The capabilities of Russian counter-drones are improving

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According to a Russian Defense Ministry briefing, as of June 13, the number of Ukrainian drones shot down since the start of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine had reached 1,188.

The ministry said Russia shot down eight drones on June 12, one of which was a Turkish Bayraktar TB2.

The Russian briefing may or may not have accurately described the tactical situation in Ukraine. But it seems, according to other field reports, that in the fighting in Donbass, the Russians began to have some success against local and imported drones operated by the Ukrainians.

Even so, in the Ukrainian war, the drone wars continue, and despite the improvement of the Russians, their counter-drone operations are not decisive.

Russia tried to counter Ukrainian drones in different ways. In general, drones can be electronically disrupted or kinetically destroyed.

Drones are effective as weapons and for targeting and surveillance:

In any case, the presence of the drone must be detected by the operators for the jamming to be effective. Continuous jamming over a wide area above locations leads to the problem of self-jamming of its own equipment, preventing the operation of drones and other high-tech equipment that uses GPS, requires data links or perform other combat functions.

Narrow-beam jamming is best suited for high-intensity combat operations, but it only works effectively if the threat is identified and tracked electronically or optically.

The Russians 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 was captured by the Ukrainians. Others may have been destroyed. The Ukrainians published photos of the two units they captured.

  • The Ukrainian-made Spectator M1 drone can provide accurate targeting information for long-range artillery and stay overhead to register if the target has been hit.
  • The Ukrainians also received small “Switchblade” electric drones, US-made suicide drones by AeroVironment that, like the Spectators, use battery-powered electric motors. Both are difficult to detect because they lack an infrared heat signature and they are difficult to spot with radar.
  • The Turkish-made Bayraktar drone uses a Wescam CMX-15D imaging system (Wescam by L-3 Harris is a Canadian subsidiary of the US L-3 Corporation). It has a laser range finder and an indicator that guides the Bayraktar’s rockets to the target.

A photo from Borisgoblesk-2 shows a unit that appears to have been abandoned by its operators.

A Borisgoblesk-2 drone destruction system that has apparently been abandoned by its Russian operators in Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russia also operates a drone jamming system based on the Orlan-10. The Orlan-10 is a multipurpose drone built by the Special Technology Center in Saint Petersburg. As Air Force Technology reports:

The Orlan-10 is equipped with electronic warfare capability and can differentiate between friendly and enemy means of transmitting information. It can mount interference transmitters and set up zones for cellular jamming.

The drone is also used to identify enemy artillery and command posts and can direct Russian artillery and rocket fire 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 operates hundreds more and has thousands in reserve.

The Orlan-10, in various configurations, features technology acquired from a variety of sources, including the United States, China, Taiwan, Japan, France, and Israel.

Modern drones use US and other global positioning systems to guide drones to the target. Drones use cameras to identify specific targets and then send the information back via data link for targeting purposes or release their own weapons.

The target: a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 war drone used by the Ukrainian army. Photo Creative Commons

Russia has used different systems other than jamming to destroy Ukrainian drones. Most firefights occur when drones are within close range of their targets.

Russia is increasingly relying on its TOR M1 and TOR M2 short-range air defense system (known to NATO as the SA-15 Gauntlet). TOR platforms have been improved, with better radars and interceptor missiles. The Ukrainians also recognize the viability of the TOR system and have attempted to target them. Some have been eliminated.

Today, there are a number of different GPS systems, including the American GPS Navstar, the Russian Glonass, the Chinese Bei Dou and the European Galileo. Global positioning receivers are increasingly able to process signals from US, Chinese and Russian systems. Many cell phones in the market can pick up satellites from any of them.

The American GPS is the one that has been around the longest (started in 1973), and although it has been improved and updated, it is currently not as accurate as the Chinese Bei Dou.

But this is less important than signal strength and what might be called “jamability”. Most GPS systems can be jammed and some can be tampered with (i.e. fed with false information).

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 after President Bill Clinton canceled this “selective availability”, the United States has developed a new system of GPS satellites using a technology called M-Code, which is a modification of a transmission channel existing satellite to provide military signal encryption designed to be jam-resistant and more accurate than standard GPS.

Five M-Code satellites are currently in orbit (four in operation and one in testing), and in a few years there will be ten. They will be in higher orbit and provide significant cover to support US military operations.

In order to have a freer ability to jam enemy GPS, Russia could already stop its use of GPS systems (including GLONASS) in Ukraine and will rely instead of GPS on three Loran-C positioning systems based in ground called Chayka-Loran. There are three Russian Chayka-Loran transmitting stations, two of which are in northern and eastern 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 United States’ ability to mask GPS signals from certain satellites preventing military use.

This happened in 1996 when China launched GPS-guided missiles as part of its preparation for an invasion of Taiwan. One of the missiles missed its target because its GPS-assisted guidance system was jammed. China called it an “unforgettable humiliation”.

Pakistan, likewise, feared that the United States would use the same capability against it, siding with India in any conflict. Pakistan relies on GPS for its nuclear missiles. Loss of GPS would mean the missiles would not work. Pakistan has therefore concluded an agreement with China and now uses the Chinese Bei Dou.

The Russian military prides itself on its electronic warfare capabilities, but in Ukraine Russia’s performance has fallen short of expectations. Different reasons are given by the experts.

Some have suggested that Russia has withheld “the good stuff”, saving it for an all-out war with NATO. It is difficult to substantiate this thesis as the Russian systems deployed in Ukraine seem to be the “high-end” systems that they are promoting. There may be other countermeasures that we don’t know about, but otherwise Russia seems to have deployed what it has.

It is also true that the Russian forces lack tactical electronic equipment that they should have had to fight, or that the equipment did not work. For example, Russia’s new encrypted radio system, ERA, did not work in Ukraine and is probably a hopeless design.

Many soldiers were left without radios and either used off-the-shelf commercial gear (cheap stuff like the Bao-Feng UV-82 portable radio you can buy on E-Bay for $29) or cell phones. used, some they brought with them or many were stolen from the Ukrainians. (Russian cell phones do not work in Ukraine without an authorized Ukrainian SIM card, except near the border near a cell tower in Russian territory.)

In other cases, Russia simply does not have enough equipment it needs. As far as can be determined, Russia has produced only about 50 Borisoglebsk-2 units, and some of them are deployed elsewhere, such as in Syria, or are needed for national defense. Either they couldn’t earn more or there was no money to earn them.

Russia faces a major problem because it does not have its own commercial industrial base to produce the materials it needs, especially electronics. The fact that many Russian platforms are full of Western and Chinese parts is illustrative.

Beyond the lack of industrial infrastructure (a product of its pre-Soviet isolation), its regressive investment practices and its predatory practices against foreign companies, Russia also faces large-scale internal corruption and a lack of rubles to procure the equipment it needs.

Finally, Russia has poorly trained its troops, many of whom are combat-disinclined conscripts. When soldiers abandon a multimillion-dollar platform, as they obviously did in the case of the Borisoglebsk-2, something is seriously wrong.

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