January 31, 2024
A Russian mechanized assault in the vicinity of Novomykhailivka, 10 miles west of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, should sound alarms in the Kremlin. The Tuesday assault was small—just three T-72 tanks, seven MT-LB armored tractors and a single BMP-2 fighting vehicle, possibly from the Russian army’s 20th Motor Rifle Division. And its total destruction by Ukrainian drones in the span of three hours isn’t terribly unusual. Most Russian attacks end in drone-inflicted defeat.
No, what should worry Russian commanders is that the Ukrainian drones, apparently from the 79th Air Assault Brigade or the 7th Ranger Battalion, were unbothered by the electronic-warfare gear the Russians usually attach to their vehicles right before an attack.
The E.W. systems broadcast radio noise that, in theory, should scramble the signals by which drone-operators control their two-pound, two-mile-range first-person-view drones, each laden with a pound of explosives.
But during the Tuesday assault, any defensive jamming failed—and the drones swiftly demolished the Russian column. Russian forces “do not have any massive protection against enemy drones,” one Russian blogger complained in a missive translated by @wartranslated. “Everything they install has long been outdated and does not cover the enemy’s new frequencies.”
For friends of a free Ukraine, this is good news. With pro-Russian Republicans in the U.S. Congress blockading U.S. aid to Ukraine, Kyiv’s artillery batteries are starved for ammunition; they’re firing just 2,000 rounds a day, a fifth what Russian batteries can fire.
So Ukrainian troops are replacing artillery with FPV drones, which don’t require precision manufacturing and might cost just a few hundred dollars apiece. Ukraine is building, and flinging at Russian forces, tens of thousands of FPV drones every month.
Jamming has been Russia’s best defense against the swarm of Ukrainian drones, just as it’s been Ukraine’s best defense against an equally dense swarm of Russian drones.
The difference is that Ukrainian jamming apparently still works. Russian jamming, on the other hand, may be failing. “The problem requires emergency measures,” the blogger intoned.
As FPV drones replaced artillery as the most serious threat to Russian ground forces late last year, the Russian military responded by bolting to its armored vehicles, whatever radio-jammers were available: RP-377 man-portable backpack jammers and more powerful Volnorez jammers that magnetically stick to the outside of a tank.
There was some risk the jammers would thwart Ukrainian drone operations. “I saw the spectrograms,” Ukrainian drone expert Serhii Beskrestnov wrote after inspecting a captured RP-377. “The interference is very high quality.” If that happened, it didn’t happen for long. Today Ukrainian drones are flying everywhere, all the time, along the 600-mile front of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.
While it helps that Ukrainian drone operators relentlessly have hunted down Russia’s most powerful fixed jammers, it may be even more helpful to Ukraine’s war effort that the shorter-range mobile jammers—Russian troops’ last-ditch defenses—seemingly aren’t jamming much of anything anymore.
Maybe the blogger is right, and Ukrainian operators are hopping frequencies in order to dodge Russian jamming. Or maybe there’s some other trick, such as a built-in artificial intelligence that briefly takes over control of a drone when its human controller gets jammed.
In any event, the Ukrainians seem to have found a viable approach to defensive firepower that buys them some time as their allies scramble to provide more artillery ammo—and as U.S. president Joe Biden explores executive authorities that allow him to overcome pro-Russia Republicans’ opposition to Ukraine’s self-defense. “It looks like this is the strategy of the Ukrainian armed forces,” a second Russian blogger observed. “Going on the defensive, using drones, fairy tales about a shortage of shells.”
Ukraine’s shell-shortage is real, in fact. But so is its drone-first approach to ground warfare. As Ukraine ramped up robotic strikes, Russia gambled on jammers to protect its troops. It seems to have been a losing bet.
David Axe – Forbes Staff. Aerospace & Defense. He is a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina. Axe founded the website War Is Boring in 2007 as a webcomic, and later developed it into a news blog. He enrolled at Furman University and earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2000. Then he went to the University of Virginia to study medieval history before transferring to and graduating from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in fiction in 2004.