The Economist explains

How Ukraine is winning the drone-jamming war

Russia’s electronic-warfare capability seems to have been over-hyped

UKRAINE’S DRONES were not supposed to still be buzzing over the heads of Russian forces. Many analysts had assumed that Russia’s electronic jamming would neutralise any drone which lacked military-grade communications. But it has also successfully used consumer drones for reconnaissance and to direct artillery fire, while larger “octocopters” (which have eight propellers) have destroyed Russian T-72 tanks by dropping anti-tank grenades. Russian military drones are also falling from the skies at an alarming rate. How is Ukraine winning the jamming war?

A drone receives commands from its operator via a radio link which can be lost if the signal is overwhelmed by radio noise, either due to interference or deliberate jamming on the same frequency. A jammed drone may return to the last location where it could receive commands, attempt a soft landing or simply crash. Military drones (such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 which Ukraine is using) have electronic filters to reduce noise and resist jamming, but consumer drones are vulnerable.

Russia should be able to disable them. Its army possesses formidable resources for electronic warfare, in the form of mobile units on trucks accompanying ground forces. Thomas Withington, a military analyst specialising in electronic warfare, notes that such units generally need to have a target in their line of sight (small drones can be hard for radar to spot), so they would have to be on the front line to stop low-flying quadcopters of the sort that Ukraine is using for reconnaissance. This is difficult when battles are being fought over large areas. And Russia seems unwilling to move electronic-warfare units far enough forward to be effective, for fear they might be destroyed or, worse, captured and their secrets passed to the West. This worry is justified. According to Oryx, an open-source intelligence blog, Russian losses include at least eight jamming systems, of which three were captured intact, including the command module of a long-range Krasukha-4 unit, which can track and target aircraft.

Russian jammers may also not be as good as advertised. Mr Withington recently carried out a study of the Repellent-1 jammer (pictured), which its Russian makers claim to be effective at bringing down drones up to 35km away. Using a software tool to estimate its true effectiveness, he found that it works well up to about 20km, but beyond this the chances of success fall to between 10-50%. Mr Withington suggests that Russian electronic-warfare capabilities have been hyped, either to boost export sales or to impress Russia’s leaders.

Meanwhile Russia is losing drones, in particular the workhorse Orlan-10 reconnaissance model. From the outbreak of war on February 24th until May 2nd 31 were brought down, according to Oryx. Another 14 were lost between May 3rd and May 11th. Images of downed Orlan-10s seem to show them undamaged, a strong indication that they were nobbled by jamming rather than missiles. Oleg Vornik, the CEO of DroneShield, an Australian-American maker of jammers, notes that the Orlan-10 uses many Western- and Chinese-made commercial components rather than custom-made military ones, making it more vulnerable.

Ukraine’s jamming capability seems to be improving. America is supplying unspecified electronic-warfare equipment to Ukraine, and its forces have a variety of portable jammers. These low-powered units, which look like ray guns from a science-fiction film, have to be aimed directly at a drone. Mr Withington says they have an effective range of a few kilometres. Ukrainian forces are known to now have DroneGuns made by DroneShield, EDM4S Sky Wipers from NT Service (a Lithuanian company) and the locally made KVSG-3 jammer.

Drones have proved highly effective in the war at locating the enemy from a distance and directing artillery and mortar fire on to them. Unfortunately for Russia, as well as struggling to bring down its enemies’ drones, it is increasingly fighting blind.

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

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