPS systems can be jammed and some can be spoofed (that is, fed false information).
The US GPS used to have an encrypted channel for military use, called Selective Availability. The encrypted channel provided more accurate GPS coordinates, while the commercial signal was intentionally degraded to provide less accurate positioning.
Now, 22 years since the cancellation of that “selective availability” by President Bill Clinton, the US has developed a new GPS satellite system using a technology called M-Code, which is a modification of an existing satellite transmission channel to provide a military encrypted signal that is designed to be jam-resistant and more accurate than standard GPS.
Five M-Code satellites are now in orbit (four working and one in test), and in a few years there will be ten. They will be in a higher orbit and provide significant coverage to support the US military operations.
In order to have a freer ability to jam enemy GPS, Russia may already be stopping its use of GPS systems (including GLONASS) in Ukraine and will rely in place of GPS on three ground based Loran-C positioning systems called Chayka-Loran. There are three Russian Chayka-Loran transmitter stations, two of them north and east of Ukraine and one in Crimea
Equipment in the field that uses GPS will continue to do so. China built its Bei Dou system in response to the US ability to blank out GPS signals in select satellites preventing military use.
This happened in 1996 when China launched GPS guided missiles as part of its preparation for a Taiwan invasion. One of the missiles missed its target because its GPS-supported guidance system was blocked. China called this an “unforgettable humiliation.”
Pakistan, similarly, feared that the US would use the same capability against it, taking India’s side in any conflict. Pakistan relies on GPS for its nuclear armed missiles. The loss of GPS would mean the missiles would not workPakistan therefore made a deal with China and is now using China’s Bei Dou.
Russia’s military has prided itself on its electronic warfare capabilities, but in Ukraine Russia’s performance has not matched expectations. Different reasons are given by experts.
Some have suggested Russia held back “the good stuff,” reserving it for a general war with NATO. It is hard to support this thesis as the Russian systems deployed in Ukraine seem to be the “top of the line” systems they promote. Possibly there are other countermeasures we don’t know about, but otherwise Russia seems to have deployed what they have.
It is also the case that Russian forces are missing tactical electronic gear they should have had going into the fight, or the equipment didn’t work. For example, Russia’s new encrypted radio system, ERA, did not work in Ukraine and probably is a hopeless design.
Many of the troops found themselves without radios and either used commercial gear bought off the shelf (cheap stuff such as the Bao-Feng UV-82 hand held radio that you can buy from E-Bay for $29) or used cell phones, either ones they brought with them or many they stole from Ukrainians. (Russian cellphones don’t work in Ukraine without a Ukrainian authorized SIM card, unless close to the border near a Russian territory cell tower.)
In other cases Russia just does not have enough of the equipment it needs. So far as can be determined, Russia only produced around 50 Borisoglebsk-2 units, and some of them are deployed elsewhere, as in Syria, or are needed for national defense. Either they could not make more or there was not money to make them.
Russia faces a major issue because it lacks its own commercial industrial base to produce the hardware it needs, especially electronics. The fact that many Russian platforms are full of Western and Chinese parts, is illustrative.
Beyond the missing industrial infrastructure (a product of its prior isolation in the Soviet period), its regressive investment practices and its predatory practices against foreign companies, Russia also faces internal corruption on a massive scale and a lack of rubles to procure the equipment it needs.
Finally, Russia has poorly trained its troops, many of whom are conscripts who are reluctant to fight. When soldiers abandon a multimillion dollar platform, as they obviously did in the case of the Borisoglebsk-2, something is very wrong.