Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities have decimated Ukraine’s drones
Russia may already be gaining the upper hand over the electronic war in Ukraine, knocking out the latter’s drones and potentially blinding its artillery.
In an article this month in Forbes, David Axe cites a November report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) that Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities have knocked out the majority of Ukraine’s drones, with the average lifespan of a small quadcopter drone reduced to three flights, and that of fixed-wing models to six.
According to the RUSI report, 90% of the thousands of drones Ukraine managed to amass before Russia’s invasion in February were shot down or crashed by summer, forcing Ukraine to request replacement drones and fighter jets from the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Axe also notes that Russia’s EW has blunted Ukraine’s intelligence advantages, which enabled its much smaller artillery force to punch far above its weight early in the war.
In a May article for Forbes, David Hambling noted that Ukrainian artillery crews were using various drone models to deliver precise artillery fire against Russian positions, making the most of its limited artillery ammunition stocks by hitting critical targets to maximize the strategic effect.
This advantage may have saved the city of Kiev during the early days of the war. In an article this month for Insider, Michael Peck claims that it was mass fire from old-fashioned Ukrainian artillery that repelled Russia’s February assault on Kiev, not high-tech drones or anti-tank guided missiles.
But Axe says that as Ukraine’s drones are falling out of the sky at an alarming rate, this complicates artillery fire control, removing any precision advantage, increasing the survivability of Russian forces, and allowing them to reconsolidate for further offensive operations.
In addition, Ukraine’s artillery batteries may soon be firing blind, compounding its artillery ammunition woes and further straining US and NATO strategic patience in supplying Ukraine to keep it in the fight.
Ukraine’s air force is also buckling under the effects of improved Russian EW capability. Axe says Ukraine’s fighter pilots were the first to feel the effects of enhanced Russian EW, noting that the pilots frequently discovered that their air-to-air and air-to-ground communications were jammed, their navigation equipment suppressed, and their radars knocked out.
Given these reports, the drone war in Ukraine has potentially changed course. Asia Times has previously reported on the early successes of Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones, which inflicted huge losses against Russian forces, and could be behind the most significant casualties of the war, such as the loss of the cruiser Moskva and critically damaging the frigate Admiral Essen.
However, these early successes may have been due to the Russian military’s shortcomings rather than the combat effectiveness of the TB-2. In a report last year by the Turkish think-tank SETA, the TB-2’s success can be ascribed to Russian shortcomings.
The source says Russian forces acted out of their standard tactics, techniques, and procedures that required them to operate under an extensive air defense umbrella with EW capabilities, leaving them vulnerable to TB-2 strikes. In addition, the report states that Russia has yet to establish air superiority fully over Ukraine, which may be due to the latter’s substantial Soviet-era air defense network.
The source says poor coordination and logistics and sub-par maintenance have left Russian forces vulnerable to ambushes and drone strikes. Also, it says Russia’s Soviet-era air defenses are not optimized to deal with the TB-2, as it is small, quiet, does not show a sizable thermal signature, and flies below the minimum detection altitude of long-range radars.
Further, the lack of coordination between Russian combat and EW units may have prevented the latter from using their capabilities to full effect against the TB-2 during the early phases of the Ukraine war.
But in a July article in IEEE Spectrum, Bryan Clark wrote that Russia’s EW was gaining an advantage as the Ukraine conflict turned into a war of attrition.
Clark wrote that during the early stages of the conflict, Russian columns were moving along multiple axes into Ukraine, could not send EW drones over the horizon, and had Ukrainian units interspersed among them. As a result, he says any Russian jamming would have also taken out Russian radios, which forced limits on using EW capabilities.
Moreover, Clark noted that the densely populated areas around Kiev resulted in mixed civilian transmissions and military communications, which prevented Russia from using its EW capabilities to pinpoint and target Ukrainian troops.
He also noted Ukraine’s use of NATO SINCGARS (single channel ground and airborne radio system) jamming and interception-resistant radios to phase out their older Soviet/Russian units, which had back doors built into them for Russian intelligence agencies.
Also, Clark says that during the war’s mobile early stages, Russian forces were unable to advance and change positions quickly enough, resulting in their EW affecting themselves. At the same time, he notes that as Russian troops could not stay for long in their positions, it prevented them from setting up larger, more powerful EW systems to blind NATO satellites and airborne radars.
However, Clark says that as the fighting is now concentrated in less-populated eastern Ukraine and that Russian forces are dug in and no longer thinly spread out, Russia is now using its EW capabilities to detect and degrade Ukrainian communications to support a strategy of incrementally capturing territory using its 10-to-1 advantage in artillery firepower.