A shield of electromagnetic pulses along the front lines provides troops with crucial protection to thwart Kyiv’s missile and drone attacks
At first, Ukraine noticed its GPS-guided 155mm Excalibur artillery shells suddenly started veering off target.
Then rockets fired with Himars, which Kyiv once boasted had “scalpel-like” accuracy, began missing their targets. In some areas, they almost always missed.
The same happened to JDAM guided bombs supplied to Ukraine’s air force by the United States.
Frantic investigation eventually discovered they had all fallen victim to a new threat – Russian jamming. Moscow has quietly developed a knack for taking out some of Ukraine’s most prized missiles and rockets.
It is a rare but crucial example of Russian technological advantage in a war that has been slowly tipping in Moscow’s favour.
Along almost the entirety of the front lines, an invisible wall of electromagnetic pulses now stretches like a shield.
An elaborate network of radio, infrared and radar signals hurled into the skies over the battlefield provides Russian forces with unprecedented protections in some areas.
‘Their electronic warfare is better than ours’
And it’s not just Ukrainian missiles that are now failing to reach their targets. Perhaps more significant is Russia’s ability to counter the array of cheap, sometimes off-the-shelf, drones upon which Ukraine has become reliant for reconnaissance and long-range strikes.
Ukrainians know they are now at a disadvantage.
One front-line soldier, whose 120mm mortar unit regularly uses Chinese-made Mavic drones to spot targets, told The Telegraph: “They’ve always had good electronic warfare since the start of the full-scale invasion. But now it is better than us.”
Another person with knowledge of the front lines said: “It’s getting pretty intensive but nothing high-tech, just the same Russian stuff – power in quantity not quality.”
“It remains a major problem along the front,” Andrey Liscovich, of the Ukraine Defence Fund, recently told the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.
He explained Ukrainian forces are in a “continual game of cat and mouse” with their Russian enemy as they jostle for control of the airwaves.
The radio frequencies used to fly both first-person view attack drones and spotter UAV are “getting jammed quite comprehensively”.
A Ukrainian soldier from the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade Edelweiss operates an anti-drone gun near Bakhmut Credit: SHANDYBA MYKYTA/10TH MOUNTAIN ASSAULT BRIGADE EDELWEISS
Devices deployed by the Russians either scramble their guidance systems or simply sever the radio-control links with their operators.
Some drones crash to the floor without hitting their targets, while others hover uncontrolled in the air until their batteries run out.
Truck-mounted Shipovnik-Aero ‘especially effective’
A report by Royal United Services Institute, the defence and security think tank, suggests Russia has deployed one major electronic warfare system every six miles along the front line.
The truck-mounted Shipovnik-Aero is said to have proved especially effective against Ukrainian drones.
With a range of six miles, it can block drones and also acquire the coordinates of the pilot’s location, within one metre, in order to direct retaliatory artillery fire.
On parts of the front lines not covered by the more sophisticated systems, Russian soldiers use smaller, trench-based devices.
The battery-powered systems have ranges between 50 and 100 metres, and are not often switched on 24 hours a day to conserve power.
In these areas, it is often easier to hit targets because the machines are either not in operation or the drones get close enough for losing signal.
But in the zones more densely covered by electronic warfare jammers, Ukrainian soldiers are taking more and more precautions before launching their precious drones.
Ukrainian troops training in the use of FPV (first person view) drones near the front line in Donetsk region in November Credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP
They deploy to the front line using spectrum analysers to work out which frequencies are being jammed nearby.
The main counter-measure is reprogramming drones, which is not simple when they have been purchased off the shelf or constructed using readily available commercial parts.
Often analogue signals are favoured over digital because the results are closer to a degradation of the video feed rather than a full blackout.
Another tactic is to send a swarm of drones, as not every frequency can be blocked at the same time.
More sophisticated counter-measures, which are used by Nato countries, are largely seen as out of Ukraine’s reach.
The US has an export ban on the transfer of electronic warfare devices that is policed by the State Department because of fears its technologies will fall into enemy hands.
And then there is the cost, which would force Kyiv’s military to fight in an entirely different fashion, according to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former Nato commander.
Western counter-measures cost millions
Systems used by Western militaries cost thousands, while Ukrainian drone manufacturers aim to keep their units as cheap as possible, forcing them to piggyback on consumer technologies.
Reports suggest that FPV drones costing as little as $260 have been used by Ukraine to take out Russian tanks.
Meanwhile, the Watchkeeper UAV operated by the British military costs millions of pounds but features in-built electronic warfare countermeasures.
“It’s a dilemma, and only the Ukrainians will answer whether it is better that they lose 50 per cent of their $500 drones or go for the next step, which are very much more expensive, to counter that,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, this week announced that it would seek to manufacture a million drones for its war efforts.
“Quantity has a quality all of its own,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon added. “Even if they lose half of those through electronic counter-measures, they are still going to have a huge impact.”
Technology is at the top of the Ukrainian military’s shopping list, with the country’s top general warning that if its forces do not get new kit, Russia will be able to “turn any city into another Bakhmut in a matter of months”.