Russia’s record number of aerial attacks on Ukraine over the New Year period has highlighted Kyiv’s struggle to bolster its electronic warfare technology aimed at jamming and diverting enemy drones and guided missiles.
Both sides have invested heavily in systems that can neutralise each other’s drone armies, but Moscow maintains the upper hand as it had already focused on these capabilities before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.
Ukrainian forces are however trying to catch up.
Mykola Kolesnyk, commander of a Ukrainian drone unit, said electronic warfare (EW) duels with the Russian forces were fierce and relentless. He described them as “invisible scissors that cut off the connection . . . of a device that is remotely controlled”.
Ukraine and Russia are both using tens of thousands of drones a month. Both have this year increasingly turned to cheap, commercially available first-person view drones controlled by operators using a head-mounted camera.
“The Russians have been producing so many lately that it’s becoming a huge threat,” said Col Ivan Pavlenko, chief of EW and cyber warfare at Ukraine’s general staff. “What’s happening here, the massive use of drones, is new . . . So EW becomes increasingly important.”
Pavlenko called on allies to deliver more capabilities that can “suppress or spoof” the satellite guidance system (GNSS) of Russia’s guided missiles and drones.
“Delivery to Ukraine of a sufficient number of powerful GNSS jammers or at least signal amplifiers could also help counteract enemy air attacks.”
Also, with Russia’s EW systems requiring high-tech components such as amplifiers, synthesisers and software, it was important for western allies to impose sanctions on those components, he said.
The ubiquity of drones on the battlefield is one reason why Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive this year failed to make any significant territorial gains and why the land war is now largely static. Any grouping of tanks or armoured vehicles can be spotted and destroyed within minutes.
Russia has increasingly deployed EW to push off-course Ukraine’s western-supplied, precision-guided munitions, such as Himars rockets and Excalibur artillery shells. Moscow has also used its EW capabilities to mimic missile and drone launches in order to confuse Ukraine’s air defences and identify their locations, Pavlenko said.
Without EW protection, Ukrainian troops are easy prey for drone-guided artillery strikes, drones dropping bombs and kamikaze strikes by exploding unmanned aerial vehicles.
One Ukrainian soldier bemoaned the lack of EW protection for his unit, which was largely wiped out during weeks of intense bombardment on the eastern front, with Russian drones “hitting us like mosquitoes”.
“What radio-electronic warfare? . . . We had none. I don’t even want to recall those days in the trenches. Our boys were falling like flies,” he added.
Gen Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, warned in November that EW was “the key to victory in the drone war” — and in breaking the deadlock along the frontline.
“We also need more access to electronic intelligence from our allies, including data from assets that collect signals intelligence, and expanded production lines for our anti-drone EW systems within Ukraine and abroad,” he wrote in The Economist.
EW systems come in many shapes and sizes, from radar arrays and truck-mounted transmitter-receivers to pocket-sized devices. Both sides have rushed to protect troops by erecting makeshift EW systems, which one Ukrainian engineer said volunteers assemble in garages.
Both Russia and Ukraine have maintained strong R&D schools for EW that had been established in Soviet times, but the Russian government has invested heavily in new kit for more than a decade.
“Electronic warfare is an exceedingly important part of modern operations, and the Russians have had a significant advantage in it throughout the war, which has proved a sustained problem for Ukraine,” said Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank.
Russia’s Pole-21 guidance suppression system can be stationed on the ground, on towers or mounted on vehicles and can jam an area of 150km, according to a military consultancy report shared with the Financial Times. Another is the Murmansk, which uses vast extendable 32m antenna towers mounted on mobile armoured vehicles.
“The problem is that the Russians are able to field electronic warfare systems across most of the front, down to platoon level in some cases when you’re talking about things like Pole-21,” Watling said.
Still, Ukraine has periodically found weak spots in Russia’s EW and air defences, allowing its drones to strike deep into Russian territory to hit air bases, depots and other targets including the Kremlin itself.
Before it launched long-range missile strikes on Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol earlier this year, Ukrainian commandos on speed boats disabled Russian EW systems mounted on oil platforms. The Crimean port was one of the most EW-protected locations in the war.
Kyiv, which initially relied on outdated Soviet equipment, says it has improved its EW capabilities thanks to systems produced domestically and supplied by western allies, although the details are kept secret.
Ukraine’s Bukovel system, which can be mounted on vehicles, detects drones, jams their data transmission and can block satellite guidance systems including Russia’s Glonass. Praising its effectiveness, Ukrainian troops have called on the government to produce many more units.
A new Ukrainian system, code-named Pokrova, can, according to some reports, counter missiles by blocking their guidance system.
Pavlenko, from Ukraine’s general staff, said it was crucial for the soon-to-be-delivered F-16 fighter jets provided by western allies to be equipped with modern EW systems, adding that Kyiv was working with allies on this request.
He boasted that Ukraine’s EW systems had been used to capture prized Russian UAVs like the Orlan and had tricked other drones into flying back to Russia.
Pavlenko said Ukraine could be used as an EW laboratory, though he admitted that some western militaries were reluctant to share technology.
“Any sophisticated high-tech equipment has software that can be affected. And this is the future,” Pavlenko said. “This approach is more promising, and where best to test it if not in Ukraine?”
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