Why hasn’t Russia been able to stop Ukraine’s drone attacks?

16 March 2022

8:42 PM

16 March 2022

8:42 PM

Among the many weapons being used by the Ukrainian military to inflict losses on the Russian invasion forces, several have risen to prominence in the country and on social media. Alongside ‘St Javelin’ and the ‘Ghost of Kiev’ which have mythologised the eponymous anti-tank missile and the Ukrainian air force’s Mig-29 fighters, the Bayraktar TB-2 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has gained a symbolic place in the Ukrainian defensive arsenal.

The TB-2 is a relatively small medium-altitude long endurance class drone. It weighs around half a ton, cruises at 70 knots (80 mph), and can carry up to four small laser-guided bombs with a practical engagement range of around 8km. Despite its unassuming size and payload, the TB-2 has risen to prominence by destroying significant numbers of armoured vehicles and short-range air defence systems in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and now most recently in Ukraine.

There are two primary means of preventing drones like the TB-2 from operating against a modern army. The first is to shoot them down using surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems or fighter aircraft. The second is to use electronic warfare to disrupt or stop the radio datalinks to the drone’s crew sitting in a mobile ground control station. Russian forces typically deploy large numbers of layered short-, medium- and long-range SAM systems, and have potent electronic warfare capabilities. You would think therefore that Russia would easily be able to neutralise the TB-2s as a threat. There are several reasons why this has not proven correct so far.

First and foremost, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been characterised by appalling coordination between the various elements of the Russian armed forces. The greatest period of success for the TB-2s was during the first week of the invasion, when Russian units were frequently advancing well beyond the cover normally provided by accompanying short- and medium-range SAM systems. As a result, Ukrainian TB-2 operators were even able to ambush and destroy multiple air defence and SAM units which were stuck in traffic jams or in temporary rest areas without their radars operating and with no apparent access to a wider air defence picture to warn them of the threat above.

However, once Russian forces began to overcome their initial disorganisation on the ground, the threat posed by their air defences increased significantly. The resulting loss rate among Ukrainian air force ground attack missions and low-level fighter sweeps has led to a dramatically reduced sortie rate among the remaining Ukrainian fast jets.

The relatively small radar cross section of the TB-2, coupled with its slow cruising speed, means that some older SAM radars may struggle to reliably detect and track it if operators fail to vary their standard search modes, which are optimised for fast jets or missiles. This is not to say that the drones cannot be detected and shot down – multiple TB-2s have been lost in Libya, Syria and shot down in Ukraine by Russian SAMs. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has continued to periodically release TB-2 strike footage indicating that the UAVs remain active.

It should be noted that it is impossible to prove in many cases whether any given strike occurred on the date claimed, but the Ukrainians are undoubtedly still having at least isolated success with the drones. Alongside poor coordination between Russian ground forces and their accompanying air defence systems, the surprising inability of the Russian Air Force (VKS) to destroy Ukraine’s own mobile SAM systems and establish air superiority has meant its fighters have not been able to hunt the TB-2s down at medium and high altitudes.

Secondly, Russian forces typically make large scale use of electronic warfare to degrade hostile sensors, communications and weapons systems. This has been repeatedly observed during Russian operations in Syria, as well as during major exercises.

But there appears to have been comparably limited use of these systems in Ukraine so far. This is likely to be for two primary reasons. The first is that using electronic attack (jamming) capabilities to impede enemy capabilities without disrupting your own forces’ systems requires complex planning, sequencing, and positioning of the various assets involved in an operation. This is precisely the sort of coordination that has been conspicuously lacking across the Russian ground forces. The second related reason is that Russian forces have had major problems with their own communications capabilities. In many instances troops have been forced to rely on mobile phones and radios with cheap Chinese substitute components which lack proper military grade encryption. This has degraded their combat effectiveness, further eroded morale, and exacerbated logistics shortfalls. As a result, Russian commanders may have determined that they could not risk employing their usual electronic attack capabilities as they would wreak havoc on already poor internal communications links. This has combined with the initially poorly coordinated air defence coverage to provide more opportunities for Ukrainian TB-2 strikes.

After almost three weeks of high-intensity fighting, the Ukrainian air force has been effective at detecting and rapidly exploiting the gaps in Russian forces’ air defence and electronic warfare coverage with its TB-2 drones. The tally of confirmed strikes currently includes 18 assorted military vehicles, 24 trucks and two fuel resupply trains. There are probably significant numbers of additional strikes that have been conducted where the footage has not been released for operational security reasons.

It is also likely that the threat of attacks from a quiet and potentially unseen threat has an outsized psychological impact on Russian troop morale and tactics. But it is also important to bear in mind that despite its significant symbolic importance in the emerging Ukrainian resistance narrative, the TB-2 strikes still account for a comparatively small number of the more than 1,200 positively confirmed vehicles and heavy weapons which Russian forces have lost so far. Bayraktar’s UAV is a comparatively cheap, rugged and efficient platform that is performing well, but it is certainly not a miracle weapon. The effectiveness so far of the TB-2 speaks more to the skill of its Ukrainian operators and the incompetence and operational failures of Russian forces than any particularly unique capabilities of the drone itself. Its effectiveness in the coming weeks, as Russian air defence coverage continues to improve and electronic warfare assets begin to show up near the frontlines, is likely to be increasingly limited.

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